Blackguards 2 makes it feel good to be bad, but being bad also comes with a lot of responsibility.
Blackguards 2Publisher: Daedelic Entertainment
ESRB Rating: N/A
Developer: Daedelic Entertainment
Release Date: 2015-01-20
Blackguards 2, Daedalic Entertainment's follow up to 2014's The Dark Eye: Blackguards, takes place a few years after the events of the last game. Time hasn’t treated the motley crew of the last game well. Naurim, the dwarf has retired after the defeat of the Nine Hordes, and his wealth has left him unambitious and out of shape. His mage friend, Zurbaran, has been enslaved. And the noble warrior Takate, with nothing left to live for, has resorted to gladiatorial feats until he meets his timely demise. Instead of allowing for original character creation, Daedalic departs from typical rpg form to tell the story of Cassia of Tenos, a noble woman brutally imprisoned by her husband and her journey to revenge.
Cassia’s tale begins abruptly as she is taken in her sleep and awakens in a dungeon below a gladiator arena. She spends four years in its depths being poisoned by giant spiders, leading to her disfiguration and dementia. This tutorial level cleverly sets the stage for Blackguards 2’s morally ambiguous backdrop. In the prison labyrinth, the player learns the basics of the game's turn-based combat and character customization. Cassia’s growing madness fuels the player’s incentive to exact vengeance at any means possible. Whether Cassia is viewed as rebel liberator or power mad dictator is up to the player’s choices.
While Daedalic took away the freedom of character creation, they did leave character customization wide open. Unlike most RPGs, characters do not level up in the conventional sense. Instead, the player earns Adventure Points to spend on learning weapon talents, skill talents, special maneuvers, or crafting spells. This is only after finding someone to teach you said skills of course. There are no rigid classes to follow. So any character can learn to dual wield, to use a ranged weapon, or to become a melee expert. This opens up a wide range of possibilities. However, everything comes with a cost and with this freedom comes menu screens.
You will spend a lot of time navigating through unintuitive menu screens. While menu screen juggling is not uncommon in the RPG milieu, in Blackguards 2 it can become overly cumbersome. Equipping items takes place in a drag and drop interface, but it somehow doesn’t work like expected. Weapons also need to be balanced for damage absorption and offensive power. With some experimentation, weapon balance becomes more instinctual, but nonetheless a lot of trial and error is necessary.
Additionally, the power to level your characters into any branch of combat leaves open the possibility to create underpowered or ineffective character builds that will hinder your progress. Even with strategic planning, it is possible to end up with characters that are unable to successfully face up to the end game difficulty.
Blackguards 2’s combat system emphasizes environmental interactions over head-on fighting. Hexagonal battle grids are stretched across varied landscapes that include bridges, prison courtyards, and dark caves, all with a lush but slightly muted color palette. Interactive environmental pieces can be highlighted during the player turn. Striking an unsteady overhang or lighting flammable liquid can take out a group of enemies but can also take your team out. Just how the environment will react can be unpredictable and perilous, and with no save points during battle, the player can be forced to endure a beating before doing it all again. The environmental puzzles have a gimmicky feel to them. Instead of creating an open sense of creative battle, they often feel like there is only one way to use them successfully, and more often than not, executing the timing of pulling off an action in the environment just right is more trouble than it is worth.
Maps can inundate you with enemies. It is often unclear whether it is better to even attempt to fight them or run. Sometimes running is the only option. In these cases, the player must make it to a specific, but unmarked, area of the map. Yet, it is rarely clear until you are in the thick of battle what the objective is. Tactical battles still make up the majority of game play. Magic is the most reliable offense, whereas melee and ranged combat rely heavily on an invisible dice roll.
Combat almost seems at odds with Blackguards 2’s storytelling apparatus. The story unfolds through a storybook narrator. Player choices shape the direction of the story as it is happening. The main plot isn’t too surprising, but the ability to navigate the moral gray areas and branching choices is promising. Where most RPGs encourage the player to take the moral high road, either through incentives or by making you feel like some choices will make you a horrible human being, Blackguards 2 walks the line between good and evil. As the dubious protagonists conquer city after city, progress comes slowly if compassion is shown to captured enemies. Despite these interesting elements, controlling up to a dozen characters at a time in turn-by-turn combat creates interminable battles that lean more toward tedium than satisfaction and brings the story to a halt.
Blackguards 2 makes it feel good to be bad, but being bad also comes with a lot of responsibility. The responsibility to learn an intricate leveling system, survive bemusing and uneven battles, and sift through the past game’s lore may sound exciting for some, but for most, Blackguards 2 is an acquired taste. Fans of the original will likely respond to the reportedly streamlined processes. Yet, for a streamlined menu system, you will still spend a good portion of your time navigating through a lot of submenus. Role-playing statistic aficionados and those that can’t get enough character customization will have a lot to play with in Blackguards 2. Fans of dark fantasy and the strategy RPG genre in general might be drawn to Blackguards 2’s morally ambiguous storyline, perhaps. However, it’s not for the meek at heart though.