By Alec Meer on December 13th, 2013 at 1:00 pm.
Blackguards is a turn-based fantasy RPG from German outfit Daedalic, based on the Dark Eye roleplaying system. It’s out on Steam Early Access now, and is due for a full release next month. I tried playing it earlier today, for a brief spell. Did it make me want to continue playing? One way to find out. Well, you could kidnap me and ask me by force, but I’d rather you just read this, to be honest.
Only the boring get bored. That must make me a very boring person indeed, because by God I was bored. Not throughout, true, but too often to want to persevere.
In a way, I’m glad that early-2000s-style fantasy RPGs are still kicking about on PC – a game like Blackguards was bread and butter of my reviewing job a decade ago, and I tended to enjoy sitting down with something far too long and involved even if the writing and acting was inevitably terrible. Things are different now though, more so once the glut of Kickstarted ‘old school’ RPGs start to arrive, and we’ve extremely focused fare such as Avernum on one end and mega-glossy Biowarefare on the other, with assorted roguelikes/roguelikelikes lurking somewhere in the far reaches. I really do want a middleground, but not like this.
I know it’s early access, but it’s also just one month from full release. Despite an interesting and uncommonly elaborate combat system, Blackguards feels cheap, stodgy and uncertain of purpose, attempting to make do with one voice actor trying to do a dozen different accents, sloppy translations and a UI about as intuitive as a large hadron collider. It talks and talks and talks and talks and talks, woeful words with hokey, stilted performances, and like a dinner party guest who only has anecdotes about his time selling air compressors in 1974, it thinks if it just keeps talking we’ll somehow become interested. This sort of thing:
I tried streaming it on Twitch earlier, and quite understandably the viewer count dwindled away in tandem with my enthusiasm. It’s a dispiriting enough game to play – to spectate must be oppressively dull. There’s a dwarf with a naff Yorkshire accent, there’s a wizard with a camp accent, there’s endless exposition between characters who are clearly voiced by the same person, there’s a loading screen every two minutes, and once in a while there are more involving but glacially slow and visually awkward turn-based battles that involve combing through an interface made up of all the tiny, infuriatingly similar circles in the world. This speaks to the impressive range of tactical options available, but the presentation does get in the way of both understanding and excitement. It plays a bit like Warhammer Quest on iOS, in that it involves using a small squad of players thoughtfully in order to contain and destroy more numerous opponents, but it doesn’t have the pep, the speed, the sense of purpose – it just wants to talk, talk, talk, talk.
There was one moment whose ingenuity impressed me, though I’d argue it arrived too soon, presenting a stiff challenge before there’d been a chance to get to grips with the unwieldy interface. Doesn’t help that the key to surviving this scene is uttered as one apparently throwaway line among the deluge of comedy-accented bullshit earlier on. I found myself, for what I think was just my fourth battle in the game, in a swamp, facing an enormous Wood Troll, which was essentially a fatter Ent. Its waistline was matched only by its colossal amount of hitpoints, which my trio of weak, poorly-equipped newbie characters had little chance of whittling down before the damned thing clobbered us.
However – and I must admit it took a viewer who’d already played the thing to point this out to me – the swamp was filled with gas, shown as conveniently static bubbles atop certain hexes. Gas + fire = fiery explosion. Fiery explosion + creature made of wood = ow. So, off you pop, fireball-wielding mageguy. The fat Ent was an imposing threat which required thought rather than twitch to defeat, and there was satisfaction in discovering that it could be defeated by carefully kiting it around the map, ‘sploding swamp-farts when it stumbled into them, taking chunks rather than splinters off its health. It was a challenging, stressful fight that I’m amazed I survived. Here’s how it happened:
I felt really, really good when that thing toppled over, and for a while I thought this game would be for me after all. A swift return to gibber-deluge ended that ,alas. The Fat Ent fight would also have been an awful lot more satisfying if a) working it out wasn’t just a matter of spotting a minor graphical difference on a few tiles and b) restoring my mage’s mana wasn’t quite so torturous. In Blackguard, you can only use a potion if you’ve equipped it. You can only equip it outside of battle, so even if you’ve got shedloads of them in your backback, there’s no way to use them in the thick of it. In some ways, that’s a decent conceit – it’s entirely logical that one could only quaff what was immediately to hand, as opposed to something like Skyrim’s ‘eating two dozen green apples in the middle of a sword fight’ absurdity. Alas, I found it went a little bit too far though – you can’t even equip a potion if you don’t own a belt. And if it’s a cheap belt, it’ll only have one potion-holder. Basically, survival in Blackguard’s murderous, monster-filled world depends on wearing the right belt. Beltguards. Blackbelt. Beltbelt. All of these would have been more appropriate names.
At this point in the game, I owned only the cheapest, single-slotted belt, and thus spent my battle against the Fat Ent Benny Hilling around the map waiting for my mana to recharge, by 1 point every turn, so that I could intermittently cast a fireball that would then miss 50% of the time. What drama. And all because of a belt.
I struggled on for a few more fights, a few more static shopping/quest hubs and far too much inane wittering in dodgy accents, but dammit, life’s too short. The essential turn-based, hex-based combat has something to it, it demands a goodly amount of tactical thinking, and there’s a part of me which wants to master The Skill Tree Of A Thousand Similar-Sounding Options, but there’s too much drag, too much talking, too many loading screens, too little purpose to give satisfying context to the combat. I don’t have the faintest sense what my characters’ ultimate goals are, I just seem to be solemnly trekking to the next point on the map and listening to nonsense just so I’m allowed to then click on another place.
Maybe it dramatically improves later. There’s real promise in the elaborate skill tree and the Fallouty combat, but I’m just not enough of a roleplaying mechanics gonk to want to suffer through so much dreariness around it. I’d definitely be interested to see the Dark Eye system as the basis of something… spunkier though.
Also the whole game looks as though someone smeared golden syrup all over my monitor.