Blackguards Preview

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Independent
Developer:Daedalic Entertainment
Release Date:2014-01-22
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
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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.


What helps to make the battles interesting is that you can find interactive objects on the battlefields.  Stacks of crates can be knocked over to create weak walls, treasure chests can be opened for loot, and chandeliers can be dropped on the heads of soldiers.  The interactive objects mean that some battles work like puzzles or mini-games.  For example, at one point you need to advance a character to the opposite side of the battlefield within five turns while your opponents try to stop you.  At another point you need to defeat some cave lice, but they keep coming up through holes in the ground, and you can't win the battle unless you push objects into all of the holes.  There are also environmental objects, like bee hives and mud pits, that can cause problems for the characters unwary enough to wander into them.

At the end of each battle, you earn some advancement points and usually some loot.  Loot comes in the form of potions, armor, and weapons.  The armor I saw was pretty basic, just affecting defense and encumbrance, and weapons were the same.  My impression of the Dark Eye setting is that magical equipment is supposed to be tough to come by, and if so then Daedalic is holding true to the source material, and they've resisted the urge to make the game into a loot-apolooza.  But some more variation would be nice.  My hunter saw short bows and long bows, and that was it.

To give you a reason to seek out the battles, there are of course quests for you to go on, including side quests for your companions.  The writing for the quests is good but not great, but nicely your companions get to take part in the conversations, and their lines help to give them more depth.  For example, the human mage is a smooth-talking lothario type, and his motivations differ wildly from the more straightforward dwarf warrior.  Most of the dialogue is handled by your character, though, and I didn't notice any instances where your skills or attributes make a difference.  Unlike some other Dark Eye games, Blackguards doesn't include the skills for fast talking or haggling or anything not combat-related.

Interface

The interface for the game is straightforward.  You use the WASD keys to move the camera around the battlefield, you left-click to attack, and you right-click to bring up a context sensitive menu that includes all of your possible actions (including special attacks, waiting, and skipping your turn).  You can also use hotkeys for most actions, including the spacebar for waiting, the enter key for skipping your turn, and the V key for highlighting interactive objects on the map.

Nicely, each character gets a hotkey bar where you can put their skills and spells.  There are 12 slots in the bar (mapped from 1-0 and including Q and E), which is more than you're likely to need.  It's always nice when a game has too many hotkeys available rather than not enough.  I found the interface to be effective during the time I spent with the game, and I didn't have any trouble running the battles.

Graphics and Sound

The graphics in the game are competent.  Cities are shown on one screen, where you just click on the people you want to talk to.  Each battle location is unique, and you visit a variety of settings for them, including a prison, a cemetery, and a swamp.  The character models made me think of the Neverwinter Nights engine, where they look nice enough from the game's most typical bird's eye view, but then not so much from the zoomed in cutscene view.  Among other things, the character models don't have moving lips (or any facial animations), which seems out of place for a modern game.

The sound meanwhile is of about the same quality.  All of the dialogue is voice acted (including everything from the male and female versions of your character), and the actors do a nice enough job with their lines, although at this point not much in the way of acting is needed.  If you don't like the sound or if you're hearing impaired, then the game also comes with a full complement of subtitles so you can follow along that way if you want.

Conclusion

Blackguards still has a lot of work that needs to be done.  Daedalic will need to continue polishing the text (it was in a terrible state when I first started playing, with typos, untranslated phrases, and missing text being all too common, but the first patch took care of a lot of those issues), working on the interface, and balancing the classes.  Right now warriors seem to be way more powerful than hunters or (especially) mages, but I don't know if this means that certain skills or classes need work, or if like in a lot of RPGs warriors start out strong but then get bypassed by the more complicated classes as the game progresses.

If I had to evaluate Blackguards right now, then I'd say it looks like it could be a fun little game.  It feels more like an RPG to me than a tactical strategy game (despite the structure), and a lot will depend on how well the mystery in the main storyline plays out.  You don't learn much about it in Chapter 1, as the majority of your time there is spent dodging the authorities and making your way south to meet with somebody who can shed light on your situation.  If the story can provide enough twists and intrigue to keep players guessing, then I think it and the combat can complement each other enough to make the game enjoyable.

Chapter 1 took me about 8 hours to complete, and so the full complement of five chapters might take around 40 hours, which would be fine for the game's $25 asking price.  Look for the full version of Blackguards to come out sometime around the end of January.