Living it up with Blackguards: Sex, Drugs and Rock Trolls

Blackguards is a tactical fantasy RPG in the vein of Dragon Age, with stats and combat mechanics cribbed heavily from Dungeons and Dragons. It’s also Daedalic Entertainment’s first shot at breaking into a genre other than Adventure, and their first stab at pseudo-episodic content through Steam’s Early Access program. Though it’s burdened by many of the same problems of Daedalic’s previous work (in particular a stilted English localization), it has quite a lot going for it as well.

The game is set in the world of The Dark Eye, a popular tabletop role-playing setting that’s also home to Daedalic’s games Memoria and Chains of Satinav. The story is typical “dark” fantasy fare, with crime, drugs, and murder at the thematic (and marketing) forefront. The player-created hero is a city guard who’s imprisoned and tortured after being framed for the murder of a Princess. You bust out with the help of a loutish dwarf named Naurim and a sleazy mage named Zurburan (who hails from a slave-trading nation, because of course he does) and make your way south in an attempt to flee the country.

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Of course, you can’t run from the blatant sinister machinations that set you on this course in the first place. With psychotic cops on your tail and corrupt people in your way, you’ll have to bring together a band of misfits and n’er-do-wells to defeat an ancient evil and save the world. Again, pretty standard stuff – it wears its Dragon Age influences on its sleeve – yet told in a decently compelling fashion. The English translation is still weak, but it’s propped up by a strong voice cast that’ll sound familiar to anyone who’s played Nintendo of Europe’s games.

Fortunately, the gameplay at the core of all this is meaty enough to withstand some poor writing. Combat is a turn-based hex-grid affair straight out of a tabletop RPG (complete with die rolls), that’s enjoyably open in terms of how it lets you tackle challenges. You can set traps and erect magical barriers to force enemies into them, or go all-out with spells and attacks and defeat them the old-fashioned way. There are also a number of interactive environmental objects that can be used to turn the tides in your favor. Enemies can be lured into slipping in mud puddles, crushed by toppling stacks of crates, or distracted by dropping beehives on them. Even in early beta, the combat system here is dynamic and robust.

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Likewise, you’re afforded a lot of flexibility in terms of how you want to build your characters. When you create your own character, you have the option of making a Warrior, Mage or Hunter, which has a significant impact in the early game especially. There are loads of special abilities, talents and spells to sink Adventure Points (the game’s EXP) into, depending on your play-style, and you always have the option to spend heftier sums improving your core stats. Having a strict focus pays off with more dramatic improvements, but spreading AP around will give you more generally effective and adaptable characters.

Outside combat, the game is nicely streamlined. Towns are presented as single-screen point-and-click interfaces with shops, inns, and sidequest giving NPCs scattered about. World and dungeon maps are a network of event and location nodes, and navigating them is as simple as clicking on a location and dealing with any events along the way. The developers have done a lot to evoke the feel of a pen-and-paper campaign with these features, and it pays off.

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Blackguards still has a ways to go, though. Character models and animations are glitchy and clearly unfinished, and the game needs a lot of work done in terms of optimization. It straight-up froze my computer when I tried to boost the graphics settings. Additionally, there are a lot of serious bugs to be ironed out, including one that can give players effectively infinite money with no effort. The core design isn’t perfect either. Random gameplay elements can make combat feel inconsistent and frustrating, and the fact that it’s possible to roll a zero in-game can make attacks and spells entirely useless even when they hit. There’s a wealth of equipment available, but it often feels like too much.

Overall, Blackguards is shaping up to be a decent SRPG.  Combat is fun and heady most of the time, and role-playing geeks who love number-crunching will certainly find a lot to love. The story isn’t particularly original (or anywhere near “mature,” despite the claims on the steam page), but it’s enjoyable enough not to bring the game down. I’d advise waiting for a few patches and updates before buying into the early access, but if turn-based tactics are your thing, this is definitely worth keeping an eye on.