All this nostalgic dreaming for games of yore is getting a little bit silly now. Rarely a day goes past when a release, particularly on the PC, intends to recreate some lost aspect of days gone by. It is true, we have not seen many turn-based party RPGs in recent years, especially outside of the smaller indie teams. Blackguards, developed and published by German studio Daedalic Entertainment (previously known for adventure titles such as the Deponia series and The Night of the Rabbit) aims to breath fresh life into the dusty genre, yet the resulting stale air simply reminds the player that the past was a more inviting place.
It is not that there is anything particularly wrong with Blackguards, everything it attempts it achieves with a degree of success yet there is very little substance to it all. It all feels half-baked, from the linear quest system, to the oddly static locations. And it is noticeable from the beginning with the rather weak character design that provides a choice between just three male and female designs and three classes: warrior, mage or hunter. Fortunately, if the player chooses the advanced options, the system can then be opened up with regards to the statistics and players can invest points in a way that will seem familiar to any Baldur’s Gate player, although the game engine underneath is not based on Dungeons and Dragons rules but the popular German role player The Dark Eye.
Once created the player is thrust into the world and promptly arrested for the murder of a princess. It’s a “being in the wrong place at the wrong time” kind of thing. Ultimately you must escape from the prison, releasing and recruiting a couple of felons along the way, and hunt down the real man responsible. It quickly becomes apparent that there is something far more sinister going on than just a simple murder and the fate of the world rests with you and your group of less-than-noble heroes.
It is actually a nice change of pace to have a team filled with morally dubious characters who are not deliberately intent on saving the world. Yet the script seems to lean heavily on specific traits of each member of your team, reducing them to dull stereotypes about as well-rounded as a meat cleaver. The dwarf will constantly spout gibberish about hunting dragons and burning or your mage friend will always be on the look out for some higher class love like a fantasy Casanova and since they only converse at specific points throughout the campaign they never feel fleshed out.
The same can be said about the world and the locations that the players can click across the map to instantly travel to. The first few hours of the game are completely linear with no room to explore as the game teaches the basics, and while it does open up after the arena-based second chapter the world is still just a nebulous of connected towns and villages with no sense of distance between them, since travelling is instant and uneventful. Actually instant is an unfair term since the game seems to throw loading screens at the player like they are candies, the result being that travelling is usually reduced to a series of laborious waits. Alternative locations only jump out as quests require and there is never a sense of being able to roam freely simply to see what happens.
Perhaps worse is that these towns, that take an oddly long time to load, are just partially moving pictures with points of interest and communication marked across them. The only point of reference that I can conjure here is an ancient (in gaming terms) German underwater adventure called Archimedean Dynasty which, if anyone remembers playing, used exactly the same system. It is simplistic and works well enough to quickly find the local blacksmith to purchase weapons or tavern to rest and recover, yet since there is no sense of discovery one never really feels involved in it.
It is the strategic turn-based combat that lies at the heart of Blackguards and here the game does provide some excellent entertainment, filled with clever planning and risky maneuvers. Essentially a neat blend of the recent XCOM: Enemy Unknown, with a dash of the Avernum series combined with the excellent indie RPG Telepath games, your characters take it in turns, determined by initiative score, to move and attack across a hexagonal map often filled with debris to hinder movement or items to interact with. Indeed the items littered across the map often provide a large element of strategy in a particularly novel way, at least in this genre. For example a pile of boxes can be pushed over to crush enemies beneath or to form a barrier, or even set on fire to form a deadly line of defence against charging hordes.
In a similar way to XCOM: Enemy Unknown units can move and then perform an action or dash, doubling their move distance but sacrificing the turn. The interesting strategic elements of the game appear when you consider the large variety of actions, inventory items and spells each hero can perform, use or cast. One could, for example, draw the enemy into a group and bombard them with area effect fireballs, or perhaps single out troops and perform wounding attacks that leave them far less effective in combat. There are usually many options and often the right one may swing the result of the battle. Yet there is a rather large issue behind every choice: randomness.
Being based on The Dark Eye ruleset, everything in Blackguards is decided by behind-the-scenes dice rolls. It is certainly not an unfamiliar concept, many games already mentioned have chance running through their core, it emphasises the tense decisions and provides moments of joy or rage. However this game seems to draw out the idea beyond necessity. Every swing of a weapon has a hit chance, which is followed by an opponent’s dodge chance, and then even if they are successful a further parry roll could block the attack. Every spell must pass a roll to be cast and every special ability is essentially just weighing up the benefits of extra damage to a reduced chance of success. It becomes a constant quagmire of frustrating chance, made only worse by the fact that the hit percentages are hidden unless your hero is skilled enough in certain areas to reveal them.
It is also surprisingly difficult. While the challenge wavers wildly at times, and the difficulty curve is more of a sine wave, most fights require the player to really concentrate, and ameliorate the high randomness with clever tactics. Bad decisions (or sometimes horrible luck) can cause a simple battle to collapse into death very quickly, especially if your healer manages to be defeated. Since there is no saving during battles, often long fights (that can last up to thirty minutes) have to be repeated, which can be a frustration.
In many ways, the variety of skills, abilities, items and spells make up for the over abundance of randomness and in general combat is by far the most rewarding section of Blackguards which is fortunate since there is very little else to back it up. As already mentioned, so much of the game feels underdeveloped and unloved as if the game has fallen out of early-access far too early. Item comparison, which is always thorny issue in inventory heavy games, is terribly implemented. New weapons display green and red text depending on the differences between the hero’s current weapon, but comparing the two side by side is impossible making clear choices particularly difficult. Likewise the quest screen feels limited and barely describes your goal, leaving you wondering why you are following a certain path.
It is all a bit of a shame. There is certainly potential beneath the many unrefined and unpolished layers, but Blackguards does not feel worth playing in its current state. Outside of the combat the game fails to impress in any way and often frustration at the user interface, the loading times or the embarrassingly jerky cutscenes drive the player away. There may be around forty hours of content here, but its a hard gruelling slog that only the most devout player will make it through. Others will simply find themselves wondering if they can find dusty copies of Baldur’s Gate or Neverwinter Nights hidden in the back of their cupboards and boot them up instead.