If you've ever wanted to tear across a fantasy realm with a roving band of criminal misfits, you might be able to live out your dream in Daedalic's tactical role-playing game, Blackguards. You might recall that I wasn't particularly sold on what Daedalic considers villainous, as the first few character profiles the developer released seemed pretty tame.
After sitting through a hands-off demonstration in London earlier this month, I'm more convinced, seeing quite a bit of lechery, greed, drug abuse, and being promised a whole lot more. Daedalic assures me that you can do far worse, and it's not about choosing to be good or bad, but rather deciding quite how terrible you'll be.
Most of what I saw during my hour with the game was combat. It combines traditional role-playing systems and turn-based combat amid a field of hexes with environments riddled with interactive potential. Each conflict I viewed exploited the battlefield differently, reminding me more of tabletop role-playing games than traditional tactics games like Heroes of Might and Magic.
Developer: Daedalic Entertainment
Publisher: Daedalic Entertainment
Release: January 2014
Outside of Germany, many won't be familiar with the Dark Eye setting that Blackguards exists in. It's a popular tabletop franchise in its homeland, but most of my knowledge of it comes from the adventure games Chains of Satinav and Memoria. With Blackguards, Daedalic is crafting a game more representative of the source material, with a fully-fledged role-playing system and party-based combat.
At first glance, I assumed that I'd be seeing battles reminiscent of the likes of Heroes of Might and Magic or Kings Bounty, but such comparisons are superficial at best. In fact, beyond the hex grid, they are entirely different beasts.
Each conflict, the result of a story quest or one of the many side quests dotted around the vast map, gives players control over their party of anti-heroes, each with their own class and unique abilities. The lecherous mage can cast all manner of elemental attacks, the unfriendly dwarf likes to wade into the thick of battle, and what the protagonist does is really dependent on the class you chose at the start.
Character actions are selected via a radial menu, but abilities and items can also be tied to a specific hotkey. Strategies are easier to plan out thanks to the turn order that's clearly listed on the screen, so you know who's going next and can act accordingly.
The maps are elaborate creations, bringing back fond memories of the criminally forgotten Temple of Elemental Evil, rather than straightforward arenas. They run the gamut from bleak tombs filled with the restless dead to lush, tropical coasts infested with rum-drinking pirates, and none of the scenarios I sat through was like another.
Environments are both weapons and obstacles, and experimentation is needed to reveal how they can be manipulated or what dangers they hold. Deep underground in a twisting, winding cavern, the party finds themselves beset by hideous giant insects; they are many, while the adventurers are few. Above the scuffle are huge, sharp stalactites, initially appearing to be mere window dressing. The fight begins as one would expect, with the anti-heroes and insects trading blows.
A powerful attack causes one of the creepy crawlies to emit a high-pitched shriek, and the cavern trembles, freeing a stalactite from the ceiling. It crashes to the ground, damaging insect and adventurer alike. With the knowledge that high-pitched noises can bring down the ceiling, players would be able to use that information to make the battle easier -- as long as they manage to properly position their party members out of the way.
Enemies are just as capable of exploiting objects and terrain. The party finds itself at the site of an execution. The scenario is an optional quest, where a woman is about to be hanged by some rather horrible chaps. The lecherous mage has a soft spot for the prisoner, and has requested that his chums assist him in freeing her. It's a timed battle, and should the anti-heroes fail, they must live with that. So it's not only optional, it's possible to screw up and carry on playing.
The guards spot the heavily armed party, and quickly topple some crates at the entrance to the execution site. Though a fairly minor obstacle, the crates do cost the party one turn as they find themselves unable to move forward, and the guards get the upper hand. One of the crates gets set on fire, destroying it, and the fire spreads to the rest, even damaging one of the guards. The tables turn once more.
Other scenarios have traps, puzzles and objectives that require players to do more than simply kill all the enemies on the map. In another side quest, a woman requests the party's assistance in finding her lost monkey. It can be brought back dead or alive -- which seemed odd, until the monkey is revealed to be a giant killer gorilla. It's a challenging battle, should an attempt be made on its life, but even more difficult is bringing it back alive. A huge cage must be positioned over the beast and then dropped at the right time, requiring multiple party members to interact with levers, leaving the other adventurers as vulnerable bait.
The vices of certain party members can even become obstacles. In the last series of battles I was shown -- several arena fights, with each one getting harder than the last -- the drug-addicted half-elf poacher has a relapse in her cell. When the fight begins, she's high as a kite and is of no use whatsoever to her allies.
While I was thoroughly impressed with the fights, other elements left me a bit disappointed. Towns and settlements, for example, are restricted to one screen and don't appear to offer any room for exploration -- they are merely quest hubs -- and the small amount of story and dialogue that was shown off made me wish that we were back in a fight. It seemed a tad trite and poorly voice-acted.
It's worth noting, however, that I only saw an hour of the game, and we jumped around between various acts, so nothing I viewed was really representative off the finished product beyond the combat. I wasn't able to get to know any of the characters, and most of the story remains a mystery.
Blackguards is expected to be about 40 hours long, with hundreds of quests, huge maps to explore, a mountain of loot and gear to discover, and a continent to chart -- but even more post-launch content is being planned in the form of a map editor. So you can try to make even more devious battles and then upload them for others to die in, over and over again.
Though it was initially planned for a November release, Blackguards has been postponed until January. It seems like a smart move, considering that November will be an insanely busy month with the launch of two new consoles, stealing some of the thunder from any new PC releases.
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