Much like Baldur’s Gate II, Oblivion, Dishonored, The Witcher II, and countless other fantasy and action games before it, Blackguards begins with the player character sobering up in a dingy dungeon. Said dungeon is especially mildew-y and uninspired, packed with boring old barred cells and dirt floors.
Then the player meets a wizard with a voice so melodramatic and overacted that some will likely be put off the game almost immediately.
But to strike off the game due to its weak opening alone would be shame, as Blackguards grows gradually into its own strategic combat system, and presents colourful and fantastical confrontations that escalate nicely as the game progresses. However, the game’s opening isn’t the only barrier between the player and those moments.
Blackguards is a turn-based RPG at heart, based within the universe and roleplaying system of enduring German Dungeons & Dragons-alike The Dark Eye. The story is simple and functional: the player character has been convicted of the murder of a noble’s daughter, with whom he or she was a close friend.
Early in the game it is ambiguous as to whether they dealt the killing blow, were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or were actively framed. Towns consist of little more than painted landscapes populated with stationary NPCs that can be clicked to begin a sparse dialogue tree.
There’s no overworld to navigate, merely a series of interconnected nodes on a map. Building a game on the back of a pre-existing RPG has pros and cons, and perhaps because of its hardcore tabletop roots, the levelling and character progression system in Blackguards is immediately intimidating.
The trouble is that there’s only one form of currency (Adventure Points, or AP) with which to increase your character’s eight fundamental attributes, health, mana, and talents. On top of all that are 29 special abilities, including power-blow and dual-wielding, that need to be upgraded using the same set of points.
That means questions like “How do I become more durable?” have extraordinarily convoluted answers. In that instance, the player must agonise over whether to improve a character’s constitution, hit points, defensive sword skills, or armour-use ability.
It’s possible to create an extremely complex and freeing RPG progression system that still remains intuitive – look at Path of Exile or Dark Souls. Similarly, it’s possible to have a few simple skills inspire endless experimentation, as is the case in Dishonored. Sadly, Blackguards does neither.
Instead, its system stimulates a constant, uncomfortable feeling that you are missing out on an invisible build far greater than what you’ve created.
Of course, complexity in an RPG is not necessarily a flaw, but an interactive version of a pen-and-paper game should ideally streamline the experience. This is a game that screams out for the kinds of constant tips and advice found the likes of Civilisation.
Still, there are some clever and unique touches in the character screen. For one, a slider allows the player to allocate points to either defence or offense with a particular weapon. If AP has been spent to give five points in the “axe” skill, then the player can allocate all five points in offense, or three points in offense and two in defence.
And there are moments of outright brilliance in Blackguards’ combat, which take place on a honeycomb, hexagonal grid. Positioning is paramount, with cover and character height playing an important role. There are also numerous instances of environmental interaction.
Burrows must be closed to prevent enemies spawning, and gas clouds can be ignited with magical fire. Some terrain is slippery, and there are specific skills that dictate how likely the character is to fall over when traipsing over the mud in a combat scenario. These touches demand players put much more thought into their actions than in an average RPG.
However, the combat is easy to understand on a basic level. A player can move and use an action, or cover a greater distance by sacrificing an action. The number of actions that can be performed, including spells and attacks, quickly broaden the combat system into a rich tapestry of decisions.
That combat is absolutely the core of Blackguards, both in a gameplay and aesthetic sense. An early assault of brown and grey doesn’t do it any favours, but the presence of large numbers of well-animated on-screen characters later on certainly do. The spell effects are similarly excellent, and there are some creative and terrifying monster designs.
Blackguards throws you in the deep end. In a more social scenario this complexity is a godsend, but isolated players may loathe the study the systems here require. That said, Blackguards has an entirely classless system, and there is beauty in these systems for those that put in the effort.
There may not be an overworld, and the friendly towns found in most RPGs are absent, but Blackguards does possess an extremely well-developed core combat system, and for that it deserves to be commended.