Blackguards Preview

19 Nov 2013
Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Independent
Developer:Daedalic Entertainment
Release Date:2014-01-22
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay

Introduction

Blackguards is a turn-based role-playing game from Daedalic Entertainment.  I spent a few days playing the Early Access version of the game, which is currently available on Steam.  This version includes the first chapter (out of five) of the campaign.  Blackguards is still in beta, but from what I can tell the engine is relatively finished, with just some polishing and the remainder of the campaign to complete.  So while things will undoubtedly change between now and the game's release (scheduled for the end of January), enough parts seem to be in place that I can give you an idea about how the game will work.

Premise

Blackguards takes place in the Dark Eye setting, which, right or wrong, I always think of as the German version of Dungeons & Dragons.  You play a young character who is friends with the Princess Elanor.  One night you witness the princess being mauled to death by a wolf.  You manage to kill the wolf (in the tutorial), but then it disappears, and when the guards arrive, they find you standing alone over Elanor's corpse.  Naturally, you get arrested for the crime, and thus starts your adventure to find out who really killed the princess and why.

When the first chapter starts, you find yourself in prison.  A torturer keeps asking you for "the name," which is confusing because you don't know who he's talking about.  Shortly thereafter, you discover a means to escape, and while you're fighting your way out of the prison, you free two other prisoners, a dwarf warrior and a human mage, and they form the core of your "blackguards" band.  However, despite the name, your party isn't exactly the Dirty Dozen.  You're more misunderstood (or possibly framed) than evil, and so there isn't much difference between your party and every other RPG party, except that you're wanted by the authorities, which sometimes makes it difficult to travel through populated areas.

Characters

When you create your character in Blackguards, you get to choose a name, a gender, and a class.  The first two choices appear to be completely cosmetic (if there are romances, I didn't detect any evidence of them).  For the class, your options include warrior (melee), hunter (ranged) or mage (caster), but this choice just determines your starting attributes and skills rather than locking you into anything.  That means Blackguards essentially has a classless system, where you can develop your character in any way you want.

Each character has five tabs on their character sheet.  Under "base values" there are eight attributes, including courage, charisma and strength, plus vitality (health), astral energy (mana), and resistance to magic.  Under "weapon talents" there are skills for the game's 11 weapon types, including swords, bows, and spears.  Under "talents" there are nine skills, including body control (which can prevent you from being knocked down) and animal lore (which gives you information about the animals you fight).  Under "spells" there are 24 spells that cover damage, healing, buffing and debuffing.  And under "special abilities" there are 39 active and passive abilities, including knock down (which incapacitates an enemy for a turn), armor use (which reduces the penalty for encumbrance), and astral regeneration (which regenerates a bit of astral energy each turn in combat).

If you add up the numbers from the previous paragraph, then you should come up with a grand total of 94 elements that define characters.  Each one of these elements can be purchased or upgraded using adventure points (AP), which you earn at the conclusion of battles and quests.  I think I earned somewhere around 2000 AP during the first chapter, which sounds like a lot... except that attributes alone cost 400 or so AP to upgrade, and so I barely cracked the surface of what characters can become.  Also, most of the spells and special abilities require trainers or spellbooks to learn, and I only found a few, which means most of the character sheet wasn't available to me.

I like character systems where you have to make tough choices, and where you can't learn everything by the end of the game.  Blackguards  appears to have those properties in spades -- at least in Chapter 1.  Hopefully that will continue to be the case for the rest of the game as well.

Gameplay

Blackguards is a completely turn-based game.  The world is made up of discrete nodes, where each node is either a city (where you talk to people, regain health, or go shopping) or a small battle arena.  There aren't any wandering monsters, and nobody sneaks up on you.  Nothing happens in the game until you move from one node to the next.

When battles spring up, they pit your characters against a similarly-sized band.  That is, the battles are small in scale.  You start out the game with three characters in your party, with a fourth joining you midway through the first chapter, and so typically you face three to five enemies in each battle, or else the enemies are spaced out enough (or spawn infrequently enough) so you only face a handful at a time.  In a few battles you also have to deal with boss-type creatures, such as a huge wood troll.

Characters get one turn per round.  During their turn, characters can move and then perform an action, or they can "dash" and move a lot.  If you've played XCOM: Enemy Unknown, then Blackguards uses roughly the same system.  Actions can be spells or attacks, or characters can use a potion, poison or trap from their belt.  The early belts in the game only have two slots in them, so belt items can only complement your characters.  They're not going to win battles for you.

Interestingly, special abilities don't have any costs or cooldowns, and so they can be used every turn.  I ended up having my warriors always use power attack, while my hunters always used targeted shot (both abilities increase damage at the sacrifice of accuracy).  I only had to make a decision with my mages.  Mages get a lot of interesting spells, but they're expensive to cast, and they can eat up a mage's astral energy in no time at all.  As a result, my mages were only mages about half of the time -- the other half they were essentially weak hunters -- and I was never really able to unleash them.  If you use up your astral energy in one battle, then you have to rest (which costs money) to have any astral energy at the start of the next battle, which caused me to be conservative in my casting, especially since you sometimes fight two battles back-to-back with no chance to rest, and you're not always aware of when that's going to happen.