Buying a ring
That Blackguards is off Daedalic Entertainment’s beaten path is an understatement of considerable order. The company, known for its excellent point & click adventure games, is dabbling in the turn-based strategy genre for the first time and not without merit. In fact, even playing the Steam Early Access version for the preview I wrote back in November, I went as far as to declare my love for Blackguards. Now that the game is out, I’m buying a ring. It’s that good. In fact, it is simply brilliant.
The next door
At the heart of Blackguards’ brilliance is an enormously engaging story. It is a testimony to Daedalic’s roots in the Adventure genre where the core gameplay revolves almost entirely around finding out what will be happening in the scene following, or going on behind the next door. The objective is to surprise the player, offering up something new and unexpected and keeping things fresh.
As you set out, the storyline throws you into an uneasy pact with two fellow prisoners who helped you escape your wrongful imprisonment. You are not quite sure whether to trust either of them – why were they in prison in the first place – but they are likeable enough for you to warm up to them quickly. The – well voiced – banter between these three is the basis for a very strong and engaging dialogue that continues throughout the game. Other characters will join you later on but none integrate into the group and story as well as the original escapees and few reach the same levels of quality in the voice acting department.
This same principle of aiming to surprise the player that is applied so lavishly to Blackguards’ storyline is also applied to its combat sessions. Most turn-based strategy titles tend to stick to changing the looks of the environment while occasionally adding a random obstacle in the form of a rock, barrel or tree. In Blackguards, every combat scene plays out on a handcrafted map. It is true that the game regularly offers up familiar foes, but it also goes out of its way to present you with something new and unexpected every time. Spinning gauntlets, toxic streams that turn giant lice into walking timebombs, rotating turrets that spew fire… The game simply refuses to let you get bored with it, triggering “ooh nice!” and “uh oh”’s whenever you spot what is ‘wrong’ with the map this time.
The tradeoff for these wonderful combat maps is that movement is quite restricted. Logic dictates that for every map to be unique, random generation using standard assets is out of the window. Moreover, no randomly generated maps have ever looked as beautiful and detailed as the ones found in this game.
Travel between locations is done by clicking on the target location on a non-interactive campaign map. Once there, most locations are usually divided into several areas and moving between these areas is accomplished with a single click. If that sounds like moving between scenes in a point & click adventure to you, then you would not be far off. In fact, one could describe Blackguards as “an adventure game with turn-based combat tacked onto it”. You would, of course, be doing it a terrible injustice, as the game stands in a league of its own.
In stark contrast with movement, players have complete freedom in creating their character – at least within their own class. Experience points are handed out in quantity and spending them in areas such as weapon proficiency, vitality, dodging and whatnot can be done without any other restriction than the availability of points. Many skills come with special bonuses when certain levels are reached, greatly rewarding players who like to specialize their characters. Be careful not to be too trigger happy though, as the higher levels for skills also require more experience points to attain.
A run for your money
Blackguards’ ability to entertain is simply staggering. With some 30 hours under my belt, I think I am half-way through the game and I still have no grasp on what is going on but I am absolutely dying to find out. There is intrigue, there are plot twists and new combat challenges are being introduced all the time. Blackguards feels like the gift that keeps on giving.
And challenging it is. Not all battles are difficult, but supplies are not abundant in any way – you’d almost think you’re playing Fallout Tactics – and new armor and weapons come available ever so slowly. If you are a seasoned turn-based strategy gamer, you can really sink your teeth into this one and get a run for your money. If you are not, you will still get both that run for your money and a crash course in applied survivor tactics.
Great story, hand-crafted combat maps.
Tough for newcomers to the genre.