Have you got 40 hours to spare? Do you want to play a bit of dark fantasy, maybe indulge in a little role playing? Are you a strategic turn-based combat freak who also happens to like point and click games? It’s true Daedalic Entertainment have fleshed out a very niche market for their first foray into RPG’s but if you happen to fit into any of those demographics you’re in for a treat. If not you can almost definitely find something better to do with your time.
The game takes place in The Dark Eye universe, a table-top German role playing system. I didn’t know this until I did a bit of research after playing but it doesn’t make any difference to the story from an outsider’s point of view.
During set-up you’re given the option to either pick one of three class archetypes (warrior, mage or hunter) or delve into the RPG system, the aforementioned Dark Eye universe. The former is recommended for beginning players so that’s what I went for. The game is actually challenging enough at this level and expert is only recommended for those who want a gruelling experience.
Instantly you’re flung into the story. The plot is revealed as you go along and usually something important is revealed after combat, which keeps the momentum going. Despite being a heavy game in length, I did feel like I was progressing quickly through the story.
After a brief introductory fight, you find yourself in prison, accused of murdering Elanor, girlfriend of the man torturing you for information. Of course you have a convenient bout of amnesia and can’t remember anything but you’re certain you didn’t do it – you were close to Elanor and grew up together, according to your flashbacks. So you break out of prison, collecting a couple of companions along the way. These will be the backbone of your group for the rest of the game so if you don’t like gruff dwarves with a northern accent and camp-sounding philandering mages then it’s going to be a very long game. Which it is anyway but it’ll be even longer.
Blackguards excels in its combat sequences. What the developers lack in imagination for characters, they more than make up for on the battlefield. It’s clear they were trying to create something different, memorable and challenging. And for the most part they have succeeded. Blackguards is all about combat; if you want exploration and serious role playing then this isn’t for you. You move between areas of the hand drawn map or town by clicking; when you see someone you want to talk to, you click on them. The dialogue trees are woefully pitiful in options and decisions don’t seem to carry any weight, at least none that I noticed.
But as I said, it’s all about the action. There’s a lot of fighting. If you want to find something out, you will have to fight for it. If you need something from someone, they will most likely challenge you to combat. Even the side quests involve fighting, though this isn’t a grind-a-thon – there is no levelling up system in place like we’re used to in most other RPG’s.
Instead every fight gains you action points which can be spent on new skills and abilities and you can choose to adapt these in any way you like. This will be different for each character. So for Zurbaran the mage I concentrated mostly on increasing his astral power. Ideally you’re looking to build well-rounded characters that can do just about anything demanded of them but in reality this isn’t easy because at the start you don’t know what you’re doing and even if you have a plan it will probably change. For instance, my main character was a warrior and I figured I would upgrade her sword handling and melee abilities. Straightforward, yes? No because access to weapons and armour and other extremely useful items are in short supply, especially at the start of the game and it is quite a few hours in before you can get your hands on anything really good. So I ended up equipping poor Zelda with a bow because arrows seemed to be the one thing that were abundant and had to start skill building all over again. It’s trial and error in other words and newbies to the RPG scene will have a hard time adapting. Blackguards doesn’t hold your hand.
The key to success is strategy because, I don’t know if I mentioned this, it’s all about the combat. The battlefields are varied and well laid out, with interactive environment objects adding a twist to a fight. It’s impressive how different each map is given the length of the game and the emphasis on combat. You are shown how many hexes are available to your characters to move about and where they can move to and still perform an action.
Actions are greatly varied as well and right clicking on your character brings up the action wheel. This is easy to navigate and you can assign your most used actions to hot keys, which appear at the top of the screen. You can swap weapons, heal yourself or someone else, interact with an object or go for the good old fashioned attack. Enemies are mostly intelligent and each fight is a challenge. This is where a good strategy comes in handy because you will be punished mercilessly if you haven’t thought your actions through. While this can occasionally lead to moments of frustration (crypt lice spring to mind, where I found myself surrounded before I’d had a chance to ready myself), it does mean that each battle you win will feel like an achievement, especially if you have to do it more than once.
The overall aesthetic of the game suffers slightly with all the attention on combat. It’s not terrible looking by any means; in fact the towns and villages you come across will charm the pants of you and the battlefields are decent enough looking with nice animations of fireballs and little blood splatters (it’s the little things). But if you look closely during dialogue scenes you will see the characters are unnaturally angular and lip synching is little more than randomly flapping mouths. There are a few hiccups here as well in terms of frame rate; I’m pretty sure Naurim the dwarf wasn’t meant to be jumping around like that. However the combat ran smoothly and I could even handle the never ending loading screens.
The aforementioned dialogue sequences stand in place of typical cut scenes. Mostly they move the story forward though I found myself missing the ability to control my character and being able to explore areas. And you might want to skip them due to the voice acting. Kudos has to be given to the actors because they were working with a mediocre script and doing several voices each. Unfortunately it shows that they were being stretched and with the exception of a few side characters, the acting isn’t great. Perhaps I’m being overly critical but nothing pulls me out of a story quicker than bad voice acting and I was left very disturbed by my character’s bizarre half-orgasmic, half-constipated groan when she was injured. It was at least an incentive to keep her from getting hurt. While the story isn’t anything to get too excited about, it did provide some entertainment and enough intrigue to make you play the next combat scene.
The music also becomes repetitive after a while especially during combat, during which you’ll hear the same score over and over again. At least in the map, the music changes depending on what part of the world you are in. You will become used to the gentle “hobbit” music in the European-looking areas at the start so when you move to an area with a more Middle Eastern twang to it, it really does feel like you’ve left home.
It’s a shame Daedelic didn’t take the time to polish up their creation – it’s ambitious in its approach and while it may not be entirely successful (the point and click/turn-based mash up still has me divided), they’ve made a real effort to make something different. However it’s likely only the hard-core strategists are going to really get something out of this. Anybody else will probably find themselves frustrated by the unrelenting combat and lack of everything else. Despite this, the potential is inspiring – if Daedelic correct these mistakes in their next game, we could be looking at the next big thing.
MLG Rating: 6/10 Format: PC Release: 24/01/14
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a copy of Blackguards for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of 3 weeks on a mid-spec PC. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.