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Jan 29 2014

Review of Blackguards

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Not guards in black armor but people of a less than honorable disposition, that is to what the title of Daedelic Entertainment’s first RPG is referring. The idea being that instead of noble heroes saving the world, it instead falls to roguish ne’er-do-wells with only self-centered ambitions in mind. It’s a fun premise that plays around with a lot of the core RPG tropes and Daedelic puts it together fairly well without getting into the dubious “parody game” territory. Unfortunately though it’s a concept that never feels fully committed to and falls somewhat flat along with the rest of the game.

As I’ve said the basic premise is of Blackguards is that your party is nothing but a bunch of amoral thieves however that’s not really the case, they’re just flawed, assholes to be sure but not really inherently bad. The story starts off with your created main character in a dream like state killing a wolf that has just murdered his friend, the princess Eleanor. He then wakes up in the local dungeons with another friend of his, Lysander, having a torturer burn your hero some new holes to try to extract some info your guy does not have. After that you quickly break out of jail with the help of some new friends and aim to escape the country while tracking down Lysander to figure the truth of what’s happened. It’s a plot with potential but because it spends no time setting up its initial conflict, it has no weight; you have no reason to care about Eleanor’s death and you don’t know enough of Lysander to feel hurt at his betrayal. They do try to fill in the blanks as time goes on with flashbacks but it’s all too little too late as the events happening in the present are much more interesting, not to mention every scene with your old friends makes them seem boring as all get out.

The game often provides neat extra tactics you can employ like these fire trails.

The game often provides neat extra tactics you can employ like these fire trails.

Your new friends however prove to be much more compelling as they’re all inherently flawed but despite the title of the game are not necessarily bad people. This dynamic leads to some of the game’s most interesting moments such as early on when you need to help your new friend Zurbaran, a lecherous mage, score a booty call with a local baroness before you leave the country or when during a long set of arena fights your junkie archer Niam gives into her crippling dreamweed addiction. Unfortunately though a story can’t survive on interesting characters alone and about halfway through the game things slow down and refocus on the main plot thread of tracking down Lysander which is where player motivation dries up somewhat.

Dry is good word to describe the gameplay as well sadly, don’t get me wrong it’s totally competent, but it gets dull quickly and doesn’t really bring forward any new ideas. It’s your standard turn-based strategy gameplay with two phases (one for moving and one for attack) and a plethora of spells and special attacks at your disposal with which to annihilate your foes. There are a few quirks they throw in like a wheel menu for selecting actions and various traps and environmental objects you can activate for more creative combat but it’s all been done before. The game also falls into the hole of betting on percentages too much and you’ll spend a lot of time missing attacks with the games claims have an 80% chance to hit. The saddest thing though is how lackluster and purely functional a lot of the special abilities feel; they just don’t have enough oomph behind them and you’ll end up using the same ones the whole game as a result.

You can shift your use of a weapon to be more offensive or defensive. What does that do statistically? Fuck if I know!

You can shift your use of a weapon to be more offensive or defensive. What does that do statistically? Fuck if I know!

Thankfully the RPG component of Blackguards is significantly more interesting though it is a bit too vague for its own good. First off there’s no leveling, instead you get points after every fight which you can use to upgrade your stats, spells, talents, weapon proficiency, and special abilities, you just have to put points into what you feel will best serve your current situation. It’s a nicely open system that allows you to really deeply customize your characters. Unfortunately you do run into the issue that you often don’t really have enough insight into exactly what the things you’re putting points into actually do. For example the passive talents this game has work on a tier system where every 4 levels or so you put into them, they get a bit a stronger, but at no point do they tell if the individual levels of these talents actually do anything. The same goes for the equipment, which will show you some stats with coloured numbers to indicate a basic “better or worse” but if you want to min-max then you’re out of luck because there’s no good way to properly compare equipment or see its overall effectiveness. At the very least though this game really nails down good role-playing during quests with you being able to talk your way around a lot of stuff; they even let your charisma stat factor into it and have your party members pipe up individually according to their personalities. Pair that with the interesting and complex characters and it makes screwing around with the side quests and just seeing what you can get everyone to say the best part of the game.

The game uses lighting to great effect and has some great creature and environment designs.

The game uses lighting to great effect and has some great creature and environment designs.

Moving onto the presentation, things are your standard RPG fare but with a slightly darkened tinge. Visually it’s got a slightly cell shaded look with a smooth palette similar to Torchlight but with fairly realistic designs for all the weapons and armor. It gives things a historic legend kind of feel, putting reasonable looking brigandines and morions next to fireballs and monster lice. The game also has an oddly fitting Spanish vibe to it, a lot of the NPCs have a slight accent and they all address you as “Senhor” despite the standard British fantasy setting that then transitions to a Middle Eastern fantasy setting. Such international influences carry across to the music as well with lots of exotic regional instruments making their way into the slow and relaxing fantasy mix. In fact the music in general has a more relaxed and contemplative tone, fits the strategy aspect of things I suppose.

The last thing I want to touch on is the fact that this is game a little buggy in parts. I’ve seen a lot of reports of some nasty errors coming in and while I didn’t seem to get it as bad as some people, the rough edges certainly show. I saw more than a few debug level text strings show up in place of actual text and for some odd reason the icon in my inventory for boots was replaced by the one for hats and vice versa. It was nothing game breaking mind you but considering the decent Early Access beta period it went through, you’d expect such things to be ironed out. I also experienced some more substantial technical issues such as the game’s immense amount of loading screens, they’re rarely that long but it feels like you run into one every five-bloody-seconds. I also had an issue where the game completely crashed my computer at the end of a multi-fight arena battle in chapter two, twice, but I’ve recently installed some new parts in my rig so I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt there and say that particular issue could just be my new CPU settling in.

Overall Blackguards is a game with a lot of interesting ideas but spotty execution. The lack luster plot, the dry combat, the poorly explained mechanics, and the bugs all just serve to distract from the glimpses of brilliance seen in the character writing and wonderfully put together setting. It’s not a bad game and there is certainly some fun to be had here but it just doesn’t go far enough with any of its ideas to really grab you. That’s why Blackguards is getting a 3 out of 5 stars; if it went farther and better put forth some of its concepts, then it could have overcome its issues rather than suffering from them.

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