Review: Blackguards 2

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Blackguards 2 focuses on the story of the madwoman Cassia. It starts out simply enough with a woman who is thrown in a dungeon for no clear reason. The prison is an odd one as it is underneath the great Arena of Mengbilla and the door to her cell is wide open. Cassia could walk out at any time. And when she does she finds herself in the tutorial missions set in the vast maze of training grounds designed to kill prisoners that will invariably try to escape, yet tempt them with enough hope to try.  After an initial try she fails to make it past a few areas and is forced to limp back to her relatively safe cell. A few weeks later she tries again, only to still return to her pallet, broken and defeated. She tries again and again, always defeated but makes more progress as the other prisoners and monsters force her to fall back. In her years spent navigating this labyrinth she will be bit thousands of times by the large spiders that inhabit the complex. The poison of these creatures is not enough to kill, but if exposed to it enough will bring only death or madness. And yet Cassia survives. Her only companion is the vaguely mean jailer, the spiders, a desire for revenge and a book on strategy and leadership. This book helps shape her madness because when she emerges from the end of the maze and manages to finally escape, her mind and face corrupted by years of daily exposure to poisonous spider bites, she has only a blind desire to conquer the land.

In part I wish I had not played the prequel to this sequel because it makes it very difficult to say whether the story on its own is any good. Other than the unique protagonist, the three heroes that will accompany her are all the main characters from the first Blackguards. The overall gameplay, world, look and locales are so similar to the first game that this second title seems more like an expansion pack than a true sequel (though there is a full game’s worth of content). Anyone familiar with that game’s story will enjoy seeing the heroes again and hearing their take on Cassia’s mad, countrywide murderfest in conversations between missions. Naurim is a dwarf who loves gold so much he is not above dirty tricks and (very literally) selling out his friends to get it. In the first game the mage Zurbaran was a smarmy womanizer, but only a little of that comes off in this game as his station in life has recently fallen so low. Whereas the first title had a more traditional RPG setup with various towns, characters to meet and subquests to undertake, in this game the towns and other locales are points on a map to conquer. Given Cassia’s drive to rule, everything in the game is encountered in this context. The vast majority of the character interactions are encountered in a camp that can be accessed at any time between battles. It is a fun, interesting contrast to the first game–scrappy party of escaped prisoners vs. spider-themed insurrection–but the game offers virtually zero introduction to the world or the main characters to fully welcome in new players.

If the game is not made in the same engine as the original, the developers did a remarkable job emulating it here because the game looks almost identical. The characters are detailed and move around naturally as they wait for their turn to act. The environment is dynamic in many instances as cover points can be destroyed. The most impressive-looking aspect of the game are the spells which cause enchanted characters to shine like diamonds or have sickly green orbs seek out enemies in erratic patterns to drain their strength. Some of the monsters have an imposing design, like a mobile tree monstrosity covered in individually destructible hornets nests or a demon made up of sand. The environments are colorful and detailed as are the troops (even if many of them look the same). All of the dialogue is voiced well, but unfortunately there is so little story there ends up being little dialogue other than in-game screams like “I’ve been poisoned!” For the most part the game runs smoothly even on lower to mid-range systems. The only technical issue I had was the game crashing to the desktop after a battle. I was forced to repeat the encounter, but this did not persist the second time.

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Another holdover from the first game is the combat, which remains fundamentally unchanged. Each area has a hexagon map overlaid on top of it where characters will move around. The only real difference between a hex-map and a grid for a turn-based game like this is that it allows for the maps to have more curves and for one unfortunate character to be ganked by six enemies at a time. Based on their initiative score determined at the start of the battle, enemies and heroes will act one after another until Cassia’s Silent Legion rules the day or falls before her foes. Most of the missions are simple “Kill ‘Em All” affairs, though some require either that all people move to a certain area of the map or that only a given target be eliminated. The basic combat and interface work and are not overly complicated. Characters can move twice, move once and take an action, or delay until after a few other characters have moved. This is a straightforward fantasy tactics game where there may be at most twenty characters on the board. Get the melee guys up front and keep the casters and the archers in the back. The only wrinkle not seen in most games is the way ranged units have to worry about sight lines. If a Golden Legionnaire needs a new arrow in his face, friendly archers will not be able to stand directly behind a guy with a spear running interference. The requirement of a clear line of sight adds some depth to the game and forces players to not clump up and think about choke points which might limit one side’s or the other’s effectiveness on the battlefield.

On the magical end of things some may be glad to know that the previous system which allowed insufficiently trained characters to fumble spells, and thereby waste their turn, has been scrapped. The older system allowed for inexpensive ranks to be bought with experience points and each rank brought a marginal increase in how likely a character was to cast the spell. Now characters can just cast the spells they know. Each spell in the game has four tiers, which costs more mana to cast and has a more dramatic effect. More hit points will be healed, more damage done, sometimes multiple targets can be effected at higher levels of a certain spell. Instead of purchasing small ranks, large chunks will have to be invested to move up the tiers of the spell effects. In addition to direct damage and traditional buff spells, there are a few that allow wizards to be more tactical. Fortifex will create a temporary wall that will block any enemy’s attempts to surround your forces or can block a central doorway. Wrath of the Elements does a small amount of damage, but it has a good chance to knock down enemies, meaning that they will waste their turn having to stand back up. For whatever reason this spell in particular is more effective than in the first game as it knocks down enemies far more often. It opens up options in the combat where one wizard can focus on dealing damage and the other can debuff and stun enemies. Spells are limited by how much mana a character has. Similarly, fighters get a few special moves which are limited by how much stamina they have, but there are far fewer moves than there are spells so most of what melee characters will be doing is their basic attack.

