Note: I played a prerelease version, this means there were bugs, the story was unfinished and the content is subject to change. Other than finishing touches to the story, bugfixing and balancing changes, the game is unlikely to change dramatically between now and release, but it is possible.
I played the original Blackguards only recently, after being able to pick it up in a Humble Bundle. If I’m honest, I didn’t buy it for Blackguards, I looked at it and thought it was another RPG I wouldn’t care about. I’m very, very picky with RPGs, I’m not a huge fan of Dragon Age, I enjoy The Elder Scrolls for first person combat rather than the world, and I never could get into The Witcher 2. However, every so often, I start to love something: Neverwinter Nights 2, Etrian Odyssey, and then Blackguards.
So I was very pleased, yet apprehensive, to get to play through a preview build of Blackguards 2. The game hasn’t changed the base formula, however a lot of the systems outside of combat have been changed. It’s a turn-based RPG, based in The Dark Eye universe: Europe’s most popular tabletop RPG (especially popular in Germany). It has multiple rather unique features, however, namely a hex-based grid system on each map, and multiple very traditional tabletop rules.
Certain areas with limited space make for some interesting tactics, for both you and the enemy to use
The hex grid system works just as you’d expect, and allows for interesting strategy with spearfighters (who can attack over one hex away, even over low-standing walls, or a certain dwarf), and certain mage spells, which are area of effect.
In very traditional tabletop fashion, the game is split up into turns, and then the turns are split up for each character, based on a virtual dice roll for each character in the fight (influenced by a character stat). Certain stats or abilities can regenerate at the end of a full turn (astral points – the game’s mana system, or the ability to parry, for example). It’s clear that the developers have passion for tabletop RPGs, which is clearly shown through how they’ve updated these systems for Blackguards 2.
Red bar is health, yellow is endurance, and blue is astral points, with icons below the portrait indicating buffs or character strength
The original game was, at times, rather clunky. The Dark Eye universe’s experience points, Adventure Points, had to be spent on attributes like dexterity, intelligence, charisma, among others. This has been removed from Blackguards 2, instead weapon mastery is clearer, skills are set out in a much simpler way, and acquiring skills or spells doesn’t require you to jump from city to city looking for the right teacher, instead you have a hub camp with a pair of teachers for every skill.
Overall, the UI, the systems, and the entire game’s look has been improved. I found that looking for items or objects I could interact with on the map was easier (although I have played the original so perhaps I just knew what I was looking for), and the effects of certain items are shown in a much simpler way, to appeal to people with less knowledge of tabletop RPGs.
The bottom right section is new, and makes stat changes that are a result of your gear much clearer
Probably the biggest change to the game, however, is the story, its progression and how it has influenced new features. Where the original game was essentially one extended story, with sidequests off to the side, Blackguards 2 is a much more open map. You play Cassia, a betrayed woman, on a quest for power in the south of Aventuria: aiming to control the city of Mengbilla, and its surrounding locations. Her motives are mysterious, and of course one woman cannot overthrow the powerful slaver Marwan. She manages to strike an alliance between her, an army of mercenaries, and three main characters from the original Blackguards, however they are not the heroes at the end of the game: Takate, Zurbaran and Naurim (who still has a fantastic voice actor) are back to square one, for different reasons.
On this quest for power, you travel from location to location, conquering cities and towns, gaining resources, power, and information. The combat is, in essence, the same, except for certain spells which have been tweaked. When conquering, however, you can place your team in a different ways for strategic purposes. On top of your cohorts from the original game, you have a number of mercenaries who can aid you. The use of mercenaries allows you to switch up your team, even though you might have levelled your characters in a certain way. You can choose where to attack first, as different locations give different bonuses, and you may have information on a secret entrance to one area, for example. These can be obtained through interrogation sections, where you need to pick the right interrogation method for your prisoner, a reward for those who pay attention to the story, or through your beggar spy.
It reminds me a lot of how Neverwinter Nights 2 had its systems switched up massively with the Storm of Zehir expansion, and how much that really added to the game. The story and how it played out in the original wasn’t anything special, but from what I’ve seen in this, the story is something I actually care about, especially one decision I made about halfway through my playthrough. Everyone I met was a morally ambiguous person, including Cassia, and it’s a nice change from playing the hero of the land, as in other games. The way this story plays out, with a back-and-forth struggle for power, is really complimented by the gameplay mechanics, especially how the locations you’ve taken over can be attacked by Marwan’s forces.
Blue flags indicated locations you are in control of, red flags indicate Marwan’s control
These defense missions are completely new, and include a section where you can place traps (boxes that can be pushed over, tripwires, bear traps, and possibly more later on) before positioning your mercenaries. Failing doesn’t mean game over, instead you’ll be forced to reclaim the location (which is no easy feat, as the enemy will be anticipating your attack).
The final main changes from Blackguards involve the combat directly: a regular attack will almost never miss any more. On top of this, spells no longer fail. I’m sure diehard tabletop RPG fans might see this as oversimplification, but there’s nothing more annoying than a spell failing 3 times. Abilities can still miss, as can ranged attacks at certain ranges that are not suitable for your weapon. Special abilities also now require endurance, a new resource similar to astral points (meaning you can’t simply spam abilities, a problem in the original game).
It can look confusing at first, but while you’re playing, and thanks to the log in the top right, every dice roll the game does for you, every number crunch behind the scenes, is converted to something clear and user-friendly
Phew. As you can see, the game can be pretty complex, and there’s a lot to pay attention to in a battle. Many times I’ve accidentally walked into a trap, or forgotten to interrupt an enemy who will release beasts from a cage. I’m not an expert at RPGs, but I’d say I’m competent, yet I really found myself stumped at points. Maps require different tactics, as some might have a mage with excellent range and area of effect damage, whereas others might have an abundance of archers raining death upon you. Similarly to the original, there’s no one tactic that works all the time, and you need to be versatile in how you play: some maps might have a hidden threat around the corner.
I would already have recommended the original Blackguards to any RPG fan, or even someone who is a fan of well-made strategy games with little interest in RPGs. It had its issues, and I wasn’t so much a fan of the story (while it rounded itself out nicely, many of the issues just felt like a deus ex machina). However Blackguards 2 looks like it could become a cult classic, if the endgame is as strong as what I’ve played. I didn’t get to play around with the assassin or ogre mercenaries, as they are only available later on, but the prospect of an extended battle, with you controlling so many different classes who all play out different, is fantastic. Both the story and gameplay are strong, and Daedalic have learnt from the original game how to make it a better and clearer game, without removing its strong tabletop RPG feel or complexity. My only complaint is that the game has not been fully balanced, however that is being heavily worked on at the moment, and so the game should be much fairer around release.
Blackguards 2 is to be released on January 20th 2015, and I’m looking forward to it.