Daedalic is great at telling a story. Its impressive adventure game catalog contains entries like Deponia and Edna & Harvey, so you should come into Blackguards expecting a well-written tale. What you might not expect is challenging tactical combat, deep character creation and customization, and and a 40-hour campaign in which player choice changes quest completion and narrative flow.
Blackguards feels like a pen-and-paper RPG in a lot of ways. Movement is done by clicking on waypoints, reading the encounter description, watching a cutscene and taking part in a tactical fight. Fights should increase in difficulty as a game progresses. Player characters gain stat upgrades, new equipment and new spells, while enemy units are replaced with new versions to match. Something has gone wrong balance-wise in Blackguards, though. Some boss fights will feel easy, and can be won despite numerous tactical errors being made, while the next battle against souped-up introductory enemies known as crypt lice can absolutely wreck you. I’m by no means the world’s best tactics game player, but even vastly outnumbered and a few hours in, I should be able to take out a swarm of the same monsters I fought in the third real encounter.
The difficulty is all over the place, but the core combat is deep, fun and rewarding. Things like positioning matter: you can use your bow at close range, but it won’t be prone to hit. You can use your mage to cast area-of-effect spells that will hit your own units. And you will miss a lot. Not since XCOM: Enemy Unknown have I felt like I had such bad luck at playing the numbers. Mana doesn’t recharge between battles, and arrows and bolts for bows and crossbows are consumable items, so moving through a dungeon with a mage or archer makes carrying astral potions and a ton of ammunition a must.
Money is hard to come by, so your party will probably end up wearing primarily the spoils of battle. And that’s great! Feeling constrained and having to make hard choices between healing the mage’s wound (I regularly let him accidentally get into enemy melee range), restocking on healing potions and provisions used to camp on the world map and restocking ammunition really drives home that the player party is scrimping, saving and just barely making it through each encounter. There’s something to be said for the comparatively-simple experience of something like Final Fantasy Tactics, but making it through a fight unscathed and still well-stocked feels phenomenal in Blackguards. If you’re doing well, then you’ve assuredly earned it.
To make the combat even better, every encounter takes place on a hand-crafted map that has interactive elements like levers to open prison cells, holes that need to be blocked to keep more crypt lice from spawning and numerous traps like fire turrets that can and will hit both friendly and enemy combatants. Press ‘V’ to see those interactive objects, too. And remember that; Blackguards teaches you once and then never again. If there’s a list of commands buried in the options menu, I couldn’t find it.
I’m usually the first to rant that RPGs live and die by their battle system. Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XII both feature nonsense stories and questionable character designs, but the wonderfully-executed turn-based combat of X and the gambit system of XII redeem each game. The aesthetic of Blackguards is serviceable but dated. Visuals aren’t all that matter, but we’ve come a long way since Neverwinter Nights in 2002 and you’d never know it looking at Blackguards.
There’s also something to be said for realizing where your strengths lie and avoiding obvious pitfalls. Here, that pitfall is voice acting. I don’t mind reading. I like to read. I read for leisure. What I mind is voice acting that feels like developers got into a room, tried on different accents and patted themselves on the back for saving money by not hiring professional actors. Character portraits and text boxes are a great alternative to amateur voice acting because, if nothing else, I won’t spend my time laughing at the delivery instead of getting wrapped up in the tale being told.
There is an absolute ton of content to experience in Blackguards, and the tactical hex-based combat is a welcome change from the square grids that are so pervasive in the genre. Just go in willing to spend some time, and you’ll find a rewarding combat engine used to deliver a lot of fun and unique encounters.
Pros: Deep combat system, scarce resources make for interesting decisions
Cons: Sub-par voice acting, dated aesthetic, little documentation