Cassia is magnificent. Cast into a dismal oubliette and left to die with only a Machiavellian 'how to rule' handbook and a thousand venomous spiders for company, this betrayed noblewoman emerges horribly disfigured and horrifically insane from years of literal and figurative poison. Seeking violent revenge, she rallies the dregs of society and lawless mercenaries to her cause, marching across the lands and stopping at nothing to finally seize the throne for herself -- including murder, torture and worse -- both directing battle and directly bringing it with sword and spells.
We've seen plenty of female villains like her over the years... but in the twisted and morally bankrupt world of Blackguards, Cassia is our hero. The lesser of two evils, depending on how you play her, that is.
She's a great and compelling new character carry a sequel, providing a solid emotional core to build two dozen hours of punishing hex strategy around. Blackguards 2 improves, expands and smartly cuts down upon its predecessor in a number of smart ways. Unfortunately, while you could describe Cassia as the 'Queen Of Bugs,' that's arguably a fitting label for the game itself too.
Let's rip the bandage off: Blackguards 2 probably released too early. The original only launched a year ago and Blackguards 2 was clearly hustled out to make the most of the January lull. Though Daedelic have been busy fixing the worst offenders, such as some notorious mission-killing scripting errors, I've still encountered a lockup, floating ghost text, GUI glitches and weird vendor issues. Things are improving dramatically and some players report no issues whatsoever, but even so, it's important you know that I can't guarantee a perfect and stable experience if you put money down.
What I can guarantee you, though, is some seriously meaty strategy.
The story is much improved. Though it's fun to see how the three anti-heroes of the previous game are getting along after putting the band back together (Naurim and Zuraban are both on fine mopey form), Cassia is the star of the show. A far cry from the bland leading man of the first Blackguards, who was actually misunderstood rather than particularly evil, you have the freedom to exercise your vicious inner sadist.
Whether torturing prisoners for intelligence, murdering rivals, allowing her underlings to commit atrocities or holding back to win the will of the people, she's either determined, depraved or a mix of the two. It's rare to see a game give you the room to develop a truly evil persona while still making the antihero sympathetic, even if workmanlike voice acting and awkward script localisation can rob a fair few lines of their desired impact.
Progression and overall gameplay flow has also been significantly shored up. Blackguards 2 eventually opens up into an interconnected world of sorts as you battle your way towards the seat of power, capturing villages on the way to unlock bonuses and recruitable mercenaries. Enemies sometimes attempt to retake or besiege your holdings, making for an experience that feels much more dynamic. Coupled with a shorter and more muscular campaign (that's still about 23 hours long!), this effectively turns the padding of the original into optional grind, even if you'll sometimes feel forced to fall back when you'd rather push forward.
The main event, however, is still the brutal, tough and thought-provoking hex based combat that defined the original, based on the quirky Dark Eye tabletop ruleset. It's as deep and vicious as ever as you carefully weigh up initiative, movement ranges, choke points, defence and a dizzying array of skills and spells against mobs of durable and aggressive foes. The core gameplay remains largely unchanged, a top-down brutal brawl that rewards planning, blocking and clever spell placement rather than bulldozing, featuring a radial wheel that puts the nigh-overwhelming list of commands at your fingertips. Genre veterans will learn the basics relatively quickly, and will probably appreciate the improved level of detail, complexity and visual flair of the maps.
There's a case to be made that Blackguards 2 is as much a puzzle game as a strategy game, insofar as you'll still need to take full advantage of interactive scenery elements and traps to win (or at least avoid all of your victories being pyrrhic). Chandeliers and rock piles can be brought crashing down, tents burned and all manner of levers pulled to damage or debilitate enemies long enough to finish them off. Though some of the campaign missions can take this concept too far and turn into trial and error gauntlets -- an early engagement against a team of bounty hunters still rankles as one of the most frustrating game levels I've played in months -- and the lack of AoE markers can accidentally see you damage your own forces, it encourages you to out think opponents rather than just over-level and crush them many other strategy RPGs tempt us to do.
Speaking of RPGs, the roleplaying side of things is still present and correct. Your 'heroes' and expendable mercenaries all ascribe to specific combat roles with room to dabble in different builds, but Cassia is a completely blank slate capable of dominating in melee, magic, ranged, rogue-craft or a nuanced hybrid of the lot. Though the sheer amount of possibilities is overwhelming in the first handful of hours, seeing as you might not know how best to spec her until you've recruited your core stable of heroes, you'll soon realise that she's as flexible and fearsome a combatant as she is a tactician. Definitely sink a few Adventure Points into healing balm, mind -- you'll need it.
In a welcome move, Blackguards 2 addresses one of my key grievances with the original by making accuracy more... accurate, I suppose. In keeping with its tabletop roots, dice are rolled every time you perform an action, but in the first game you'd often be cheated out of a win by Lady Luck rather than a mistake on your part. Now, thankfully, you'll almost certainly hit so long as your character is reasonably proficient with their weapons of choice, leaving less to chance while balancing the books with a new stamina system.
Unfortunately, Blackguards 2 also increases the size and scale of the maps and battles without any additional streamlining to compensate. Each unit has to be moved individually every single turn using the slightly fiddly interface, while there's often a lot of ground to cover. Many missions can drag interminably over the course of 40+ minutes, not because you're agonising over how to position or use your troops, but just because it takes an age to get them where you want them. The unhelpful camera often doesn't help matters either, despite the essential top-down view.
This fussy and stodgy pacing, coupled with the need to defend your territory, muted voice acting, overwhelming depth, stern challenge and dour downbeat personality, can conspire to make Blackguards 2 feel like a bit of a slog. I frequently found myself starting a new level and thinking "argh, here we go again," rather than raring to go; a little more levity or playful writing could have worked wonders. Call me a weakling, but I was compelled to quit out from time to time just to centre myself and play something with more verve and energy.
But I always came back. If you're a fan of the original or the genre, I reckon you'll do the same.
- Punishing and rewarding hex strategy with environmental puzzle elements
- Lengthy and dynamic campaign; retooled mechanics
- Astonishingly deep, rewards careful planning and theorycraft
- Cassia is a great character who doesn't shy away from true evil
- Fussy movement/workflow and larger maps make bigger battles drag
- Dour and downbeat, potentially overwhelming, can become tedious in long sittings
- Buggy at launch, nagging issues persist for some players
The Short Version: Blackguards 2 delivers more brutal hex-based strategy and environmental puzzling while refining the original formula in several smart ways. The more open yet focused campaign, propped up by a fantastic central character who's as evil as you want her to be, makes for a satisfying if punishing experience.
Though overlong battles and marathon sessions can become a slog, and you'll likely encounter some nasty bugs (in any sense of the phrase!), there's still a great deal here to enjoy for strategy fans.
7 - GOOD: Some sites seem to think that the halfway point between 1-10 is 7. This is not the case. It should be noted that 7 is not just a perfectly respectable score, it's a good score. A 7 is not an indication of failure, nor is it the mark of a bad, poor or even average game. These are titles that can be considered very worthwhile, but maybe come with a caveat. Frequently the domain of the well-made-if-rather-conventional brigade.
Platform: PC (reviewed)
Developer: Daedelic Entertainment
Publisher: Daedelic Entertainment