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RPG Codex Preview: Blackguards

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RPG Codex Preview: Blackguards

Preview - posted by Crooked Bee on Wed 13 November 2013, 16:46:55

Tags: Blackguards; Daedalic Entertainment

[Preview by Darth Roxor and Felipepepe, edited by Infinitron]

Blackguards is an upcoming turn-based RPG from Daedalic Entertainment, a German developer whose only titles so far have been adventure games. The game means to provide an oldschool tactical experience, with a "dark narrative" different from that of most other RPGs out there. Instead of the usual goody-two-shoes heroic adventurers, you will be in command of a bunch of criminals as they escape from the law all over The Dark Eye's world of Aventuria.

Our previewers, Felipepepe and Darth Roxor, have played through many versions of the game starting from the early beta, and now they have gone through the press preview build (kindly supplied by Daedalic) as well as the Early Access edition currently available on Steam. They have played the game on both Normal and Hard difficulty, and their impressions follow.

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Creating your character

Felipepepe: When starting the game there are three professions to choose from: Warrior, Hunter and Magician. You then choose your gender and appearance from a very limited set of five portraits. And that’s it - name your character and you’re done. While this may sound quite simplistic, don’t be mistaken, as there is a lot of depth in the character system.

Blackguards employs a classless system, where anyone can learn any talent or use any weapon; the sole exception is that only the Magician can learn and cast spells. For example, one of your eventual party members is a Hunter that can cast spells, but you can achieve the same effect by starting as a Magician and training your bow skills (which will probably cause the Magician to be the munchkin's class of choice). There are also no character levels - you simply gain AP (Adventure Points) as experience and use them to improve your character.

Darth Roxor: The magic-wielding hunter also bothered me for a bit, until I realised that it’s probably because she’s a half-elf, and all elves have a natural affinity for magic in The Dark Eye.

Felipe: The game has eight basic attributes: Courage, Cleverness, Intuition, Charisma, Dexterity, Agility, Constitution and Strength. They affect secondary stats, such as Speed, Initiative and Attack, among others, and can be directly upgraded by spending APs. You can also use your APs to directly increase your Vitality (hit points), Astral Energy (mana) and Resistance to Magic. The cost of upgrading any stat increases with the stat level, so your first extra Vitality point will cost only 16 APs at first, but a fifth extra Vitality point will cost 110 APs.

Then come the Weapon Talents. There are eleven weapon types: Daggers, Swords/Sabers, Axes and Maces, Fencing Weapons, Bows, Crossbows, Throwing Weapons, Staves, Spears, Two-Handed Swords and Two-handed Blunt Weapons. It's an interesting system that let you manage how offensively or defensively your character will fight. If your Daggers skill is 5, for instance, you can use a slider to distribute those 5 points between attack and defense, going full offensive, full defensive or anything in between. It’s nice to be able to tune how your character fights, and it can make a huge difference during harder battles.

There are also nine Talents that can be learned and improved; Body Control, Willpower, Perception, Traps, Streetwise, Survival, Animal Lore, Warcraft and Treat Wounds. Each class starts with access to a couple of them, but can only learn new ones by finding a proper trainer. Each of them has various applications; Body Control, for example, is used to resist knockdowns, but also helps your character to avoid slipping when fighting on wet ground. It’s a simple thing, but it makes the talent useful for every character and not just for Fighters, unless you enjoy seeing your mage trying to flee and falling flat on his face. Warcraft is an especially useful talent, since it allows you to see information such as your chance to hit a target or the enemy’s reach.

Roxor: I also liked how the talents provided passive stat bonuses in combat. For example, a character with Survival always rolls for it at the start of a fight in the wilderness to get a speed boost, and the same happens with Streetwise and urban environments. Coupled with all the other attributes and abilities that can be upgraded, it gives so much character development flexibility that it makes my inner munchkin squeal with glee.

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Felipe: Furthermore, there are 24 spells available, which can only be learned from trainers or by buying rare and expensive spell books. You can spend AP to level up a spell, which makes its casting less likely to fail and allows you to unlock four casting tiers; the higher the tier, the more expensive and powerful the spell is. The developers did a good job here - apart from the standard stuff like Fireball and Healing magic there’s also a nice array of utility spells that can be used to change a battle’s outcome, like blocking the enemies’ paths with an arcane wall or making a character paralyzed and invulnerable for a couple of turns.

Finally, there are 29 Special Abilities with passive powers - like Dual-Wielding and Armor Use - and active powers, like Power Blow and Aimed Shot. Some of them are in a skill tree pattern, while others simply have high requirements, such as mastering three melee weapons. Sadly, a full description of their effects is not provided; Power Blow simply says “a heavy blow which increases the damage done”, but doesn't specify by how much - not being able to know how how much damage your characters deal seems like a huge flaw in a tactical RPG. Special Abilities can only be taught by certain trainers, and they cost quite a lot of APs.

