Friday, March 7, 2014

"Blackguards" review

I have to say, the existence of Blackguards came as a surprise to me. I didn't know of the game until its release, but I was interested, to say the least. The game is a tactical, round-based role-playing-game, which in itself isn't exactly novel, but it is also set in the world of The Dark Eye, the German roleplaying system I myself have been playing for close to one-and-a-half decades now (compare here). Naturally, I wanted to try it out. I was pleasantly surprised, I have to say.

Not by the graphics, I have to say.

The principle is pretty easy: you command a group of up to five characters created by the rules of the 4th edition (the current one) of the Dark Eye (DSA henceforth, after the German name "Das Schwarze Auge"). These characters move around a more or less linear, but branching world map with fixes locations and paths. These locations offer NPCs which can be clicked to either get access to their services (smith, merchant, healer, etc.) or to gain quests. In a few cases, they're just there for dialogue, but that's rare. These locations and NPCs are more or less static screens that you can click, introducing the charme of early 90s gameplay on your high-end-PC. Or not. 

Back at Sid Meier's Pirates! it would have looked good.
But the meat of the game are the turn-based combats, and there are LOTS of them. Over 95% of the quests require you to slay something (and the other 5% make you wish for something to slay). On varying and, astonishingly enough, non-repeating "battle maps", divided up in hexagons, you move your characters about and unleash their abilities on the enemy, who will do likewise. Combat ends when you knocked down every enemy or have been knocked down yourself (90% of the time) or if you achieves some other goal, mostly reaching a part of the map (the other 10%). 
Takate the Moha, spearing insects since 1874.
While this sounds pretty repetitive and boring, it actually isn't. The fights offer a wide variety of tactics, thanks to clever use of the surroundings and differing enemies. You fight in swamps (beware of the quicksand), move around furniture in cramped crofter shops, explore lavish caves and clear out old Achaz temples (a lizard people overwhelmingly hostile). Much of the surroundings are interactive, creating new obstacles or damaging enemies. It's hilariously satisfying to lure the heavily armored knight in front of an at least equally heavy book shelf and push said shelf on his head.
Notice the stones conspicuously placed on top of that thing there?
The enemies themselves also require a lot of changing tactics. Wolves really suffer from the hunting arrows you unleash at them, but skeletons are totally immune to them. You can't really hack a wood troll to pieces with your sword and club, but fire magic will do for them, while said magic is wasted on a stone golem, and so on. Given that the enemy mages have the same wide range of spells you have and use them not totally stupid, this creates tense decisions: going first for the mage, risking getting hit by the heavy-hitters in front of him, or getting at them first and risiking exposure to nasty buffs?
This leads us to the rule system. In the beginning, you create your own character, using either predefined templates or really delving into the DSA complexity (recommended). You have eight major attributes (like Strength, Dexterity and so on), which in turn influence your attack, defense, archery, magical resistance, hitpoints and so on. Then you have different "talents" for weapons (swords, clubs, bows, etc.) and a range of other talents (ranging from healing to resiliance, from warcraft to zoology). At last, you have the skills. They range from aimed shots to really heavy attacks, from evading attacks to being accustomed to armor. All of this enables vital abilities, but your experience points only suffice for some few of them, so clever levelling and focussing is vital, especially on the higher difficulty levels (recommended, again).  It gets even worse for mages, because they have magical talents (the spells) and magical skills to consider as well. They are also dependend on mana, of course.
These are the major attributes and meta stuff affected by it. Complicated? Yes.
The rule system can draw on the P&P background of the DSA rule system, but being designed for P&P, it doesn't always transport that well. The latest patch has flattened some of the rough patches, but some essential problems remain. For example, ranged fighters are totally overpowered. A skilled bowman can easily do 12 damage or so with a single aimed shot - the mage requires a level three flame attack to achieve the same effect. Unfortunately, the mage can't wear the metal armor that doesn't pose a problem for the archer, and he has to use mana. The latter suffices for about three to four level 3 fire attacks. An archer has 99 arrows in his quiver. The high-end skills even allow the archer to do area damage.
The weapon skills
Other things nag as well. Some locations (Mengbilla especially) consist of several screens, with a loading screen in between. This is just really, really annoying. When you're in the Mengbilla territory of the game, keeping track of which NPC is where becomes a chore, and you have to make roundtrips, enjoying loading screens between each visit on the map. Every browser game is more fun than these sequences. The developers obviously tried to create a vivid world with several locations, but guys, this is not the way to go. That's unfortunate, since in many other respects the game very cleverly avoids the complexity traps of many of its brethren, making clever design decisions that avoid mindless chores.
The world map in all its beauty.
The story is another bummer. While it serves its purpose, it isn't exactly engrossing. Many characters, including your own party, remain pretty flat cardboards. That's okay, since the focus clearly lies on the battles and the story more or less connects them, but still, a littlebit more effort would've gone a long way here. There were many moments of joy, though, because I really like the humor of the game. It reminds me of my own group. Example? On encountering three assassins prone to murder a woman we have to rescue, the magician remarks in genuine excitement: "An unarmed woman besetting three assassins? We have to help them!" Tongue-in-cheek-comments like this are to be found throughout the game. 

Which is also advertised as the "darkest DSA there ever was", funny enough.
In the end, however, I can really recommend the game if you found anything appealing to you in the gameplay I described. It certainly is a number cruncher (don't expect your melee fighter to level up Charisma anytime soon), and some things are a bit unbalanced, but the challenging scenarios and great variancy of the same make for a compelling experience.

No comments:

Post a Comment