Developer: Daedalic Entertainment
Publisher: Daedalic Entertainment
Blackguards shouldn't exist, at least by conventional logic. Even as publishers and focus groups tell gamers that we crave cinematic multiplayer shooters, Daedalic Entertainment bring us a rock-hard fusion of hex strategy with mechanics lifted straight out of a quirky German tabletop role-playing game. Starring morally bankrupt rogues. With no multiplayer. That's forty hours long. From a studio who've only previously created point & click adventure games.
It's too stubbornly obtuse to be hip, a real old-school niche-filling humdinger, the kind of game that makes you genuinely proud to own a half decent PC... or very glad that you don't. Personally, I'm so deep in the former camp that I'm pitching a tent.
Wait, no, I need to rephrase that. What I mean to say is that Blackguards' unapologetic desire to brutalise and reward a hardcore niche audience is intensely refreshing, harking back to the days when fortune favoured the bold and brainy. And honestly, as someone who rolled more than his fair share of D6 back in the day, I find its unabashedly esoteric ruleset almost physically arousing. Phrasing be damned.
Mind you, what makes Blackguards irresistible for some will prove utterly miserable for others.
Once you've chosen a character class from a tanky front-line warrior, standoffish ranged attacker or versatile yet fragile spellslinger, Blackguards opens with your antihero imprisoned for murdering a princess and sentenced to death. Luckily your cellmates are an enterprising bunch -- a cynical dwarven brawler and roguish lothario mage (the impeccably-coiffured Zuraban, my personal favourite of the motley crew you eventually assemble) -- who quickly engineer a bloodsoaked escape attempt, sparking off an epic journey across an entire continent from cities and dungeons to torrid tropical jungles. This boils down to a long linear string of curated battles with opportunities to divert off course for extra rewards, and occasionally return to towns to lick your wounds.
Blackguards takes a more mature tone than many RPGs, casting its protagonists as jaded and cynical wrong'uns rather than knights in shining armour, though inconsistent vocal performances and an unwillingness to make anyone truly nasty stops an otherwise interesting narrative from standing out from the crowd to any great degree.
Where Blackguards does stand out from the crowd is its combat. That's what we're here for, since despite offering deep inventory management, experience and sprawling skill menus, Blackguards is very much a strategy game and cerebral puzzler in disguise. Upon choosing an engagement, your party of five is whisked into an intimate hex-based grid and arrayed against ever-more-daunting enemy forces. Characters act in order of speed, moving a certain distance and attacking if possible; made simple with intuitive radial menus that demonstrate Daedalic's expertise with point & click adventures. A giddy array of spells and skills are just a few small movements away, with every action requiring dice rolls and arcane stat checks tucked away on the side of the screen.
If you've ever played an SRPG or hex-based strategy game before, you'll initially feel right at home, but Blackguards soon sweeps the leg. You cannot win battles by brute force and grinding ahead of the level curve, since there is no grinding or random battles. You're always slightly under-levelled and outgunned, so charging straight in against better-equipped foes will see you annihilated in short order. Instead each carefully-designed battle encourages us to use our brains.
In effect, most levels are are actually akin to carefully-curated puzzle with complex solutions, since victory stems from effectively using your character's unique abilities and exploiting the environment. Rather than just blasting away willy-nilly, mages can create magical barriers to funnel foes into choke points. Muddy puddles force foes to slip over, granting you free attacks. A massive animated tree boss isn't quite as scary when you set volatile swamp gas on fire. Tables can be kicked over for cover, chandeliers turned into deadly traps and enemy spawns blocked with falling boulders. Like an adventure game, Blackguards rewards both logical and lateral thinking; giving you the tools to win without explicitly telling you how to do it; rewarding your hard work with more story cutscenes and RPG progression.
There's a lot to like if you're into the idea, and I do mean that very literally indeed, since Blackguards offers between 30-40 hours of gameplay depending on how diligently you pursue the optional battles. Raw value for money cannot be denied, though admittedly each chapter tends to drag in the middle with some overly repetitive and padded encounters. I'm not entirely convinced that the story and setting is quite interesting or colourful enough to support this immense length.
What's more, actually managing to reach all this content is no mean feat.
Be in no doubt: Blackguards is brutally difficult and shows players no quarter once the campaign starts rolling. The AI punishes tiny mistakes fast and hard, while even smaller battles show a sadistic streak a mile wide. Just as an example, an early scuffle finally rewarded me with a dagger to replace my frontline fighter's useless torch... before then throwing me straight into a battle against skeletons immune to piercing damage. Seethe. Reload. You'll risk much for small monetary rewards, then spend a great deal of it just healing up your forces between fights, all while saving up for incredibly expensive new gear. Getting anywhere fast is therefore a colossal endeavour, but intensely satisfying as a result.
Call me a weakling if you will, but I wouldn't have hated a pathetic noob mode with regenerating health after each fight - at least to learn the ropes for a couple of hours before starting afresh on standard or expert difficulty.
The reliance on tabletop RPG mechanics -- hence, dice -- turns Blackguards into a willing slave to our fickle friend Lady Luck, making the game feel harder than it actually is. D&D fans or those who played XCOM: Enemy Unknown will know exactly what I'm talking about: an attack with 85% chance to hit is practically guaranteed to miss at exactly the wrong moment, turning your beautifully-executed plan into rout through no real fault of your own.
It's a classic double-edged sword; on the one hand, you'll encounter any number of tense moments when you pray before clicking the mouse, knowing that success and failure comes down to a single roll of a D6. On the flipside, though, being beaten by random chance is incredibly annoying. Considering the clockwork puzzle-like nature of most of the battles, this extra wrinkle often feels more than a little unfair. It comes with the territory, though, so know this going in.
Blackguards can also be rather overwhelming, not least because a working knowledge of The Dark Eye ruleset is necessary to understand the finer points of character creation. AP earned from winning battles can be spent on staggeringly versatile weapon skills for any class (interestingly letting you choose between attack potential and defensive parries), magic spells and abilities that prove to be utterly confusing in the early game. There's no respec or refund option, potentially letting players spec their characters into a dead end with poor purchasing decisions, and encouraging you to hoard your points religiously until you know exactly how to specialise each hero.
The upside, of course, being that Blackguards has one of the most flexible, deep and satisfying progression systems out there. Just as a piece of advice, concentrate on a few key spells for mages and leave spears well alone unless you know what you're doing.
What understandably puts off some gamers will attract others like bees to the honeypot; hardcore, old-school bees who know that a little hard work makes the nectar tastes that much sweeter. Blackguards does its own thing with no apology or pity, and that's just how we like it.
Whether you like it, of course, is another matter entirely. Thankfully you won't need to throw down any money to find out, because in one last act of genius, Daedelic have released the entire first chapter as a free demo, letting you cut your teeth on several hours of gameplay. If Blackguards grips you, save files carry straight over into the full version; no risk, no fuss.
- Cerebral, complex and exciting combat
- Gloriously deep and versatile
- A staggering enormity of meaningful content
- Punishing and potentially overwhelming
- Immense length brings padding and repetition
- Storyline and setting could be more imaginative and interesting
The Short Version: Blackguards is a monstrous slab of ruthlessly tough yet massively rewarding strategy that fans of old-school RPGs will find impossible to resist. The more esoteric and chance-based aspects of its mechanics and presentation will put many players off -- not to mention a difficulty curve that makes The Shard look like The Shire -- but chances are you already know where you stand.
If you don't, then test the enormous demo to destruction and find out.