Available now in beta on Steam Early Access, Blackguards is the latest game from the German developer Daedalic, a studio known primarily for adventure games. Blackguards is a turn-based RPG based on the Dark Eye tabletop system. That name is relatively unknown in the U.S. but in Germany, Dark Eye is a long-running big name (originally from mid-80’s) that consistently outsells Dungeons and Dragons. Therefore, Blackguards has a solid pedigree, and a time-tested game system behind it.
The game throws players right into the story and setting. A few might feel lost, but it actually feels refreshing that the writers have enough confidence that players can just figure it out, and they are correct. The setup of the story is that the authorities send the main character to jail for a crime they did not commit, and the player escapes with two other wrongfully imprisoned inmates. Because the game abstains from lengthy exposition on the setting, the worlds feels a tad generic, though there is enough of a backstory hinted at in character interactions to pluck at players’ curiosity. The game is set in Aventuria, the primary game setting of the Dark Eye; the primary settings for the various versions of Dungeons and Dragons tend more towards the iconic and generic as well, so perhaps the game should not be demerited too harshly.
The starting party is comprised of the player character, a dwarven warrior and a human mage. They play their archetypes of no-nonsense fighter and charismatic sorcerer straight. The player eventually finds a half-elf ranger looking to cure her sister of a magical affliction, but any other characters will have to wait until after chapter one. The party works together mechanically, though the mage will find himself caught between healing and damage-dealing if the player did not choose the mage starting package. The voice acting of the various party members (as well as the NPCs) is professionally done and respectably performed and never feels overbearing or gratuitous.
Speaking of which, the amount of gameplay is certainly looking promising thus far. Ten hours to finish chapter one at a leisurely pace feels quite reasonable, and if the game manages to keep up that pace through the other four chapters, Blackguards should easily prove worth the money. On subsequent playthroughs, the skippable dialogue and relatively few cutscenes help make it easy for players to zoom through to hit all of the battles.
Blackguards uses a point system where characters earn ability points that can be used to purchase character upgrades piece-by-piece in whichever order they want. Like many free-form point systems that replace standard level schemes, Blackguards’ system feels daunting at first because of the wealth of options, but the game compensates by remaining up front with what all the stats actually do. It helps that the terminology cleaves closely to the standard concepts of RPGs so fans of the genre will feel at home with terms like “constitution” or “attack of opportunity.” Characters can improve their base ability scores, skills, spells and talents at any time outside of battle, but acquiring new skills and spells requires finding appropriate trainers. Thus, players have the freedom to make odd character builds later on, but novices can worry less about poorly optimized choices early on crippling them.
The battles themselves are done on hex grid battlefields. True to the game’s claim of “over 180 hex-based battlegrounds,” the game does a good job of mixing up the locales. Chapter one does not have any reused battlemaps, which is a good sign. Interactive objects are commonplace and range from simple crates to masonry to drop on people to magic crystals that heal all enemies every turn. The maps are an appropriate size, and help keep battle length around the sweet-spot of between five to 15 minutes. The actual mechanics feel intuitive and balanced thus far, as should be expected of a long-running RPG system.
The technical side of the game feels polished for an early access game. Were it not for the constant presence of the words “development build” in the corner of the screen and the sound file names showing during conversations, a player could easily believe the game is retail-ready. A couple of small hiccups with the dialogue boxes showing the wrong face were the only noticeable glitch. With the exception of some scenes at night or in swamps, the graphics keep everything in a golden filter. The effect helps give the game a signature look, but the bloom shader is set too high.
Blackguards is a slow burn. It eases players into the drama rather than trying to grab them with a huge wow-factor set piece. Blackguards does not appear to have dreams of the most brilliant story or gameplay innovation; it looks to provide the solid, respectable experience of a computer RPG like a Neverwinter Nights. It’s already looking like an above average game, which means that Daedalic has the opportunity to knock it out of the park by the TBA release date. Turn-based RPG fans should keep their eyes on this one.