You can't escape the Wild South in our review of Blackguards

After first settings my eyes on it at last year's E3 Blackguards was one of my most anticipated games from the adventure game developers at Daedalic Entertainment, it promised a dark mature story, strategic, challenging combat and a rich world, all from the hands of a studio that had never before made a roleplaying game, so did it manage to deliver?

Blackguards is set in the very popular European Dark Eye roleplaying universe, this is great for a number of reasons, most importantly you needn't be a devotee of the pen-and-paper world, however it also means that the game does not need to create an elaborate universe, because it's existed for almost 20 years, and what a universe! The Dark Eye is a world full of religions, history and geography, and whilst it's not shoved into your face at every opportunity it is subtly present in conversations, your surroundings and its dark elements are everything that Blackguards embraces, you'll also find a few nods here-and-there if you do know the world.

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In Blackguards you are an individual who may take on the male or female form of a Warrior, Mage or Hunter who happens upon his very close friend Elanor in the forest, before your very eyes a wolf attacks and kills her, unfortunately when you are found with the body there is no wolf in sight, and you are instantly condemned to prison. It doesn't take long for you and a couple misunderstood undesirables to break out though, and you'll be joined by characters like the short tempered Dwarf Naurim and Zurbaran the powerful mage, or later like minded folk like the enslaved tribesman Takate, they're not your usual collection of heroes, but then Blackguards isn't your usual RPG.

Stemming from a traditional roleplaying game, improving your characters plays a big role outside of battle, however Blackguards does not follow your standard systems in this respect, for instance there is no traditional level structure, instead your characters simply gain Adventure Points which can be spent any time on improving their basic stats, increasing their efficiency in weapon types and learning new skills or spells. Though potentially due to the lack of levelling system, the knowledge of new skills or spells do not simply appear from thin air, and so if you wish to enlighten your party members you must seek out teachers in the towns or you may find some of your characters somewhat inadequate for the fights ahead, that's a warning by the way, don't go making the same mistake I did!

The game plays out in battle maps, and with over 180 in the game, they make up about 80% of it, so you'd better like turn based battles, the rest of the game plays out like a very old roleplaying game; there's no running around a world map, or random encounter battles, instead you move your party to a town which will give you the opportunity to sleep your party back to full strength at an inn, buy wares from a merchant or learn new skills to name but a few activities, speaking to inhabitants of the town will also open up new side quests as well as build your awareness of the world around you. It's somewhat strange to see what is essentially the likes of a static town screen these days, but despite this, the towns are fully rendered in 3D, and with tons of side quests at your finger tips, Blackguards is by no means a old school roleplaying game, it just holds the heart of one.

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Combat itself much like a pen and paper RPG relies heavily on chance and initiative, in fact in the next incoming patch, Daedalic are adding in the option to turn the dice rolls on! Currently everything is behind the scenes and you'll get a basic chance on making an attack or casting a spell; more often than not it always fails when you don't want it to but the odds seem well balanced! Each characters' basic stats will determine how far they can walk in battle before they can no longer carry out an action which can be hinded by wounds taken and spells cast on them. Don't be prepared to waltz into a battle and hit everything until it falls over, because Blackguards is far more challenging and requires you to really think out every action, move, weapon change or item use that you make!

There are some niggling issues in the battle maps, for instance you'll often come across maps that lie in sequence with one-another which is often not made aware to you, except for the rare case of the Nine Hordes of the slave arenas, as you can tell from the name and the warnings given to you, you'll be carrying out three challenges at a time, this can sometimes result in your party members becoming a little worse for wear when you've used up all the potions that your belts can carry after the third map in a series and find yourself stranded from a merchant, this wouldn't be so bad, but save points can only be made on the world map or inside of towns, leaving you unable to stop between two fights and continue them at a later time. If you do come across difficulties with fights spanning multiple battle maps then you may not be ready for the Eternal Valley, let alone the 13 Challenges!

If you hadn't guessed those were some clear choke points in the game. However in Blackguards half of the battle is determining the strategy you must take in order to best your enemy, after all this is a game from a developer that focused solely on point and click adventure games before Blackguards, and it really shows with the sheer amount of puzzle solving you must engage in order to glean the most use of your surroundings, a brilliant example is a very straightforward battle with a woman with magical strength, she is joined by a cavalcade of wolves, now you can, -if you wish to fail miserably- chose to take out these wolves, corner them and attempt to take them out, if your team is strong enough it is doable, but only just. However you could lure each wolf to a conveniently placed stack of crates that allow you to trap each wolf, and luckily these are littered throughout the map, doing so will pin them in place, and unless one manages to free another, they're stuck there for the rest of the battle, allowing you to focus on the matter at hand.

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A big addition to the story of Blackguards is your unfamiliar characters; you play as a bunch of criminals, all the while unravelling their dark pasts, what brought them to where they are, and even the crimes they committed, but ultimately you do feel like a bunch of heroes, unlike the most recent Grand Theft Auto where you honestly play as a bunch of scumbags, your group just doesn't compare. In fact, in doesn't help very much that in the Dark Eye universe there are so many crooked, unkind and cruel characters in the law enforcement and general populace, that you begin to feel that your motley crew are the only sane individuals around.

Blackguards weaves an interesting tale of betrayal and intrigue as you travel around Aventuria in the hope that you can find out what really happened with the beautiful Eleanor, this will see you journeying far from your captors at Neetha prison, to the terrifying zombies of Areimanios, or the dangerous arena in the slave capital of Mengbilla. True challenges await you, as well as old friends, and some enigmatic acquaintances as you discover the truth about your old master and uncover the intentions of a seemingly innocent mountain excavation. Granted the story is a little predictable at times, but for all the action, the drama, and the oodles of humour that you're given you get an enjoyable ride out of the game!

I can't help but feel that Blackguards is perhaps one to the best turn based fantasy games I've played in a long time, but there are undoubtedly elements that hold it back, perhaps the most frustrating is the inability to rotate the camera around your battle map, whilst you can zoom out for a proper strategic view of the battlefield, you want to get up close, personal and with a view just to the right, which is often the case in some of the luscious battle maps and one of the changes I wish they'd made.

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Since our last look at the game, Blackguards has certainly come a way, best of all is the improvements on the in-game cutscenes that now have a soul! However not everything is perfect, and the game does suffer somewhat when you near the end of the story; my experience included many intermittent crashes here and there, mind you they did nothing to stop my enjoyment of the game, but a great annoyance!

From the moment I escaped from the depths of Neetha Prison, attempted to help the mage Zubaran reclaim a love and set off on a quest for dragons for Naurim's friends I was hooked, Blackguards is a game that fantasy fans can really sink their teeth into, and with a ridiculous amount of side quests to be found, spells and skills to be learned, and a really engaging story and combat system, it is the most enthralling roleplaying game in the Dark Eye universe to date!

four stars

Blackguards is available now from all good digital distribution sites, and the new Untold Legends DLC coming very shortly that focuses on the back story of Takate.