It’s no secret the massive popularity of Dungeons & Dragons has long influenced both tabletop RPGs and video games for decades. As with any successful commercial endeavor, competition will soon follow, one of which being the German-created The Dark Eye series. Although The Dark Eye is something of a late bloomer in English speaking nations, it has long held a strong following in central Europe. It even spawned a handful of video game adaptations in the process, namely Realms of Arkania and Drakensang. Recently, however, Daedelic Entertainment took a more prominent role in creating games based on the franchise releasing Chains of Satinav, Memoria and Blackguards in just two years with Blackguards 2 scheduled for January 2015.
The setting which Blackguards 2 is based on is no stranger to dark fantasy, and the game immediately establishes a grim mood. In it, we play as Cassia, a princess betrayed, banished and left to die in her kingdom’s dungeons. The first few missions span over several in-game years, as our heroine slowly descends into madness and escapes captivity. In its current state, the story is perhaps Blackguards 2’s strongest asset. It’s gripping, funny and grim all at the same time and even employs dark humor, with the main character ranging from sympathetic and heroic to borderline psychotic.
Throughout my playthrough I didn’t find any branching paths or meaningful dialog trees, but when the writing is this strong it more than makes up for a lack of choice. On the other hand, we see a return of many characters from the first game, but Blackguards 2 expects players to already be acquainted with them, wasting little time with introductions.
Blackguards 2 is equally obtuse at explaining its ruleset as opening the skills, abilities and spell menu provides with an overflow of information with little regard to context. While I understand The Dark Eye ruleset is very popular in some countries, I feel it would have benefited from a proper tutorial introduction. Any character is free to branch into whatever path the player chooses, but discerning optimal builds from underpowered ones will likely require multiple playthroughs.
At the beginning, players are presented with the stage’s objectives and can select where they wish to place party members. However, some missions present a false premise, in one particular instance I was told enemies would come from point A and was advised to set traps to prevent their flow. Once all traps were set, my foes came from the opposite side I was originally told and instead, the real mission objective was to escape their grasp. While this may seem like an interesting mission twist, it’s really a one trick pony, rewarding instead those who choose to reload from a previous save and attempt it once again with this new knowledge in mind
Combat is handled through a tactical, turn-based hex grid, requiring players to pay close attention to not just enemy forces, but also environmental hazards, chests with mission rewrds and even the level layout. Every stage map is well thought and expertly designed, smart players will know when to use hazards to their advantage and balance the risk and reward factor that comes with separating a unit from the main party to open a treasure chest. Some even feature minor lever puzzles, adding a new layer of tactical strategy to each encounter.
Unfortunately, the HUD leaves something to be desired. It comes with a small learning curve and generally requires too many clicks to perform even the simplest actions. Casting a level 1 fireball spell for example requires a minimum of four clicks, this may not sound like much, but after a few turns it drags the pace of the game down. I also had some problem with the camera controls, as sometimes important items would be blocked from my view. The game does provide zoom controls, but the option to rotate the camera is sadly missing.
The story and plot progression are conveyed mostly narrations and motion comics between stages with character dialog being handled in the previously mentioned town hubs. These are comprised of a single screen with a few hotspots to click which provide character dialog or services like the town smith and skill acquisition. In general I felt towns were something of a missed opportunity, being little more than a stop-gap to trade gear and level up.
Blackguards 2 aims to be a hardcore, stat-intensive tactical RPG while providing an interesting and well written story. It features expertly designed maps but gives little direction or context regarding its ruleset and isn’t afraid to throw a few cheap shots either. The game is likely best enjoyed on a second playthrough, making it easier to experiment with the many possible character builds while keeping in mind the sort of challenges that lie ahead.