Dark goings on in The Dark Eye universe.
Daedalic Entertainment’s Blackguards, a turn-based RPG, is set to release soon. However, fans of the tabletop role-playing game, which is hugely popular in Germany and has spawned more than a few videogames, have been able to jump into Blackguards early through the Steam Early Access program, with chapters of the game being added for those early access adopters in the run up to the games official release. With the official release rapidly approaching and the final bit of polish being added to the game, it’s about the right time to take a look and see if Blackguards can appeal to the wider market, or if it will just be of interest to the denizens of The Dark Eye…
Although The Dark Eye universe is well established and has masses of lore upon which to call when creating a The Dark Eye game, Blackguards follows some fairly common fantasy pre-requisites that will not leave anyone unfamiliar with this particular world feeling out of their depth. This is apparent from the very beginning with the character creation, ensuring anyone who has played a fantasy RPG in the past will be comfortable with their choices.
The players begins with a choice of profession, from Warrior, Mage and Hunter. Each of these classes are exactly as you would expect – the Warrior is all about close combat and toughness, the Mage offers magical support/offense/defense from a distance, and the Hunter is all about ranged combat with some close up skills when required. Beyond choosing the class, the player is given a small variety of looks to choose from and the chance to name their hero. The beginning stats are all listed for the player to see, but will be of little interest at this point in the game.
So, with a character created, the player jumps headlong into the story. Played out through cut scenes, as the story is throughout the game, things begin in a pretty dark way. Your character is witness to a Princess, who it turns out they know, being mauled and killed by a wolf-like creature. They are then arrested for the murder of this Princess, and the character starts questioning whether or not they actually did it. Torture follows, along with questions that will point to the expanded mystery within the game. It is then time to escape and find out what is going on.
The story in Blackguards is typical fantasy fare. There is a darkness around the game, making it feel far more mature. But the majority of players will find themselves facing a story filled with fantasy tropes that will feel either comfortable or exhausted depending on the player. The cut scene story telling doesn’t help things either, as it tends to be partially responsible for making the game drag.
Also contributing to the slow and steady gameplay in Blackguards is the way that the player navigates the game world. Towns are presented as scenes with various interactions available, such as the Inn or a Healer. Clicking them will bring up further scenes in which the player can use a dialogue box to talk or otherwise interact. Moving from one area to the next is either done by clicking a marker in the current scene, or through a simplified map with points showing the areas that the player can visit. Exploration is kept to a minimum. This style of gameplay, along with the turn-based combat, is quite popular amongst mobile RPGs at the moment, but anyone who plays more traditional RPGs will find the system decidedly retro.
But it is the turn-based combat that is the real star in Blackguards. Again, things move slowly, but here it is an advantage, giving the player time to think and plan.
The player is presented with a hex-grid of the combat area and then all the characters involved will take it in turns to make their moves. The characters initiative will dictate when they get their turn, but the player can have their characters wait until others have had their turn, opening up strategic options. The player is in control of their whole group, and each member will have different skills or abilities that can be used, offering plenty of choice as to how the player approaches each conflict.
Movement around the grid is as simple as left clicking where to move. Each character will have the grid highlight how far they can move, with a short move allowing further actions and a long move ending their turn. Actions are accessed through a ring menu that is brought up with a right mouse click, allowing the player to use items, cast spells and attack.
The environments in which the player does combat is also home to a variety of interactive elements that can either help or hinder the player. Beyond just hiding behind an object for cover, as line of sight is very important in the game, there are also elements that can actually be used, such as dropping a chandelier on enemies, or luring the enemy to slip over in a puddle. Using these elements in combat is not always essential, but it can make life a lot easier, and cheaper, for the player.
Loot is plentiful, with dungeon crawler levels of armour, weapons and other stuff to be found. The character sheet and inventory is easy to navigate, making the process of equipping your team relatively painless.
Progression is a bit more involved though. It is not that it is complicated, as the player simply gains points as they progress which can then be spent on improving talents, spells or weapon skills. However, there is a lot of choice which can result in wasting points on unnecessary skills. Daedalic must have realised this, as they give the player the option to remove points from skills and re-apply them elsewhere. New spells and such have to be learnt from a trainer before the player can start improving on them. It is not the most straight forward progression mechanic, but it works.
Visually, the game comes in two halves. Whilst the combat, which is the obvious focus of the game, looks really nice, the scenes, both interactive and story telling, are less than impressive. The voicework too is a little bit below par, but not so annoying as to turn the volume off.
Blackguards officially launches very soon, and to be honest playing the game on Early Access reveals a very polished game. Beyond adding the final chapters, I cannot see that Daedalic have much more to do. Of course, there is always room for improvement, especially with the story and cut scenes. But as it stands, Blackguards is a very compelling turn-based RPG. Even if The Dark Eye universe doesn’t appeal, the very enjoyable combat system will be enough to keep the player moving through the game. Check out Blackguards now on Steam.