It’s funny how the German equivalent to our American Dungeons & Dragons, The Dark Eye system that Blackguards employs, is still so overlooked and considered so obscure. With three very successful games (Blade of Destiny, Star Trail, and Shadows Over Riva) having come out during the DOS era, and the two Drakensang games having gained a rather sizeable cult following in the west, you’d think it would get a bit more respect than it currently does.
After all, were it not for this tabletop system existing, all of the great European CRPGs we enjoy now would have probably never existed: no Witcher, no Gothic, and probably no Might & Magic Legacy, since the German programmers that crafted its world cut their teeth on Das Swarze Auge games in their youth. A large portion of our hobby relies on Europe, and the continent’s current RPG-hungry state is mainly due to these 30-something programmers having grown up with it.
Blackguards, a strategy-laced CRPG that employs this well-hewn decades-old system, is the latest in what has now become a long line of turn based games. Though not kickstarter-born, as most of its other recently released hardcore brethren have been, Blackguards still has that “indie” feeling you find in Shadowrun and Wasteland. That is to say, the game has rough edges that are as equally annoying as they are charming. A curious little dichotomy that flavors RPGs of this type and turns off as many gamers as it somehow manages to turn on.
Blackguards is often mistakenly referred to in reviews as a strategy RPG, but that’s actually not correct. Although battles play out in a turn-based manner on giant hexagonal battlefields, it is no more a strategy RPG than the original Arkania trilogy from which it evolved. Granted, the game’s combat *is* highly strategic and requires a fair amount of micro-managing, but the largest portion of your time will be spent cycling through dialog and watching animated scenes. Simply put, Blackguards delivers more exposition than most story-heavy “standard” RPGs…
…and for the most part, that’s a good thing.
As is the case with most European CRPGs, Blackguards has a high-minded design document but doesn’t always stay true to what its programmers wanted it to be. The story, which centers on your main character and a small group of especially “free-spirited” (read: slightly immoral) prison escapees and slaves, is supposed to be about redemption and revenge, a story in which the main character attempts to clear his name and find out why his old friend betrayed him, while also winning back the admiration of his true love.
Controlling morally bankrupt characters who care little for anyone but themselves seems like a great premise for an RPG, and would create a lot of very unique and controversial dialog opportunities. Unfortunately, you spend the vast majority of your time doing fetch quests and kowtowing to fat-faced NPCs while they make fun of your pathetic place in the social structure.
Which is sad, since the choices you do get to make end up not really creating much of a difference in the plot. Bribe people, kill them, avoid them… it matters very little except where achievements are concerned. You never really gain the feeling of being dastardly, evil and immoral that an RPG with the name “Blackguards” would normally entail.
No whipping of peasants, no shaking down people for money… in fact, you often find yourself killing the bad guys that you probably went into the game expecting to be your allies. Granted, the Dwarf Naurim rushes to judgment and attempts to battle every single NPC you converse with, but other than a few missions dealing with weed and a pot-addicted elf, you very rarely get any chances to act on your darker impulses.
That being said, the characters themselves are actually refreshingly unique. That’s par for the course with European CRPGs though, since many of their characters have profoundly apparent personality flaws, and Blackguards doesn’t attempt to break this tradition.
You have the paranoid schizophrenic dwarf Naurim; Niam the weed addict; Zurbaran the spoiled, rich lothario; Takate the stereotypical spear-wielding tribesman; and Aurelia the witch… who also happens to be the love interest.
Overall, they do a fine job of blowing up in each other’s faces and generally not getting along. Though I can sit here and criticize the actual story choices, one thing I cannot find a flaw with is the party dynamic, which is basically the equivalent of throwing random animals in a barrel together and shaking it really hard. None of the characters ever truly get along aside from the player and Aurelia, and it really shows in the dialog they have with each other.
Naturally, this comes in handy when the game’s story line starts to slow down. I noticed this twice in my play-through of the game, once during the entirety of chapter two and then again during the final half of chapter three. I nearly abandoned the game during those moments due to the slowly progressing storyline and directionless meandering of the party, but the belligerence of Naurim and the arrogant bluster of Zurburan kept the dialog fresh and exciting even if the plot that attempted to frame it lacked those features.
Which makes me wonder why on Earth they decided to spend an entire chapter with you trapped in a gladiator arena. It not only stifled the plot but resulted in zero personal growth. The entire second chapter’s purpose is beyond me, since it only served to make your party appear weak and never resulted in a feeling of true accomplishment once you broke free.
Though I understand you are meant to rescue Aurelia during your stay there, it could have been accomplished in true “Blackguard” fashion through back-room deals, bribery, blackmailing of the arena bosses or sabotage. Even after you escape, you feel indebted to your former masters and their sidequest dialog is rife with condescending language.