By now you’ve probably realized something. The fact that Attributes, Weapons skills, Talents, Spells and Special Abilities are all learned and/or upgraded by APs should make a certain Obsidian developer very unhappy; it’s easy to screw up your character’s build here. Magical archers that can’t hit the broad side of a castle, powerful wizards that always fail to cast, hulking warriors that fall down at the slightest push, it’s all here, waiting to be made. Couple that with the fact that there are no random encounters for one to grind and that some of the story missions are very challenging, and you get a game that's sure to leave many players stuck and forced to re-roll.

And that’s fine by me. This is a system that provides players with room to try out various builds and approaches. Being required to actually think about your character growth and weigh your choices is something that's pretty rare these days.

While I have no experience playing The Dark Eye P&P, I did do some research on the rules and found Blackguards’ approach to be quite faithful. The biggest changes are a consequence of the game's heavy focus on combat - many non-combat skills were removed, as well as the Social Standing attribute (since your character has a defined background) and the Advantage/Disadvantage system. The starting professions were reduced from 14 to just 3, which is a decision that I approve of, as choosing between professions like Hunter, Ranger and Scout would be a pointless exercise in a game as combat-oriented as this.

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Combat

Darth Roxor: Blackguards' combat impressed me greatly when I played the beta/early access versions of the game. There were two reasons for that:

1. The fact that the combat was any good, because I totally expected the whole game to suffer from the typical “non-RPG company’s first RPG!” syndrome, where the biggest focus would be placed on aspects such as the narrative, while largely ignoring or streamlining the combat system to near-minigame status.

2. The fact that the combat was so damn good. There aren't many games out there where almost every fight feels unique, challenging and genuinely fun, and Blackguards manages to actually fit into this category. This is due to a couple of well-thought-out design decisions.

First, let’s talk about the battle maps. There are no random encounters in this game - every fight is a set piece. This is pretty cool, since it ensures you won’t be getting any deja vus because of identical enemy compositions, and also makes each encounter unique in some way, even if it’s just different background art. But there's a lot more to it than that, and I have to say this is where Daedalic have managed to strike the bull’s-eye. Thanks to the maps being fully designed by hand, just about every single one of them has plenty of neat quirks and stuff to play around with, other than just hacking the enemy to pieces. There are environmental hazards to use and avoid, hidden traps, enemy “lairs” that need closing, and much, much more. Many of them are also fairly big, which allows for lots of maneuvering around their hex-grids. When maneuvering, characters essentially have two available actions per turn that can be spent on running one distance threshold (usually up to 3-5 hexes) and then executing an action, or running two distance thresholds. The size of the maps also lets you use ranged weapons to their fullest, as they have four thresholds of effective range, and penalties are given not only for extremely long, but also for very short range.

I simply have to applaud the developers for showing so much creativity when setting up the combat encounters. Which leads to the game's greatest strength:

The combat encounters are all incredibly pen-and-paper-like in their structure. A good gamemaster will always tell you that difficult fights are not just about sending hordes of enemies against the players, but also about giving each battle its own self-contained context. I’m incredibly glad that Daedalic understand this, as it's a design element that's criminally absent from many RPGs, including even the classic ones. There are tons of fights in Blackguards where the enemies themselves will be the least of your worries. Your party of 3 to 5 characters will need to perform desperate rushes under strict time limits, to split in the face of overwhelming odds to secure key objectives, to try to even the odds by manipulating the environment and luring enemies into traps (while trying to not step into a pitfall themselves), etc. Some of those set pieces are not just exciting and tense as hell, but also truly difficult, and you will often need to completely rethink your strategy to win...and even then you’ll still only manage to succeed with just one 5-health dude left. Allow me to illustrate with an example from chapter 2:

This battle is part of a whole series of encounters where your party doesn't have access to their proper gear, and the only source of supplies is a shop with a limited assortment of goods that don’t get refreshed, which means that your assets are seriously limited, and each potion, missile or trap you use genuinely counts. As for the fight itself – your party is composed of five characters (one of whom is “confused” and controlled by the AI) which are fanned out in front of a stationary NPC that you must protect. You are surrounded by six (or was it eight?) hungry crocs. In front of you is a row of spike traps. The crocs are set on not only murdering your heroes, but also the NPC, AND they are lured to two pressure platforms with meat – as the meat is eaten, the contraption on which the NPC is placed starts putting out spikes. Have fun! And this is but one example out of more than 180 fights promised in the full game.

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Felipe: I’d say it’s precisely Daedalic's adventure game background that allows for such fresh and unorthodox battle design, adding puzzle-like elements such as the previously mentioned crocodile trap, moving cranes, mazes and other such things to the game's battles. Hell, I had to capture a rampaging gorilla with a cage on a crane during a rather amusing side-quest. The inclusion of a gladiator arena in Chapter 2 seems tailor-made for allowing for more “creative” battlefields without clashing with the setting, and I was glad to see that Chapter 3 provided extra optional fights in the arena for even more challenging fun.

