Developed by German company Daedelic, Blackguards hearkens back in style and execution to many of BioWare’s old-school classic computer RPGs such as Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. Also like those games, Blackguards is based on a tabletop RPG system – in this case, The Dark Eye, the German answer to Dungeons and Dragons. However, the video game market has changed and grown a great deal since the golden age of BioWare’s licensed DnD computer games. Players lamenting the lack of good tabletop-esque RPGs nowadays should revel in Blackguards, but for a wider audience, Blackguards might be too much of a throwback for its own good.
True to it’s tabletop RPG origins, Blackguards provides quite a great deal of opportunities for customization and character building. Blackguards actually manages to provide a party member of all the basic roles by the end of Chapter 2, meaning that players with an eye for party optimization still have the freedom to build the main character in any way they wish, though only having one dedicated spell caster for the first two chapters can feel limiting. The menagerie of menus looks daunting at first, but it’s relatively easy to navigate thanks to the game making it completely clear what everything does and how abilities progress in power as they level up.
Each combat takes no longer than 10 minutes with breaks between typically lasting only a couple minutes at most. All the cutscenes and boxed text are skippable so players can basically go straight from combat to combat if they wish.
Grid maps are all custom and the environment is almost always important. After the first few hours of game, Blackguards starts expecting players more-and-more to just figure out new environmental mechanics and new enemy tactics on the fly. Anything new usually pops up within the first couple moves and a skilled player with a balanced party can power through hitting a couple of spike traps or flame hazards, and the short combats minimize the annoyance of having to restart.
The game itself just keeps going and going and going. Do not expect to power through this game in 20 hours or even 40 or 60 hours. If you look at a game as an investment, Blackguards will clearly give a good rate-of-return on your money.
The sound effects and music are par for the course. Bow strings stretch, blades cut through flesh, the wood groans on walking trees and magical fireballs explode all as they should, accompanied by the appropriate sound. All of the dialogue is voiced and the voice acting is good enough that it never becomes annoying while also never reaching a brilliance that would make it memorable. That said, without tricked-out cutscenes or Hollywood-style camera magic – the characters are typically off screen out of combat — the voices are what provide the primary characterization, and they succeed for the most part.
As a turn-based game on the PC, Blackguards does not require extensive macros, keybinds or optimized command placements. You move the mouse and click things. Occasionally, you will use the arrow keys to help maneuver the battle camera. The camera controls could stand some tightening up but otherwise, the controls succeed in the way that they always should – you don’t notice them while you are playing.
The graphics feel finished and look respectable, though they do suffer from the overuse of bloom. Years ago, such a visual technique might have given the game a unique visual aesthetic, but after a whole console generation of games with heavy yellow filters and bloom, the visual style of Blackguards just feels uninspired.
Blackguards’ story does not demand much emotional investment nor does it offer much. The story is an excuse to provide gameplay environments, an agenda made completely obvious as early as Chapter 2. Luckily, the combat is compelling enough that the lack of a deep, involving story does not cripple the game; players will just get swept away into the flow by tactics instead of wondering what will happen next.
That said, the plot is the bad kind of simple, where it just ends up feeling generic, and none of the characters seem to care too much about it either. The expansive and digressive story would provide many opportunities for character interaction and growth, but characters seem content to just sit in their train seats and never leave the railroad.
Blackguards has much in common with an above-par tabletop RPG group. The NPCs all have voices and you only occasionally notice they are all variations of the same voices. The combats are occasionally quite exciting and memorable because of an interesting fight gimmick or a lucky roll of the dice, but they are mostly run-of-the-mill affairs where the enemies are essentially reduced to walking XP counters.
The main plot is more of a loose thread that ties the various side quests and adventures together to accommodate the GM’s flights of fancy and that occasional cool idea that he had. Blackguards is another solid and worthwhile entry into the waning market of licensed RPGs that will keep fans busy for quite some time, but it’s not going to do much to revitalize the genre.