Earlier, I mentioned the battle system, and as fun as it is to watch your party members hurl insults at each other it’s even more of a riot to engage in highly statistical turn-based combat alongside them. Thankfully, Blackguards doesn’t skimp on the dice rolls and is a game that requires more than just a passing knowledge of the Dark Eye tabletop system to competently play …
… so much so that I would probably suggest that anyone who isn’t all that familiar with other Dark Eye system games should completely ignore this RPG. That is, unless they are willing to diligently study player-made FAQs and scan the game’s official forums for character creation guides.
Of course, if you ARE deeply schooled in the system, you’re going to spend countless hours bouncing back and forth in-between skill trainers and idling at the character sheet while obsessing about the allocation of your adventure points.
Blackguards is terrifically advanced and capable of sending even the most hardcore tabletop munchkin into fits of unbridled ecstasy with its mind-boggling amount of opportunities for skill specialization.
So the skills are there, the customization is there, the stats are there, but what about the actual steel-on-steel combat engine? Is it engaging? Is it complex? Is it well-designed and user friendly?
Two out of three ain’t bad.
While the combat is a hardcore tabletop RPG’ers dream come true, and rivals Temple of Element Evil in its complexity and depth, the user interface that is meant to convey this depth is sorely lacking. A good example of this flaw is the hit percentages which appear when selecting an enemy.
I understand that enemy level and your own warfare skill determine how much, if any, information you see before you click the attack key… but when that information that is given happens to be flat-out wrong, you’ve got a problem.
Frequently, you’ll find that anything less than a 90% to-hit chance basically means you’ll fail half of the time. The reason for this is that the game only computes the base success rate and does not factor in the target’s dodge or block chances.
You may have an 85% chance to hit your target with a melee attack, but what the game’s user interface isn’t telling you is that the dodge chance for that enemy is nearly 90%, and even if you get that lucky 10% roll you’re still probably going to have to blast through another 50% of them to block the attack.
The only two ways I found to bypass this annoying problem was to either spend the first two to four rounds casting buffs on all of my melee attackers (of which I had three), or lowering the difficulty to easy—the latter of which, might I say, really hurt me, since I pride myself on having beaten Temple of Elemental Evil’s Circle of Eight mod on hardcore and can cakewalk through every single one of the AD&D Gold Box games.
Word on the internet is that the developers realize this flaw and will be enacting changes to the overarching to-hit system in a future patch, but for me the damage has already been done.
The combat woes don’t end there, unfortunately, since many of the game’s scripted fights are poorly designed, to the point that clearing them requires divine intervention or an extremely lucky streak with the game’s random number generator.
Nearly every type of battle on the giant CRPG “Do not do” list is present in Blackguards. Escort missions that result in failure if the NPC dies? Infinitely spawning monsters that won’t stop generating until you sacrifice time and healing items to interact with some obscure switch? Flashback missions that reset your skill choices and force you to play a redesigned character you have no control over? Timed missions that are nearly impossible unless you use little-known exploits or waste attribute points in skills that are only useful in that one exact fight? We can go down the list of CRPG “No-No’s” and Blackguards commits them frequently and in arrogant fashion.
There was even a time when I was asked to use stealth and climb a nearby ladder, only two guards were sitting directly on the hexes on which the ladder resided, and after I waited around and walked back and forth for two dozen rounds, they still wouldn’t move from their spot… negating the whole point of “being stealthy”.
Essentially, many of the combat scenarios are hopelessly broken and imbalanced. This assessment is coming from a man who has beaten a couple hundred RPGs and has been effortlessly conquering the genre’s toughest games since the mid-1980s.
With that out of the way, I do feel that the core foundation of the game itself, the actual combat system and its intentions, are incredible. The only problem is that the way the game uses them oftentimes undermines the intentions of the designers. Unless, of course, their plan has been, all along, to cause gamers to tear their hair out and scream at their monitors, in which case they succeeded brilliantly.
Blackguards is a terrific game that is, quite sadly, being held back by its lack of polish and balancing issues. If ever the developers can fix these flaws, I feel the finished product will become one of the very best strategy CRPGs that have ever made it to market. The problem with it now is that much of the game is mired in poorly planned combat scenarios, and a very weak GUI that offers little to no feedback to the player.
Normally these things wouldn’t be a big deal in an RPG but, since many of the battle scenes in question are mandatory, you may frequently find yourself stuck and unable to progress the plot. This doesn’t make for a very enjoyable trip through the story and, more often than not, leads to long periods away from the game due to the tiring nature of replaying the same fight a dozen times.
Many reviews of Blackguards have been harsh. While I don’t want to be yet another voice unfairly admonishing the game, I do feel that pointing out its obvious flaws is necessary in order to write a truthful review. I do enjoy Blackguards and plan to buy the upcoming DLC missions that were recently announced, but I have to admit to sometimes feeling like the game is a chore and that it requires more of me than I am willing to commit.
What it all comes down to is this: if you enjoy your RPGs as challenging as possible without being so difficult they are impossible, then Blackguards was made especially for you. If you have the patience to work hard at finding the correct strategy to win each battle and enjoy obsessing over character builds, you may have just found the gaming equivalent of the Holy Grail.
To all others I say, Approach with caution.