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Blackguards is a new turn-based tactical strategy game -- with RPG elements, of course -- from German developer Daedalic Entertainment, which is probably best known for its adventures, including Memoria and the Deponia trilogy. Blackguards takes place in the universe of the Dark Eye, which is essentially Germany's version of Dungeons & Dragons, but the environment is so familiar (with similar enemies, classes, and gods) that the game should be accessible to anyone.
As Blackguards opens up, you witness your friend Elanor being mauled to death by a wolf. You manage to kill the wolf, but when the guards show up at the scene they only see you standing over the body, with no wolf in sight, and you're arrested for the murder. Then in jail things get stranger. Lysander, Elanor's paramour, takes over the investigation, and he keeps asking you for "the name" -- while his pet torturer encourages you to talk. Shortly thereafter, you manage to escape from your cell, and with a few other "blackguards" you set out to learn what happened to Elanor and why. This eventually leads to you learning that darker events are afoot, with Elanor's death being just the start.
At the start of the game you have to create your character, and you can make this as easy or as complicated as you want. If you choose to use "basic mode," then all you have to do is choose your class -- warrior (with a focus on melee weapons), hunter (ranged weapons), or mage (spells) -- and the game sets you up with appropriate attributes and skills. But you can also choose "expert mode," where you're given 10,000 adventure points, and you can spend them on whatever attributes and skills you want. So if you want to play a hybrid class, or if you're very particular about how your character is built, then expert mode is the way to go. You also get to choose a name and gender for your character, although this doesn't make any difference in the game.
Once you start playing Blackguards, though, character advancement proceeds in the same way. As you complete battles and quests, you earn adventure points, which you can spend in various ways. Each character has five pages of information: base stats (attributes, including strength and cleverness), weapons talents (proficiencies for 11 types of weapons, including swords and crossbows), talents (passive skills, including body control, which lessens your chance of being knocked down), spells (24 spells, including healing balm and thunderbolt), and special abilities (active and passive combat skills, including knockdown and astral regeneration). All of a character's attributes, skills and spells can be incremented up to 18, with higher ranks being more expensive than lower ranks.
By my count there are 94 places where you can spend adventure points, which gives you a lot of ways to build characters, and nicely you don't earn so many points that you can max out everything. You have to make choices, sometimes tough ones, and you have to decide which things you need and which you can live without. Unfortunately, there isn't any way to respec characters, so you if start heading down one route and discover that it's a bad idea (which is pretty easy to do), there isn't any way to correct the problem other than to start over.
As you play through the campaign, you also meet some companions. These are the "blackguards" but they're hardly evil. One was caught in bed with a baron's wife, another burned down a pub that he found offensive, and a third is a freed slave. So if you were hoping for a game where you play the bad guys and do evil things, Blackguards isn't it. You recruit five companions in all, and you get to spend adventure points on them just like you do with your main character, and so you can tune your party to fit your playing style.
Blackguards is played on a large map where you move from node to node. Each node can either be a town, where you talk to people and go shopping, or a battleground, where you fight somebody. Most of the towns consist of a single static screen where all of the shopkeepers and NPCs are visible at once (making them easy to "navigate"), while the battlegrounds use a hexagonal grid, and the battles proceed in turns. The battles are usually small in scale, with your band going up against a similarly-sized band, and they typically take 10-15 minutes to complete. Enemies you face include bandits, crocodiles, zombies, and of course monkeys.
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