Love at second sight: Blackguards first impressions

Dear me! They're having hex.

A nosy guard interrupts some moral ambiguity.

Blackguards was billed as an epic fantasy RPG in the usual style, except with murderers, thieves and other ne’er-do-wells in place of your typical party of heroes. When I heard about it I was immediately intrigued at the premise. How refreshing it seemed that a fantasy game might invoke moral questions that reach beyond the third grade.

Here’s what I wrote last month:

I hope the folks at Daedelic don’t shy away: I want them to put me in these reprehensible characters’ shoes; to make me do vile things for a good cause. Give me something to think about, please, and in return I may mention you in the same breath as Planescape: Torment.

Well, we can forget about all that. Just a few hours in, it’s become clear that almost all of the game’s narrative promise is wasted on a formulaic plot, poor characters, and drab script. The game’s supposed murderer protagonist is just another framed man wrongfully imprisoned, with a kind demeanor and sympathetic voice actor. Blackguards isn’t even an RPG, not really: it’s a tactical combat game with interstitial party management elements, like XCOM or Jagged Alliance. The gameworld is huge but lifeless, the NPCs are paper-thin, and they all have silly names like Aurelia and Lysander.

But who needs an RPG when the combat is this much fun?

S'what we get for partying in the cemetery at night.

Outflanked, but not outgunned. Position and line of sight are crucial.

The sooner you can get past the game’s misleading marketing, the sooner you’ll come to appreciate Blackguards’ deep, satisfying tactical combat. The basic turn-based hex grid stuff is tried and true. You control a party of multiple characters, each of whom, along with your AI enemies, has an initiative rating that factors into the crucial determination of who goes first. Then, in sequence, each character gets to move and perform an action to end the turn. If you want you can run and move extra far, at the expense of your turn’s action point.

Actions can include attacking an enemy, casting a spell, using an inventory item or interacting with the environment. You can also use your action points on special abilities; each character has its own repertoire, from your basic knockdown attempts and called shots to more exotic area attacks. As characters gain experience you can assign skill points to unlock new and better abilities.

Fencing weapons with max parry for me!

The sliders control your offensive/defensive disposition when using a weapon of the given type. More offense gives a bonus to hit, more defense a bonus to parry.

There’s nothing stopping you from mixing archetypes and making a spellcasting dwarvish fighter, or a mage that specializes in two-handed blunt weapons, but each character class starts with biased attributes and an initial skill distribution to nudge you in more typical directions. In addition, mages have to sacrifice spell points in order to wear metal armor. So in theory there’s total character-crafting freedom, but soft limits help ensure that there are meaningful differences between classes.

Your party has a shared inventory that’s inaccessible during combat, and each character also has his or her own private inventory. After each fight you get to collect and divide the loot, rest to regain health and spell points, and occasionally visit town to buy and sell. The selection of weapons, armor, and other items seems vast. Like in Diablo, certain wearables combine to form sets, which once assembled confer special powers and immunities.

I'd carry a coinpurse if I had one.

Any game that dispenses loot in ducats, thalents and farthings wins my heart by default.

The basic systems of an excellent tactical combat game are all in place. Time will tell whether the game manages to craft them into something with longterm appeal. Only the first of five episodes is available now on Steam Early Access. I’m about four hours in on normal difficulty and so far it feels a bit easy, but the game’s huge world map suggests far greater challenges will emerge later. For my part, I’m totally hooked; I had to pull myself away from the game to scratch out these thoughts.

It’s still early–I express caution just in case the game craters in the chapters still to come–but Blackguards is already the best fantasy-themed tactical combat game I’ve played since Shining Force. What seemed at first like such a missed opportunity is actually a pleasant surprise. Maybe it can’t hold a conversation, but it sure knows how to dance.

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