Pop quiz hotshot – your ex-husband Marwan has just thrown you in a dungeon where poisonous spiders will gnaw at your face for the next four years until you’re both disfigured and insane. What do you do? If you’re anything like Cassia, the protagonist of Daedalic Entertainment’s Blackguards 2, the answer is quite obvious – seek revenge by conquering the world just to rub it in his face, all the while debating with yourself whether you’re really cracked or not.
Loosely based on German RPG rulebook The Dark Eye, Blackguards 2 picks up some time after the conclusion of the first game. I couldn’t help feel that, at least in terms of narrative, Blackguards 2 is slanted in favour of anybody who put a lot of time into the original game. Many of the characters from the previous title return throughout an extended tutorial that runs upwards of an hour. Not that I’m complaining, as I was desperate to be given any help on offer – for beginners, this can be a very unfriendly game with criminally brief explanations of the way some mechanics work. I’m no stranger to Strategy Role Playing Games (SRPGs) and I still felt I wasn’t quite grasping what Blackguards 2 expected of me, at least not until I had quite a few battles under my belt. The story works hard to put the dark in dark fantasy, as Cassia cuts her way across the land in search of her ex-husbands head and throne. Both character backgrounds and plot unfold across conversations between Cassia and others, her dialogue options often providing slightly evil or incredibly evil results – make no mistake, Cassia is an anti-hero if there ever was one and by the end of the game it’s quite possible to have alienated or even murdered your closest allies.
Blackguards 2 operates on a hexagon-shaped tile grid system – put simply, this means that unlike a standard SRPG square-based grid which allows movement in four directions Blackguards 2 offers 6, providing further options in terms of movement and positioning. Indeed, blocking pathways through the use of traps, spells or simply having a body in the way is one of the quickest ways to ensure victory or defeat. It’s possible to quite literally get in your own way if you haven’t managed your character positions carefully enough. The inclusion of a cover mechanic ensures that enemy archers and mages have a tougher time sending projectiles your way, a welcome addition that I haven’t experienced in other titles in the genre. Played from an almost overhead perspective, it’s easy to read the layout of level maps that are varied and mostly well designed, many of them offering multiple paths as well as traps and obstacles to navigate. Visually, the game is reminiscent of Diablo 3 with a reduced colour palette, meaning that it will still run for those with modest PC specifications.
Combat wise, Blackguards 2 sticks to the standard RPG formula with physical & magical attacks, buffs & debuffs and equipment & skill management. What does differ is the lack of a traditional levelling up system – rather than increase stats through XP, winning a battle grants each of the four main heroes Adventure Points (AP) which are used to purchase incremental weapon skill upgrades, spell upgrades and attribute upgrades. These are tiered and ensure that players can focus on specific areas of development for their characters. Protagonist Cassia is a blank canvas that can be readily shaped to suit player preference (mine ended up a mace and bow-wielding flame sorceress) while each of the other 3 main characters show clear signs of predisposition towards certain builds. However, as with Cassia they too can be fairly customisable to a degree – while battlemage Zurbaran can dual wield magic and a staff with the best of them, the same can’t be said of Tecate or Naurim, both of whom are forever unable to learn spells. Also of note is Faramud, leader of a band of mercenaries who provides Cassia with her ‘army’. While it is impossible to upgrade Faramud in any way, his endless supply of mercenaries provided to Cassia do show improvement over the course of the game.
The overall structure of Blackguards 2 is fairly straightforward once the world map becomes available. Flitting between story and combat, the long march across the world map to the capital of Mengbilla involves defeating enemies in wilderness locations as well as towns and fortresses. Conquering a town or a fortress unlocks new perks such as stat increases, the availability of new mercenary units or weapons and items. Like clockwork, previously captured areas will be attacked every three battles by Marwans forces in an attempt to seize control and wrest those hard earned upgrades away from the player. Eventually, these interruptions to the story can become quite annoying as they provide absolutely no AP gain and simply serve to slow down the pace of the narrative.
It wasn’t long into my time with Blackguards 2 that a few problems cropped up which had a significant impact on my enjoyment of the game. To begin with, there are still a number of bugs present. While Daedalic have been hard at working trying to squash as many as possible, there were still a few that stopped me dead in my tracks, most notably on a few missions where the victory conditions did not register and I had to retry. My other major complaints come down to some annoying mission design and balance inconsistencies. Many times throughout Blackguards 2, missions will chop and change victory conditions at the drop of a hat, usually in conjunction with a flood of enemies. For example, an early mission that involved rescuing hostages saw me trying to clear out the enemies in the area before letting the hostages out of their cages. What I didn’t realise was that the game actually wanted me to run through releasing the hostages as quickly as I could and then run to the exit as it continued to spawn enemies infinitely. When playing on harder difficulties, this adds an element of trial and error as you try to figure out what way Blackguards 2 expects you to play. These kinds of design decisions greatly impact the level of strategy possible in the game and can become frustrating when, mid way through a battle, the intention of the designer clicks and you have to restart.
In terms of balance in combat, there are a number of problems I ran into during my time with Blackguards 2. Often, battles would drag on for no good reason as the sheer number of junk enemies thrown my way was staggering. I say junk enemies as they provided no real threat but arbitrarily lengthened a battle, turning it into a war of attrition as I bled them down quicker than they could do to me. Battles are fairly slow at the best of times, crawling at a snails pace when there are a large number of enemies with consecutive turns to get through and no skip/speed options in sight. I found magic to be significantly more effective than physical combat as well – the use of high level AoE spells on groups of enemies was much more devastating than high level physical attacks, which is a shame considering there is no way to play with more than two mages in your party.
My final complaint has to do with the UI, which is fine in most areas but left me scratching my head in others, most notably the equipment screen. When purchasing gear, I like to compare what I can buy with what my character has equipped. When doing this in Blackguards 2 however, it wasn’t possible to see the amount of gold I had which meant I was flicking between the characters equipment and stocked equipment screens fairly often. There is also no way to organise equipment or compare it directly, something that should have been implemented given how stats focused the game is.
Blackguards 2 was a challenging game for me and not just because of its difficulty. The accusations that can be levelled against it are many: it has a clunky and unintuitive UI, it doesn’t respect players’ time at all, and it increases difficulty through the number of enemies on screen rather than strategy. Yet, I found myself compelled to continue playing. The Tarantino-esque revenge plot and those moments in battle where a strategy paid off were fairly rewarding, as were the ability and skill systems once I wrapped my head around them.
Stephen del Prado