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First Impressions: Blackguards
Blackguards, Daedalic Entertainment’s new RPG based on the German pen & paper system The Dark Eye (first published in English as The Realms of Arkania), starts with your character standing over a princess’s corpse, not quite sure how you got there or how the girl was killed. After a capture and quick escape, you’re on the run with a band of semi-competent, nearly-villanous misfits as your only hope of figuring out exactly what happened.
Nobody in Blackguards is particularly reliable, which is part of the fun. Reunite your mage with a wealthy, beautiful baroness and he’ll return to camp with a band of angry guards in tow. Other party members encourage you to hunt down hangover cures, or venture into unnecessary danger to retrieve a favorite axe. The party feels volatile, and it is established early on that you’ll have to personally deal with the consequences of your party’s actions. It really feels like you’re traveling together out of necessity, which is refreshing.
Blackguards is extremely combat heavy; think more Final Fantasy Tactics than Baldur’s Gate or Elder Scrolls. Almost every side quest leads to a battle, and even the more open dungeons are simply a collection of fights. Luckily combat is satisfying with a good level of difficulty throughout and great map variety. Maps range from trap-filled gardens to sprawling caves, though enemies’ tendency to rush the party limits that variety a bit. Actions are selected through a radial dial, and every level of every ability can be mapped to a character-specific hotkey bar on the fly. Some features, like the ability to delay turns, or gain attacks of opportunity as enemies move past, makes Blackguards feel very much like a tabletop game. When so many video games try to push the more complex mechanics below the surface it is nice to have so much control.
Unfortunately, Blackguards also moves as fast as your average tabletop game, leading to the game’s biggest problem: battles take far too long. The animations are lumbering, and every turn is preceded by a short pause. To make matters worse, lengthy field events usually occur after each round. This is usually tolerable, but battles with large numbers of enemies are extremely frustrating. Just the ability to speed up animations would make the game much more enjoyable.
Dark Eye fans will appreciate the character creation system, which allows you to create a character from scratch or choose a template based on three general classes. With either option, the leveling system is incredibly open-ended, but not prohibitively so. Instead of set levels, characters get Ability Points (AP) to spend on spells, base stats, special abilities or weapon proficiency. Frustratingly, progressing through special skill trees involves hunting down the right trainer. At one point a tutorial suggested I give my melee fighter the dodge ability, and I had to hunt through four different towns before finding the right trainer. Since there is no danger of random encounters on the world map, I didn’t feel like this requirement added anything, save for sectioning off certain abilities for later in the game.
It has its problems, certainly, but I’ve enjoyed Blackguards’ combat and storytelling enough to make me excited to play more. Look for my full review next week. The demo, which includes the game’s entire first chapter, is available for PC or Mac, and on Steam. The full game is 10% off on Steam until the 29th.