Roxor: Enemy variety is the third major advantage of the game's combat design. There is a good balance struck between fights where you are swarmed by foes of inferior quality (getting outnumbered is a real bitch), others where you face similar odds in terms of stats and gear, and sometimes a mix of the two. Beast or humanoid, the enemies also employ different tactics and and have different aces up their sleeves – animals will maul you with knockdowns and wounding strikes, humans often have various non-gentlemanly helpers such as special ammunition, poisons and potions. Some of these can be real pains in the arse. There are arrows and bolts made specifically to inflict wounds instead of high damage (wounds severely lower a character’s combat efficiency, up to three can be gained, and maxing on them usually turns a character into a walking prop), blunt ones that knock their targets down, poisons that lower stats and do damage over time, all sorts of special attacks that cause additional effects and damage, etc. It is not impossible to have a character who is effectively removed from combat because he keeps getting KO’d each turn by hammerhead arrows. The good thing is that all of these measures are also available to you, which provides a lot of flexibility when handling difficult fights.

Felipe: I would also note that although they are first-time RPG developers, Daedalic weren't afraid to add elements that even experienced developers are wary of employing today, such as skeletons being completely immune to piercing and slashing weapons, as well as some very challenging optional battle objectives that are currently being heavily bashed on the Steam forums. I do hope that they have the courage to keep them as they are.

Combat-wise, my only problem with the game is the absence of flanking rules. In The Dark Eye rules, characters can roll a parry check (once per turn) or a dodge check (at will) to evade attacks, and those checks are not influenced by the opponent's attack roll, so even a sword master can have trouble hitting a dodgy thief. The absence of flanking means that even an army of sword masters surrounding the dodgy thief will have a hard time hitting him. But, as Roxor said, there are poisons, wounds, talents and other resources meant to solve this problem.

Roxor: The only problems that I can cite here are AI-related. Sometimes, it's quite obvious that the enemies have been granted an unfairly pumped-up initiative stat. This is clearly meant to allow them the first move in a fight so that they can execute some scripted action. Although inelegant, I suppose one can turn a blind eye to this. A less forgivable issue is that sometimes enemies will act completely obliviously to their surroundings. It’s not uncommon for them to step over and over again into traps that have already been triggered, as well as other, clearly visible environmental hazards, which can lead to some rather amusing cases of abuse.

Felipe: Yeah, I also kited those crocodiles pretty hard. :3

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Exploration

Felipe: Daedalic may be a newcomer to the RPG genre, but they are not new to the game development business. Unlike so many indie and Kickstarter developers, who are so sure that they can create a complex RPG in a full blown 3D world with a couple thousand dollars, Daedalic decided to spend their resources more wisely when it came to the aspect of exploration.

There is no 3D free-roaming in Blackguards; outside combat the game plays like a western Final Fantasy Tactics. There’s a world map from which you can travel to cities and other points of interest that you uncover. Cities are no more than animated screens, where you can click on various icons to shop at merchants and blacksmiths, heal your party, rest at inns, learn skills from trainers and talk to rare NPCs for quest dialogs, sometimes uncovering side-quests or hints about the future. There are no random encounters, and dungeons are no more than a simple map with a branching path leading to various areas that you can visit (and do battle in). While this certainly gives the game a feeling of linearity - and most of the time it is pretty linear - Blackguards does have its fair share of side-quests and optional battles.

Roxor: It’s good that Daedalic found a way to cut corners without it being terribly jarring, but, personally, each time I entered a dungeon or arrived at a quest location, I wished there was just a tiny bit more presentation to them. At first, you sometimes get totally confused about what is happening when you move from point A to point B and suddenly something strange happens that immediately puts you in combat, although after a while you just start expecting each “waypoint” to end in a fight. There is one dungeon in Chapter 1 that is composed of a bunch of static screens like the towns, and I think it would be very cool if all the other ones were like that too.

Felipe: Chapter 1 plays more like an introduction to the game, while Chapter 2 is basically a very linear (and somewhat short) test of your skills, but when you reach Chapter 3 you gain full access to most of the world map, and a more ambitious scope starts shining through. Various side-quests appear, some straightforward, others offering simple but interesting choices and consequences, and some clearly intended to challenge even the most experienced players. Although there’s a quest compass indicating where to go on most quests, there are various hidden secrets, such as a mysterious goblin key and the seven pieces of a legendary spear. This is no Baldur's Gate, but there’s a clear effort to provide more than just a linear experience.

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Presentation

Roxor: When it comes to the technical aspects of the game, you’ll very much know what to expect if you've ever played any other Daedalic game before, to the point where you'll probably be thinking "same old, same old" as you play.

