You’ve probably never heard of The Dark Eye. It’s not really your fault--that particular tabletop RPG isn’t meant for you. It was made by Germans for other Germans, and it found a lot of success by focusing on that particular niche. But you may have heard of Blackguards, Daedalic Entertainment’s turn-based tactics game set in The Dark Eye’s universe. And much like its parent, Blackguards is designed for a specific audience, and diehard strategy fans will get a lot of value out of Blackguards’ lengthy, varied campaign. It’s just a shame that a few nagging bugs and design choices keep the rest of us from enjoying it, too.
At its core, Blackguards is a turn-based tactical RPG. Battles occur in rounds, wherein your party and their adversaries jockey for the chance to slice, stab, and burn each other into oblivion. Each character in your party has their own role, and the interactions between character types create fascinating strategic challenges. Do you move your wounded spearman to attack an enemy, even though it blocks your archer’s line of fire? Do you spend you mage’s limited mana to deal damage to one enemy, or to debuff the entire enemy party? Answering these questions properly will be the difference between life and death for your party.
That’s what you’d like to think, anyway. In reality, your expert plans are foiled by the lousy user interface. The minimalist screen overlay shows a series of portraits and health bars but no commands, which are assigned from a right-click menu. The unintuitive menu system means you’ll end up with a lot of unintentional movements or mistargeted spells--I lost count of the number of times my healer healed herself rather than the character who actually needed it. In a game where proper strategic planning is so vital, these mistakes can--and will--force you to restart levels. Diehard fans of the tactics genre can struggle through, but it gets annoying very quickly.
Taken individually, these turn-based skirmishes are fun enough (when the UI isn’t ruining it), but Daedalic works hard to ensure that the formula never grows old. Whether you’re traversing a booby-trapped warehouse or dropping an immense iron cage on a rampaging gorilla, most battles have a unique twist to them. It’s these wrinkles that keep the core gameplay fresh for Blackguard’s surprisingly long campaign.
The length actually works against Blackguards after a while. Once you get settled into the core gameplay, you’ll start to notice the cracks in the shell surrounding it. Travelling involves little more than clicking a spot on the world map, and once you arrive at your destination you’ll find little to do there. You can try having a conversation with the locals, but the limited dialogue options eliminate any sense of role-play. The inventory is a byzantine mess with no way to sort or filter to find the items you want, and the journal only rarely gives you the information you need. What’s worse is the number of bugs. The “Head” and “Feet” armor icons are reversed on the inventory screen. The in-game rulebook doesn’t work. Some dialogue options are still shown in Daedalic’s native German. Like the problems with the UI, none of these are game-breaking, but they do nag at you whenever you see them, and you see them pretty often.
As annoying as the bugs are, its the loading screens that will grind you down. Viewing the world map? Loading screen. Entering battle? Loading screen. Leaving battle? Loading screen. They are everywhere. You can not escape them. You will see the same five images and read the same five “tips” so many times that they will be marked indelibly into your mind. You will carry them for all of your days and in your dying moments your final words shall be “Remember, quicksave often! (F5 to save, F9 to load).” Which is funny, because you can’t actually quicksave during the battles--once you start a fight you have to see it through to the end or start the whole thing over.
Daedalic’s artists clearly tried to imbue Blackguards with their own Ottoman-inspired aesthetic, but the nice visual style can’t cover up the lackluster gameplay. The (seemingly) hand-drawn world map is beautiful, but cities and towns are little better than the lightly animated landscapes of a point-and-click adventure game. Once you get into battle, Daedalic’s stylized intentions are disappointed by technical limitations--models are ugly and all wear the same vacant faces, even when talking. Everything--and I do mean everything--is shown under a depth-of-field filter that leaves most of your screen blurry and out-of-focus. Battle effects and animations are nice enough, but Blackguard had trouble keeping the frame rate up when things got busy.
Blackguard had a lot of promise--The Dark Eye provides an interesting setting and a compelling set of tactical mechanics for a turn-based strategy game. And if you’re looking at just the combat, Blackguards works--it’s just a shame that everything is so unpolished. You’ll find incomplete translations; an awkward, imprecise control scheme; and frame rate issues, all of which keep Blackguards from realizing its potential.