Daedalic’s Strategic RPG spawns a sequel.
Known for their often very good point and click adventures, last year Daedalic Entertainment moved into less comfortable territory and released Blackguards, a strategic RPG using the rule set of The Dark Eye pen and paper system. Blackguards was not without its flaws, but was an impressive first foray into this genre for the developers, giving them something to build on.
And it would seem that they wasted no time with that building as, less than a year later, a sequel has launched. In the build up to the release, Daedalic suggested that Blackguards 2 would be “the strategy RPG fans have always wanted” with gameplay improvements based on feedback from the players. This is quite the boast, but can the actual game live up to these lofty aspirations?
Play begins with the player taking control of a young noble woman who has, for reasons she cannot fathom, been thrown into a labyrinthine prison which just happens to be inhabited by spiders whose bite will either kill or send the victim insane. It would be a fairly short game if the noble woman, Cassia, had died at this early stage, but that is not to say that she doesn’t suffer during the four years of her imprisonment. Terribly deformed and quite probably mad, Cassia manages to make her escape and then sets off on a journey of revenge and power.
With a goal of ruling the land, Cassia first must enlist some help because, despite her amazing survival ability and deadly skills that she picked up while imprisoned, this is not something that can be attempted alone. Who better to join Cassia than the three companions from the first game, Naurim the Dwarven fighter, Zurburan the mage and Takate the tribal warrior. Fans of the first game will be pleased to see the return of these characters. Time has not been particularly kind to the trio, leaving each with their own problems, but still the player will enroll them into their group and set off to rule the land.
The player then must build an army, which may involve freeing some captive mercenaries. It is then that we see the game take a much less linear path than the original title, as the player will find themselves having to capture towns and cities on their journey to the throne. Capturing these areas can result in bonuses for the player and their characters. However, the King is not content to let his land fall, and so may counter attack, giving the player a chance to play defensively.
As before, once the player goes into battle, whether it be defending a town with mercenaries or fighting their way through a dungeon, the action is played out on a hex grid map. The maps can often be much larger this time around, and are often filled with interactive objects. These objects might be switches that open a different path, treasure that can be gathered or even objects which can be used against the enemy for advantage. The maps are nice and enjoyable to play on with their interactive features, but certain types of missions which involve reaching an exit can be somewhat confusing and frustrating as routes are not always clear. It also doesn’t help that the camera feels a little janky, often leaving certain aspects of the map or even the enemies hidden.
The background systems of Blackguards were very firmly founded in the ruleset of The Dark Eye, and it is here where we see changes in Blackguards 2. Things have been simplified, making it much easier to customize your characters. The method of assigning adventure points to abilities, spells and such seems much more straight forward, and even something as simple as comparing equipment is now more intuitive. There is still plenty of digging around in the menus to maximize each character, should the player choose, but those wanting to concentrate more on the actual gameplay will find it much easier.
Other changes to the system include the introduction of a new endurance system which will prevent players from simply spamming their powerful specials, and spells are now guaranteed to hit as long as the player is in range. Little changes such as these ensure that the combat runs a lot smoother than in the previous game, and forces the player to try different tactics.
So, the player will find themselves capturing towns and such on a main map, gathering intelligence, visiting vendors or interrogating prisoners within static scenes through dialogue menus, and indulging in some often testing combat on the isometric, hex-based battlefields. One thing that ties all of these aspects together is the very impressive visual style. Blackguards 2 may not be groundbreaking visually, but what it has is incredibly well done, has an impressive level of detail and goes a long way to create an atmospheric fantasy world.
Despite the various changes that have been made to the Blackguards formula for this sequel, some of the magic from the first game has been lost. This could be partially because I expected more changes for a sequel, or it may be due to the steep learning curve and repetitive combat that just doesn’t feel as fresh for a sequel. Players tackling the Blackguards series for the first time would undoubtedly be better off taking on the delights of the original game before trying the sequel.
Blackguards 2 seems to have come around too quickly. With only a couple of substantial changes, this could quite easily have been released as an expansion for the first game. Strategic RPGs are few enough that Blackguards 2 stands out as one of the better genre choices, but it still feels as though it has a way to go before becoming “the strategy RPG fans have always wanted”.