Blackguards is a new turn-based RPG, recently released for PC under Steam Early Access, set in the world of the tabletop role-playing game The Dark Eye. Being the biggest tabletop RPG in Germany and having gone through four editions, there is a lot of lore and background of which to take advantage. Unfortunately, it seems to be falling a little short of the mark in this regard, which is a shame as the game’s combat and many of its RPG elements show a lot of promise.
You are arrested for a murder that you may or may not have committed and, upon escaping with help from other prisoners, you all set off together to find out what happened. From here, the story spreads into something bigger than a whodunnit as you try to unravel the mysterious circumstances around your imprisonment, while still avoiding the law.
Your character is either a warrior, mage or hunter depending on your choice at the start of the game, while your companions are made up of the expected classes in a fantasy game – expect angry dwarven warriors and dry-witted mages.
As you guide your party through the world you will quickly discover that the story is essentially just a vehicle for getting you into fights. It tries to create an air of mystery but doesn’t quite manage to pull it off, with most of the characters feeling quite dull and flat, the storyline being uninspired and mostly just ticking off fantasy trope check boxes. If you are not skipping through dialogue and cutscenes you are merely waiting for them to finish so you can move on to some more combat, and you are still likely to see the outcomes of situations before you get there anyway.
The combat is the clear focus and the game’s strongest point. Characters move on a hexagonal grid, and this is home to numerous interactive elements that you can use to your advantage, whether dropping a chandelier on enemies or knocking over a pile of boxes to limit enemy movement. While it is not always necessary to take advantage of the environmental elements of each map, they can really help to swing a battle your way should you require it. A beehive in a tree helped me through a particularly difficult battle when I dropped it onto four enemies, using a well placed arrow.
Much like the system used in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, your party members have two areas highlighted around them when it’s their turn. If you move within the smaller area you can perform an action afterwards, whereas if you move in the larger area you will be able to move further at the cost of that action. Each attack or spell has a certain chance of success based on the character’s stats and skills and you can improve these with experience that is earned from battles and quests.
The characters themselves do not level up in a traditional sense though, and as you earn XP you just spend it as the player on an extensive selection of stats, skills, and spells, with the XP cost increasing exponentially as you grow more adept. In order to expand the variety of skills and spells you know, you need to find a trainer within one of the various towns who can teach you, in exchange for XP, which almost acts as currency here.
However, it’s in the towns where I feel things begin to fall short. You don’t get to explore towns, as they are just one or two animated scenes with clickable people, whether merchants, inns, or quest givers. Even when you are exploring a dungeon, the game shows a simplified representation of its layout and you just click a room to look at, where there will almost inevitably be another fight. Sometimes quests force additional objectives into missions, but they mostly served to be frustrating, such as reaching the other side of a play area in five moves with six enemies blocking both bottle necks.
Then there are the cutscenes. The party members talk about their quest while the camera slowly swoops around them, but their mouths don’t move with the clichéd dialogue, and the camera can clip through parts of scenery or characters themselves. When in the world map or in a battle the graphics are good – maybe not great, but definitely above average – even on the medium settings I was playing on. The cutscenes, however, fell below par, with the regular gameplay assets low on detail this close up and my PC delivering stuttering performance. Performance and polish should improve as it heads to release, but the assets and style of cutscene felt lacking.
On paper Blackguards should be a winner. Developed and published by Daedalic Entertainment, set in a world with an extensive background, and the relative lack of other entries in the genre, makes it seem like Daedalic is on to something special. The combat engine is deep and offers plenty of options, but outside of that the game feels uninspiring, the story verges on dull and the cutscenes were disappointing. Perhaps some of this can be attributed to the game’s beta status and only seeing the early parts of the game and story, but it looks like Blackguards wants more work before it will be ready for a final release early next year.