A tangled web we weave
A few weeks ago, I called Blackguards 2 “deep, unfriendly, and buggy.” I had put several hours into the tactical role-playing game, but hadn’t seen enough of the story to comfortably put out a review.
Fast forward to today, and my original assessment requires a bit of tweaking. Within the first two weeks of its release, Daedalic put out two huge patches, each aiming to fix the stability issues that plagued Blackguards 2 at launch. The patches did introduce their own issues, but for the most part I would describe it now as only deep and unfriendly. Two out of three ain’t bad.
Blackguards 2 (Mac, PC [reviewed])
Developer: Daedalic Entertainment
Publisher: Daedalic Entertainment
Released: January 20, 2015
Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit
Blackguards 2 follows the story of Cassia, a noble woman who is cast out by her power-hungry husband, left to rot in a dungeon. After she escapes, she goes on a quest to oust her husband from the throne. Though it feels like revenge is her main motive, she recoils at the suggestion. It is up to the player to determine exactly what her motive is.
Although there is a clear beginning and end to Cassia’s story, choice plays a big role in the path between, and can have substantial effects on where everything ends up. In the beginning, I had intended to play as I normally do in choice-driven narratives: making snap decisions in the moment, but leaning more toward good than evil.
To my chagrin, as the story progressed and my band of mercenaries made its way ever closer to the capital city Mengbilla, public opinion of Cassia deteriorated from the righteous liberator who the people supported to the treacherous usurper who needed to be repelled. It felt reminiscent of the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, where politics and public opinion are just as important as character builds and tactical battlefield prowess.
It serves as a great example for explaining villainy in a way that is relatable to regular people, without obvious good vs. evil ideas. Not once during my campaign to take back the throne did I feel I did anything unjust, but only at the end when I found myself fighting against common folk in addition to royal guards and monstrous creatures did I realize that I had become that which I had been trying to rise against.
The kicker is it is entirely possible to go through without becoming a villain (I think). Depending on a few key choices, Cassia and her companions may be loved by the people, and perhaps even welcomed. It turns out that taking over a realm while remaining righteous is pretty difficult. By sparing the lives of enemy leaders and showing compassion to friends, not only does the narrative reflect that, but the final battles become tougher.
The difficulty spike at the end is especially noticeable because most of the battles throughout are fairly easy for those who have a modicum of tactical sense. There are a few interesting boss battles that add light puzzle elements to contend with, but for the most part, difficulty stems from Blackguards 2‘s unwillingness to provide important information.
Often, this takes the form of interactive objects on the battlefield whose functions aren’t always clear. (What happens when I use this thing? Oh, a chandelier falls on three of my units and immediately takes them out of the battle permanently.) While those instances are minor infractions that are easy to learn from, the worse offenders are the battles with “gotcha” moments. Too many battles start with certain conditions shown, then only reveal their true nature after the player has already planned and committed forces to certain areas. It’s the kind of inelegant difficulty that can be impossible the first time through, but then negligible once the trick is known.
The general unfriendliness of the interface extends to what should be mundane aspects of a strategy game. Expected damage is not explicitly shown, so taking out a weak enemy may result in wasted actions if that enemy has armor or resistance, or wasted astral energy or stamina for an attack more powerful than was necessary. There is a line of sight predictor for ranged units, but it doesn’t work for magic users carrying melee weapons. Sometimes the camera doesn’t track the action well and the battle log disappears too quickly to easily discern what happened.
Underneath it all, there is a competent tactical combat engine. On a turn, a unit can move and then spend one more action (which can also be movement). One neat thing is the wait ability: units with higher initiative can choose to wait and take actions at the end of a round of combat. This can set up a few useful strategies, like forcing an enemy to take the first hit in a duel or allowing high initiative units essentially two turns in a row.
Though it was a buggy mess at launch, Blackguards 2 is competent in its current state. When it released, it had freezing bugs that set back progress. One of the patches moved where save files are stored without mentioning it or moving the old files, making it look like everything was lost. Even after the recent patches that have fixed the major issues, I have seen some ability text show up in German, so Daedalic’s efforts to fix everything don’t inspire too much confidence. That said, most of the major stability issues have been addressed. Blackguards 2 as it exists today is much more tolerable than it was three weeks ago.
The aesthetic design is serviceable, but not outstanding. The world of Blackguards 2 is a standard medieval fantasy setting, with swords, dwarves, magic, and dragons. The soundtrack matches the setting: adequate at conveying the tenseness of combat but not especially memorable. Voice work can be a little cheesy, but is generally well done.
Blackguards 2 scratches the tactical RPG itch just fine, though the battles do become tedious near the end. It certainly doesn’t welcome new players with open arms, but veterans will view its opacity as a minor issue to work around.
Its greatest strength is the surprisingly poignant narrative about the muddy area between good and evil. I almost want to play through again to see how different choices will affect the later battles and the story’s conclusion, but at 25-30 hours for one playthrough and combat that wears thin toward the end, it is just long enough for me to shy away from that idea.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]