I don’t know that I’ve ever been as conflicted over the quality of a game as I am over Blackguards. On one hand, it feels like a true carbon copy of an old-school paper and pencil RPG, complete with pages of rules, turn-based encounters and dice rolls for miles. On the other, it’s ripe with stats that feel meaningless, conversations and choices that feel pointless, and enough random difficulty spikes that my toddler stopped playing with his toys long enough to ask “Daddy, what’s wrong?” when I had finally quit out of the game for what would be the final time.
Part of me feels bad for stopping early, for dropping out of the grueling marathon that is Blackguards, without seeing the story to its completion. I got damn close, up to the second encounter in Chapter 5 (feel free to look that one up, it’s a doozy) before I closed up shop, but by that point, I had both seen, cursed, and wasted more then enough time to get a true measure of its offerings.
Couched in a quest to banish The Nameless One, a dark god worshiped by both lizard folk and all those seeking power, Daedalic Entertainment offers up pure boiler plate fantasy, combining cliché after cliché until you’re left with absolutely nothing you haven’t seen before. Beginning as a standard fantasy class, a melee warrior, a ranger at range, or a magic-slinging mage, you find yourself jailed for a crime you didn’t commit. Seeking justice and answers, during the course of your 30+ quest you become a slave, compete in an arena to save a maiden, find out that revenge isn’t quite what you thought it was, and try to save the world from certain doom. Oh, and did I mention that you also have a small bout of dissociative amnesia?
With a paper and pencil RPG, quests like these are accomplished through talking or fighting. Blackguards eschews this method, for while there is plenty of talking, the majority of conversations are boring and pointless. Sure there are dialog options, and those options are fully voiced, but with the exception of two characters — the droll Naurim, a dwarf with a penchant for trouble and a past built on the foundations of burnt down drinking establishments, and the mage Zurbaran, a foreign noble worth his weight in charisma — the conversations simply serve to push things forward, adding very little as far as color or interest to the world or the happenings around you. It’s passable, in that it’s not very hard to follow, and by at least the 2nd fight of the final chapter, you have a real good idea of where the ending is taking you.
The true foundation of Blackguards, though, is the combat. At its best, it offers some excellent turn-based fantasy engagements. Arrows whiz through the air, fireballs leave burning trails as they blaze towards their targets, power attacks feel strong and heavy. Different attacks are easily called up through a circle menu or set to hot-keys, allowing access to all your skills, spells, and even different weapon sets that can be swapped at the cost of an action. Battles even manage to feel tense despite not really having much to lose, as there’s no permadeath save what happens in the cutscenes. At its worst though, which is far too often, Blackguards is absolute rage given life through code.
There are two types of combat scenarios that made me so angry. The first are flashback fights. These normally happen at the beginning or end of a story chapter, and deal specifically with your main character. Poorly equipped, with none of the skills you’ve spent time learning, these bouts are a needless source of frustration, with the worst easily starting off chapter 3. Asking you to “kill 5 crypt lice,” my archer was sent into the fray with a minor magic user. While not overly strong, crypt lice are fast, and are able to close the gap quite quickly, negating the ranged effectiveness of my character. Forced into melee, I was left to the cruel mercy of luck, whose blessed hand was on my side only once in 8 tries.
What made the situation worse was the non-essential nature of said combat. Those 5 crypt lice that needed to be killed were nothing more then a trivial errand. It played no part in the story, no part in the overall narrative, and served only as a tutorial in how not to create an encounter. It feels like a difficulty spike for the sake of having a difficulty spike, a speed bump that appears out of nowhere with the major potential of stopping all forward progress. I pushed on, though, naïve in my hope that it wouldn’t happen again.
The second combat scenario that Blackguards fails at is the gimmick battle. Built on a central focus, like a crystal on the other side of the field that heals every enemy at the end of every turn, these types of fights are fairly common in RPGs. By forcing a shift in focus, a gimmick can serve to add some life to combat that can feel very by-the-numbers. Where the game errs is in its lack of any explanation to the particular rules of said scenario. I don’t mind if you want to change the rules on me. I don’t mind it when a game throws in a curve ball. But when I am forced to guess at what that curve ball is, or to wait until I lose a battle because I missed some arbitrary condition, all I’m left with is a sense that I’m wasting my time.
This lack of communication is unfortunately common with Blackguards. While it offers a dense, yet informative, rules manual, this game is the very definition of “figure it out on the fly.” However, seeing as how everything in the game is based on these rules, that places you at a huge disadvantage, especially when it comes to the distribution of ability points. These points, awarded after completing quests or at the end of battle, are spent on everything, from skills to stats like strength or charisma. While your class determines your starting skills and abilities, Blackguards is open in how you assign points, so if you want to have an archer that casts spells, or a fighter that can pull a bow when needed, all you have to do is assign the points and it’s yours.
With the rules at your back, min/maxing the point system to achieve the best result is easy. The problem is, the freedom of the open system also means that it’s easy to make mistakes. At 20 hours in, the realization you’ve wasted a couple hundred points is disheartening. What’s even worse is that there are quite a few spells that aren’t needed through the first 4/5ths of the game, but become essential in the last drive.
That’s the kind of game Blackguards is. Under the auspices of creating a “hardcore RPG experience,” Daedalic has instead created a rage inducing time waster. To be fair, many of the points I have brought up are on a list to be “fixed” in a future patch. I hope they are, and I hope the game turns out better for it. In it’s current state, the game I played committed the worst atrocity a game can. It made me wish for my time back.