All the dialogues have voice-overs, and while they are delivered fairly well, the English translation has once again been handled by the same company that localized all the other entries in Daedalic's catalogue, so be prepared to hear some deja vus when it comes to voice actors. The same can be said for the music, which is also supplied in all games by the same company, and works the same way in each one as well. Personally, I thought it wasn't very memorable, but it did a good enough job of setting the mood for all the scenes. There are tribal drums in swampy areas, gloomy trombones when stuff gets dangerously serious, etc.

The graphics engine is definitely a whole new deal for Daedalic – they've always worked with 2D adventure games, but Blackguards uses Unity3D. Yet their artists have still managed to cling to their 2D experience somewhat, as the cities are basically just single animated screens, and the combat maps are top-down and zoomable, but not rotatable.

In judging the game's graphics, one must clearly distinguish between engine and art direction. As expected, the art direction is very solid, and once again Daedalic's artists show that they are damn talented, especially considering the engine they had to work with – gear is well-detailed, character models look alright, icons and portraits are great (especially the portraits, of which there are plenty of different ones for characters of the same type), and The Dark Eye fantasy editions of Arabia, Spain and Italy have all retained their proper looks and assets.

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It’s just a shame that the graphics engine itself shows many cut corners, no doubt for budgetary reasons (although I honestly couldn't give a damn about most of them in the context of how good the whole package is). While shadows and lighting are often cleverly used to hide some of the imperfections, every now and then a really ugly low-resolution texture attacks your eyes, especially during zooms and cutscenes. The game's overuse of bloom on shiny surfaces is also rather unfortunate.

Stability-wise, there are still some minor things that need ironing out, as well as a few placeholder/incomplete assets that need to be properly implemented – especially the equipment statistics, which have been completely confusing and a total mess ever since the beta started. The game's overall stability has been much improved, though, and when playing through the first chapter on early access, I only had one crash, and one nasty (very, very nasty) bug that required restarting the game.

Felipe: I’m happy to say that I experienced no crashes whatsoever with the Early Access build, but, on the other hand, I am disappointed with how they are currently displaying weapon and armor stats. The Dark Eye does have a complex system that can confuse newcomers, but hiding the items' actual stats in favor of a “your stats will be this with that equipped” type of display is the bad kind of hand-holding that never lets go, that never teaches you the rules, and worst of all, makes them confusing for those that actually know them.

The game's lack of documentation actually motivated me to write a rules guide for the game's Steam Community Hub, but there are still things - such as the individual Armor Resistances - that play an important role, yet I can only guess how they work, since there’s absolutely no information about them either in-game or in the manual. It’s a simple issue, but a very annoying one, and I hope Daedalic fix it soon.

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Conclusions

Roxor: Blackguards surprised me many times when I played it. In fact, the game was the complete opposite of what I expected – I assumed it would have been at best an RPG-lite, more of an adventure game with stats, with plenty of dialogue, puzzle-solving and a very advanced narrative. Instead, the combat system turned out to be great, but the narrative part disappointed me, or at least the parts of the narrative that I saw. The main plot seems to be an unexciting mess, the way it progresses makes little sense, and the whole “bunch of criminals” aspect is underplayed.

Felipe: True, it strikes me as odd how the game is constantly being marketed as a “dark story”, in which you play as a convicted murder, testing your moral compass and all that. The first 10 minutes of the game have you being unjustly arrested, and after a short while your group of fugitives is acting just like any other RPG party, helping out random people, and even attacking slavers without any really good reason besides “slavers are bad”. Some of your party members (especially Takate) seem to have no reason to even follow you other than the fact that you’re the main character in a game.

Roxor: This is a shame, because at this point in development “fixing” any combat and mechanics flaws is the only possible thing Daedalic can do, as the narrative is pretty much set in stone. But to be honest? I don’t care. I swear, I haven’t had this much fun whacking enemies in turn-based combat since Knights of the Chalice, and while it would obviously be ideal for this RPG to cover all the bases, I’d much rather see one with a combat system that actually puts some classics to shame while sacrificing the story, than another drop in the ocean of pseudo-choice oriented storyfag LARP simulators.

Felipe: Same here. However, the game does hint at a darker, larger scheme in the background, and I would be very impressed and forced to swallow my words if they manage to execute it well in the end. I do fear that the long and linear story might diminish the game's replay value, and I would have certainly preferred a game where I could create my own party and explore different paths, but in the end, this is still quite an impressive title.

Overall, it's amusing that after all those RPG veterans on Kickstarter promised a return to old-school RPGs and all that over a year ago, in the end it's only in a semi-obscure title, from a company that has only made adventure games, that I find a good hardcore old-school turn-based RPG experience.

Roxor: Amen.

You can preorder Blackguards on Steam Early Access.

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