I have a deep-seated love for turn-based strategy games, so it hurts me deeply any time I have to say that one failed to deliver. Sadly, despite my best efforts to fall in love with Blackguards, this is one of those times. What makes it hurt so much more, however, is how much promise it has underneath; the underlying rules and mechanics that everything revolve around are one of the most explained and graspable implementations of The Dark Eye (a complex German role-playing game) to grace a video game, and yet the developers threw in so many annoying elements that the system is rarely allowed the chance to shine.
Hexes that actually work
I’m not a big fan of hexes in strategy games because of how poorly they tend to be implemented (usually resulting in enemies surrounding you and attacking from all sides without any actual strategy behind the attack), but the hexagonal grid in Blackguards won me over because of how well it works. There were a few occasions where strategy went out the window and maps turned into attempts to surround an enemy and pound them into submission, but the grid actually allowed me to devise clever strategies on several occasions.
The Dark Eye, but accessable
If you’ve ever played Drakensang, you’re probably familiar with how complex and confusing The Dark Eye can be. Blackguards has a little tutorial tab that explains many of the game’s elements, though, and I found the game uniquely easy to grasp compared to other games because of this. Granted, it was all a bit overwhelming in the beginning, but the game’s difficulty is easy enough in the beginning that I was able to quickly get things figured out.
Taking away control
A large part of what makes great strategy games so great is that they’re predictable; by becoming familiar with the system and how everything works, you’re then able to devise complex strategies around those elements that you have familiarity with and ultimately plan your way to very satisfying wins. Blackguards, on the other hand, is constantly taking away control and throwing unpredictable curveballs at you that inevitably ruin your plans and make several of the game’s fights unnecessarily frustrating.
That’s a bit vague, so take a look at the picture above. In it, you’ll see one column that’s fallen and one that’s still upright. Now, I had fought on many maps with columns before, and they had remained upright throughout the entire fight, leading me to believe that they were just scenery. Instead, this particular map has the columns fall, and having a column randomly fall on my character’s head was enough to instantly take her out of the fight. This leads me to a question I have for the developers: what’s the point of a strategy game where you can’t anticipate things like this? From falling columns and stalactites to tentacles destroying the bridge you’re standing on (and it should be mentioned that I’ve randomly lost characters to all three of those things) and many more annoying elements, the system that should be the star of the game is constantly pushed aside in favor of these gimmicks that seem to exist for the sole purpose of showing off how super hand-designed each map is.
Thing is, the game would probably be better if each map wasn’t designed so uniquely. These frustrating elements can’t really be prepared for without going through a stage, dying, and then trying again with the knowledge of what to expect, and that’s just poor game design right there. A great strategy game shows you the ropes, then leaves you alone to figure out how to use those mechanics to your advantage. Blackguards, on the other hand, shows you the ropes, then throws a bunch of extra stuff at you that never ceases to feel either cheap or gimmicky. If they had just let their implementation of The Dark Eye do its thing and focused their effort on developing the story instead of throwing random gimmicks at the player, the game would have been a much more enjoyable experience.
Speaking of the story…
I had high hopes for the story in Blackguards; not only does it feel like you’ve been dropped into the middle of an intriguing mystery as you dive into the story, but you also pick up on a lot of paranoia and confusion that fits the tone of the game. Had the story developed into something more satisfying, I’m sure I could have looked past many of its gameplay flaws. Instead, the middle and end of the game are an absolute chore with little in the way of actual story development to back it up, stalling in chapter 2 and revealing what’s actually going on sometime in chapter 3 or 4 all at once. Because of that, chapter 2 and chapter 5 are excruciating to play through, being comprised of many fights that don’t offer much in terms of story-related rewards. It all gets to be incredibly tedious and repetitive to the point where I actually considered giving up on the game before the end.
Too many fights in a row
What makes chapter 2 and 5 so tedious isn’t the fighting, though, so much as the fact that many of the fights you’re forced to go through happen consecutively. Not only that, but you don’t heal automatically or have your magic refilled between fights, so ending one map in a bad situation can lock you into a hopeless situation in the next, forcing you to go back and redo the first map all over again. Even more annoying, you’re not able to save between these consecutive fights (though you can retry a map if you lose), so having three long fights in a row means that a freeze/crash can—and for me, did—set you back an hour or so and frustrate the hell out of you. The same problem arises if you suddenly have to exit out of the game midway through one of these consecutive fights.
AI is an issue
There are many traps throughout the maps (including the gimmicky environmental ones), and enemies sometimes run right into these and kill themselves for no obvious reason. Of course, that’s only on some maps; other maps are unexpectedly challenging, feeling virtually impossible unless you land a few unlikely blows on your opponents and being chock full of enemies who smartly position themselves to avoid traps and attack from a distance. I could never get a feel for the AI, honestly, because it seemed to alternate between being a complete idiot and strategy savant.
Slow character movement
Later fights send you against many enemies, and while the movement in early maps is acceptable enough given the scarcity of units, having enemy/ally movement set so slow (and not allowing you to adjust the speed of combat) can be downright agonizing once you’re in the later portions of the game. It’s the same problem I had with Fallout 2, really, and it doesn’t seem like rocket science that lots of units + unbearably slow unit speed = tedious gameplay. How so many games fail to recognize this is beyond me.
Hello, bloom and blur
Graphically, Blackguards is nothing special. Some of the special effects for high-level spells are fun to watch, like one where you freeze over the entire map and inflict damage on all enemies, but the graphics are merely passable for the most part. Character animations in particular make all of the characters seem stiff and uncomfortable, and much of the game is filtered through a blurring effect that’s unbelievably ugly. Even worse, bloom is turned up to levels that would make even The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion blush. All of this means that the game taxes your GPU surprisingly hard for how little prettiness you’re being treated to in return.
I wish I didn’t hear voices
The vocal talent in the game seemed decent enough at first glance, but after spending a few hours with the game, I began to see just how mediocre the voices are. This becomes more and more apparent as you go along, too, with all of the voices sounding too forced and as though they’re faking accents. It quickly becomes uncomfortable to listen to, honestly, and given that you’re treated to pre-battle cutscenes whenever you restart a fight, you’re bound to be hearing a lot of it. All of that being said, some may find the voices to be so bad that they’re good. Personally, I found them so bad that they circled around again and remained bad.
The music is great, though
Whoever did the music must not have been in charge of the voices, because Blackguards has great music. Memorability is one of the things that I always look for in game soundtracks, and I found myself humming several different tracks when I wasn’t playing through the game. The melodies are subdued rather than being right up in your face, but it’s all nonetheless enchanting (and fits the game far better than any of the voice acting). In fact, the feeling of mystery and paranoia I mentioned earlier is something that the music is almost solely responsible for, so it’s carrying a lot of the game’s weight, here.
Here’s what you should do: