Ah, fantasy, a genre full of magic, wonderment, and dwarves, probably. It’s a very broad term, but even then, there haven’t been many tales of fantasy quite as liberal as Blackguards. From Daedelic Entertainment comes a new turn-based strategy role-playing game set in your usual fantasy realm, but with some more interesting takes on the world, making this somewhat grittier than the average fantasy fare. I’ve been given a Steam Early Access copy of the game to see what has been in development so far, so do keep in mind that this is still an unfinished product. Nevertheless, there’s quite a bit to say about Blackguards already, as it seems pretty near completion.
Blackguards is teeming with ambition. It’s an indie game, but it’s got the makings of a big budget title like Fable. In fact, it closely resembles Fable in a lot of ways, except that this is a turn-based strategy RPG. Right away, my first impression was how pretty the game is. Up close, the character model textures aren’t that great, but the game is chock full of some lovely environments and lighting effects that set a very nice atmosphere for the game. Still, it’s what’s under the hood that counts.
Beneath its pretty exterior, it’s not unlike most turn-based strategy games as you have different units with various abilities to use accordingly in battle. Unfortunately, the only problem with Blackguards is a really big problem; the gameplay is not very good. Don’t get me wrong, there are more than enough spells and enemies to tackle, that is if you can even pull off the spells or abilities. One of the biggest frustrations in Blackguards is how easy it is for any of your characters to miss an attack, even if they are literally directly in front of an enemy; the simplest, Level 1 spells can have a 22% success rate, rendering extremely useful characters like mages almost obsolete. Melee attacks do land much more often, but it’s extremely aggravating when victory relies on the extremely fickle success rate of a useful spell or ability. The game is then too reliant on blind luck.
I would love to go and improve my character to make that success rate go way up, but obtaining new skills takes a very long time. Completing quests and emerging victorious in battle rewards you with points, also known as AP, to spend on building your character’s strengths and attributes. You can easily spend a health amount of AP after some battles on attributes like weapon mastery, but most unlockable skills are awfully expensive. When you reach every town, there are usually a couple of side missions that you can take on to get some more AP, but the amount is minuscule when you’re facing the huge amount of unlockable traits needed to make your character as badass as you’d like. That’s one thing: there are so many abilities and attributes to unlock, but they take forever to actually obtain. Blackguards, you tease.
Even if there were tons of levels to grind in, you probably wouldn’t want to, as battles can often be sort of boring. Positioning doesn’t really matter in this game, and the maps are usually relatively small, so it’s just up to you to make your units move forward however and then hit whomever without much strategy involved. On maps where there are no objects that are tall enough to hide behind, which is nearly all of them, you are still left completely vulnerable to archers, which almost always hit you from nearly any space on the map. There ends up being no other options other than to Aragorn it and run headfirst into enemies, hoping that you end up hitting first. Where’s the fun then in walking forward, hitting enemies, and hoping they go down first in your back and forth slashing and random dodging, parrying, and missing?
As aforementioned, the best things about Blackguards are cosmetic. For one, there is very good voice acting that accompanies every character, even the merchants. Cities consist of usually one or two nicely rendered environments that you cannot explore, but you can click on the desired character you wish to speak to, such as the innkeeper, merchant, blacksmith, etc. as they loiter the streets. Likewise, even random ruffians and thieves you may encounter in missions have unique voices and character portraits. It’s this attention to detail and overall quality that is downright impressive, making it much easier to get into the plot.
The plot itself stays far away from cliches just enough to be entertaining. Sex, drugs, murder, and more pervade the plot of Blackguards, and they’re all approached rather tastefully so far. It’s these things that make me think that this game may have worked very well as an adventure game. Regardless, it’s still a treat to see what places you’ll be visiting on the various maps in the game. There’s a large variety of locations with their own unique atmospheres across the game. Even at a point where I had to venture between three nearby crypts, all three where unique enough that I didn’t get bored of the scenery.
All the elements are there: lovely environments, great voice acting, diverse characters, good story, big skill trees, plenty of abilities, but none of these things can work if the heart of the game isn’t pumping the right blood into the veins of Blackguards. The combat, a major part of any turn-based strategy RPG falters in the silliest ways. There’s a great attention to detail in the whole package, except where it really counts, and that’s just not enough to drive the game home. Strategy is left nearly completely moot when victory winds up heavily reliant on luck, and character building takes too long to help it.
While the game is still currently in development, there is more than enough time for the developers to tweak the mechanics and make this a wonderful title that I would gladly recommend to fantasy and strategy fans, but right now, this just doesn’t cut it. Hopefully, Blackguards won’t remain as a sea of untapped potential. It feels like trying to eat delicious soup with just a fork; it’s going to take too long, and there are just no spoons anywhere.
[+Wonderful sense of atmosphere] [+Diverse cast of characters] [+Excellent voice acting] [+Large variety of locations and maps] [+Interesting plot that avoids common cliches] [+Deep character building and skill customization] [-Skills are too expensive] [-Battles are frustratingly reliant on luck] [-Buggy] [-Some maps make combat boring]