The most significant change to the prior game is the addition of mercenaries that will join Cassia’s small crew early on. The Silent Legion is a religious group of zealots, and their leader thinks that the disfigured commander has a great role to play. Cassia will lead this army from point to point on a map which is separated into locations that will all lead directly to a battle. Some of the battles will advance the story and others will simply increase her influence and grant upgrades for her troops. Conquest is the only way to improve the mercenary forces; the heroes will only gain new gear if it is purchased at a traveling merchant located at the camp or if someone is found amongst the bodies of the Legion’s enemies (read: loot). In practical terms, having the mercenaries means that in most missions you get to field some or all of the heroes, the leader of the Legion as well as some nameless troops. Whether or not one of these poor souls dies or singlehandedly wins the battle does not appear to have any impact on the game or the story. These men are, after all, members of the Silent Legion, and are religiously dedicated to being nonpersons. Eventually unique troops will be unlocked to replace Sword, Spear or Bow Guy. Still, in many missions at least a third of the player’s side of the battle will be filled with generic troops. The enemy forces do not have very many types of different characters and you will see the same enemies, from battle to battle, many times. In longer play sessions the lack of variety can start to wear thin.

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More than its love of the hexagon, the thing that sets Blackguards apart from other tactics, roleplaying, or tactical roleplaying games is its unique character advancement system. There are no classes here, only adventurers who earn Adventure Points. In most other games when a warrior kills a goblin he will get some number of points towards his character level. Eventually he will level up, some stats will improve, and he’ll eventually be a really good warrior. But for perhaps a few new abilities, that character will fill the same party role that he had at level one. In Blackguards 2, every character’s abilities and capacities are yours to command just as thier actions are on the battlefield. A mage can also be a deadly sniper with a crossbow, warriors can learn a variety of special attacks with different weapons, and every character has the ability to learn talents which let them know more about traps on the battlefield and their enemies’ stats and abilities. More useful and powerful bonuses and talents will cost significantly more Points and have more prerequisites. Unlike in the first game where basic stats could be upgraded for Points (i.e. Strength, Intelligence, etc) heroes here learn special abilities which effectively do the same thing. It is a streamlined approach to character progression as players who buy the Vitality Increase bonus will clearly be shown how many more hit points that character will have as opposed to buying Constitution points and eventually gathering that this stat is related to hit points.

The only true limitation is the cold fact that some characters cannot use magic, and that there are only so many Adventure points to gain. This means that it is a good idea to at least start out specializing in some skills because it will be impossible to have top ranks in everything. The game could do a better job of explaining the need to not spread your heroes’ development too thin. The ability to spend large amounts of points at once on special moves and abilities which come with prerequisites can help shape your character as points are spent with one or the other expensive ability as the end goal for each hero. Anyone that wants to have bigger attacks or cast more spells than a generic character will necessarily have to build up certain skills which – if you knew what you were doing – would help make those different heroes good at their respective jobs. I don’t think this is an intentional, hidden tutorial, it’s just a consequence of designing abilities that would be too expensive to permit a character to have the best of everything.

The worst thing about the game is that it has a fair amount of padding in it. Every time three new territories are captured, the forces of the the Powers That Be will send a counterattack to try to reclaim lost territory. This will launch a defensive battle in which Cassia tries to maintain her grip on the node of the overworld map she has captured. This will launch a defensive battle, which reuses the same level layout used the first time it was played. If the heroes are there, then they can participate in the battle, and if not, then it will be up to the militia mercenaries to try to defend it. Traps and barriers can be used to slow down or stop enemies as the waves of opposition try to take back what was once theirs. Unfortunately, these defensive battles are only an exercise in delay as there is no reward for winning them, other than not losing a place you’ve already won. Which is sort of like giving someone their own car for a Christmas present, a gift with a note reading: “Your car! It’s still there!  Merry Christmas!” That is not a fun gift, and these aren’t fun. On the plus side, if you fail to defend a territory and lose all of the equipment and passive bonuses that came with owning it, you can replay the mission offensively to regain them. Poor comfort as this means playing a battle for the third time.

Aside from the needless filler, I had a good time with Blackguards 2. What it lacks in character interaction and development it more than makes up for in customization and tactics. I would have liked to see more of an impact on the world after winning each battle than merely seeing more spider flags than other colored banners. There could have been some roleplaying aspect of the game mixed in with managing the kingdom like there was in Summoner 2, for example. As it is, there is little preparation or discussion of what Cassia is going to do. The flow of the game is as basic as click on this node, win the fight and level up, rinse and repeat. It is a good thing that most of the enemies are generic fireball-fodder as there is no room provided to prepare for anything. The only preparation is to try to make the best core heroes you can and see what happens in battle. If it doesn’t work out, restart the entire battle because saving in the middle of conflict is impossible. Even with those limitations this is still a solid game. The core action and tactics allow for a wide range of options to fight your way through the realm. I really liked fighting these fantasy battles, I only wished there was some roleplaying with consequences to go along with them.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Deep and varied character customization
+ Performs well and looks good
+ Solid tactical gameplay

Cons:
– Thin characterization
– Players have little impact on the story
– Defensive battles pad things out

Game Info:
Platform: PC/Mac
Publisher: Daedalic Entertainment
Developer: Daedalic Entertainment
Release Date: 1/20/2015
Genre: Strategy RPG
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.