Release Date: January 22, 2014
Platform: PC, Mac
Developer: Daedalic Entertainment
Publisher: Daedalic Entertainment
Genre: RPG, Strategy
How would you handle being wrongly, yet unequivocally convicted of murder? Would you accept the cards you’ve been dealt and rot away in a prison? Or would you try and escape to set the truth free? At the beginning of Blackguards, players are witness to the horrible murder of a young woman by the teeth of a demonic wolf creature, and are subsequently blamed by the town for her death. The game itself is especially noteworthy in that it marks the very first RPG from developer Daedalic Entertainment, who has made a name for themselves in the gaming world through their quirky and quality adventure game series like Deponia and Edna & Harvey. Blackguards is set in the wilds of South , the same location that’s used in Daedalic’s own The Dark Eye adventure series, which features such entries as The Chains of Satinav and last year’s Memoria.
Another stark departure for Daedalic here in Blackguards is the use of 3D modeling for the characters and surrounding environments, as opposed to the traditional cartoony illustrations which they’ve used for their most notable adventure games. But while Blackguards' atmosphere is decidedly (and fittingly) dark and disturbing, and while Daedalic does deliver on their promise to morph their tried and true adventure game formula into a thick tactical RPG experience to satiate gamers with a playtime that stretches well into the double digits, the experience as a whole is just too clunky, too confused in its own progression, and worst of all, too boring to offer any real incentives to embark on the journey at all.
You’ll start the game out by getting to choose from one of three different character classes to use on your journey, including a warrior, a mage, or a hunter: each of which is lightly customizable in appearance and comes with an upgradable skillset. Luckily, players will be quick to run into other travelers of various fighting types along the way, who will join you in battle and add an extra spin to the overall strategy. Like most turn-based tactics games, all of the action takes place on a hex-like battlefield, and turns alternate between the player and enemy, each with their own movement and attacking segments for every fighter that’s left on the board. And while the game offers a generous selection of special powers and abilities to tilt the odds in your favor, many of these are very rarely explained in full detail, and even some, like the magic defense barriers, can actually end up obstructing your own future turns than serving to protect you.
The biggest strength of Blackguards is easily in these turn-based tactical battles themselves, which are not only big in their total number, but originality crafted each time you encounter them as well (although admittedly, these are still not without their own flaws, like an incredibly cumbersome interface or just downright awkward positioning for the characters to line up their attacks). Daedalic could have easily just used a few placeholder setups that changed a few times over the course of the game’s 180 or so battles, but you’ll find that each one is decidedly different and unique from the last. A large part of this has to do with the vast array of location-specific environmental attacks that you can use to your advantage, such as chopping down a hanging chandelier to take out a large cluster of enemies in one fell swoop.
But even so, I think the biggest missed opportunity in Blackguards resides in the game’s “exploratory” segments, of which, to put it bluntly, there aren’t really any. Every time you arrive at a new town or location, you’ll have the option to click on a handful of stationary landmarks like a merchant’s tent or tavern, to either fine-tune your character’s stats or read a few lines of optional dialogue that don’t really pertain to anything in particular. With the exception of these frequent sidesteps, the entire flow of the game is built around clicking on one battle area after the next on a series of horribly uninspired world maps, and then more or less just going along with whatever the game tells you.
It’s a shame, really, because underneath all the monotony and slow progression of gameplay sits a fairly interesting narrative that’s trying to break through the cracks. Blending both elements of mystery and fantasy against the dark and dreary backdrop of The Dark Eye series’ setting, Blackguards weaves a number of captivating narrative techniques into the heart of its story, such as flashbacks to our hero’s life before being charged with murder. But the game’s constant deterrents from this story (mixed with some laugh worthy voice acting) offset the immersive balance that Blackguards tries to achieve.
Perhaps the overall game experience would be a little bit more bearable if not for the regular and disruptive loading screens that pop up after almost every action you perform in the game. Whether it’s waiting for a cut scene, going to the map screen, or preparing for your next skirmish, Blackguards will hit you with lengthy loading screens at consistent intervals, and given that nothing in the game is all that graphically stunning, their presence does put a big hindrance on the actual gameplay, and is probably a big reason why Daedalic gets to boast about that 40+ hour game length.
In the end, Blackguards is a strange, boring beast of a game. While the unique turn-based battle system sometimes allows the game to shine through its creative and strategic setups, it’s hard not to get the feeling that this is just a wannabe adventure game wearing an RPG’s clothes that just don’t quite fit right. It’s also hard to recommend playing Blackguards over other tactics games that simply pull off the genre much better, like the recently released Banner Saga from Stoic. But for those who are willing to look past the flaws and take on the harrowing plunge into darkness, there’s no question that the game is padded with dozens of hours of content (although perhaps for not all the right reasons). For everyone else, we’ll just have to hope that Daedalic goes back to making the pure point-and-click adventures that we all know and love.
Story – 7/10
Graphics – 6/10
Gameplay – 6/10
Music – 7/10
Replayability – 5/10