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RPG Codex Preview: Blackguards 2
Preview - posted by Grunker on Thu 11 December 2014, 23:24:35Tags: Blackguards 2; Daedalic Entertainment; The Dark Eye
or, Another Day in the Life of a Disgruntled Grognard
Preview written by Darth Roxor
Edited by Grunker
I believe it is safe to say that Blackguards, Daedalic Entertainment's first RPG, surprised everyone when it came out this year. Even those who didn't like it. Instead of the larpy shovelware RPG-lite that most people expected, we got a solid, tacticool game with lots of dicerolling, interesting combat setpieces and a modestly complex character system. However, some people were not particularly happy about these things, and so they kept whining to the high heavens about “vicious randomness”, “confusing stats” and “unforgiving difficulty”. These particular people wanted the game to adapt to their... special needs and tastes. As if they didn’t have dozens of streamlined games at their disposal already.
Nevertheless, Blackguards must have proven to be profitable enough because Daedalic announced a sequel. There were a few suspicious things about it, starting with the expected release date of early 2015 – just a year after Blackguards – and the sudden promises of streamlining, both of which smelled awfully much like a slamdunk. However, both of these factors could be reasonably handwaved away: Daedalic wanted to re-use just about all the assets of BG1 (a very wise move) to cut down on development time, and, admittedly, the first game was rather clunky at times, so it could use some “quality of life” changes.
As you may remember, I first saw the game at Gamescom in August, and my impressions back then were largely positive. It looked, sounded and played like Blackguards, so it had to be just like Blackguards, right?
The Story So Far
Blackguards 2 follows the character of Cassia of Tenos, the consort of Marwan, slave trader and emir of Mengbilla. For reasons unknown, she is seized by Marwan's men one night and thrown into a dungeon, beneath the Mengbillan arena, at the time of the battle of the Nine Hordes. There, she spends four years trying to get out, finding her only companions in corapias, spiders that inhabit the dungeon, and a book written by the local equivalent of Machiavelli. The spiders' venom is highly toxic, both to the mind and to the body, and soon enough, Cassia goes very obviously insane. Her face is covered in bloated pustules, and her mind is riddled with illusions of grandeur taken from the book. One day, she finally manages to escape the dungeon. After that, she sees but one goal in her life: she needs to rule Mengbilla. To do this, she gains the trust of the companions from the first game – Naurim, Takate and Zurbaran – and commandeers a mercenary company known as the Silent Legion. The protagonist of Blackguards 1 is nowhere to be found, and is not even mentioned anywhere.
Why does Cassia do all this? Because she's completely crazy. The above paragraph gives only the gist of the plot, but I think the game's story could turn out to be one of its strongest points thanks to having Cassia at its centre. She is driven to rule, but she doesn't even know why. When asked about her goal, she says outright that it's not vengeance, and instead, she simply keeps repeating that “there is no why” (which unfortunately can also be seen as a morbid meta-commentary regarding a few of my own questions later in this article...). A lot of Cassia's actions and motivations are recurring, and they have a very clear basis in the years she spent in the labyrinth. Also, from the looks of it, there might be some sort of a hidden ‘sanity’ meter that adjusts itself according to your actions – whether you keep playing into the machiavellian desires of power, or try to grasp at shreds of your past self. Daedalic have promised lots of reactivity to be added into the game, and I think this will be one of its central themes. I haven’t seen any consequences to back this theory of mine as of yet though, but it really does look promising.
The general storyline formula is completely different now as well. Where in Blackguards you were more or less railroaded by a chapter structure with specific main quests, Blackguards 2 sends you on a conquest tour of Mengbilla. If you want to access any node on the map, you will have to take it from Marwan's soldiers first. Eventually, you will set up some forks leading you into various parts of the map, the loyalists will try to retake their lost cities, and every now and again you will run into some specific encounter or information that will drive the overarching storyline forward.
This is not a bad system, because it gives you some needed degree of management and choice. You can proceed as you will across the map, ignoring some critical plot points until you feel strong enough to steamroll them, you can take minor locations on the way to the big cities to get advantages (upgrades to mercenaries, information), you can look for quests in newly-taken towns, etc. You can also spend your hard-earned gold at a beggar spy to get tactical data concerning people and places, although, from what I’ve seen, these are mostly flavour and don’t really influence anything directly.
Speaking of tactical data, I really like the game's new journal. Everything you learn about all sorts of things is now added to a cool comprehensive compendium that you can expand and study to get a better understanding of local politics and the big fish.
You also get to manage your own little travelling circus. Apart from typical activities like talking to everyone in your base camp, you are faced with decision-making as well. The mercenaries will want to plunder a conquered town, which will net you additional gold, but hit your reputation. You can capture enemies and interrogate them in various ways to fish out info, but should you let them go afterwards or hang 'em high? Supposedly, all of these things carry long-term consequences, but, again, the preview version I played was too short to see any of them in action.
Breaking the law
With the cool stuff out of the way, we can now focus on what sucks, starting with the character system. In all the previews, it has been mentioned that Daedalic have taken certain "liberties" with The Dark Eye system, in order to make it "less confusing", but purportedly just as complex and open to choice, regarding character building and combat. Suffice it to say, adventure game developers should probably not try to completely overhaul established PnP mechanics.
For starters, all the base values from Blackguards have been completely removed. To make matters worse, nothing has been put into the system as any sort of substitute. Character-inherent magic resistance no longer exists, special abilities no longer have any attribute requirements (sans stuff like "max bows or crossbows to get master archer"), and most of the derived stats like initiative or speed have been redistributed across talents.
Talents also had an overhaul. Most of the useless ones like Treat Wounds got ditched, Survival and Streetwise got merged into Warcraft, and the original Warcraft was split into different lores. You now have 8 talents in total: Willpower and Body Control (same as the original), Warcraft (loot gained, initiative and speed bonuses), Perception and Traps (also the same), and Human/Animal/Arcane Lore (gain knowledge of enemy human/animal/magical entity’s stats).
The special attack selection has remained the same (albeit it with different numbers on each ability, including Hammer Blow, which now eats away a large chunk of Endurance for a whopping +10 damage...), except for the addition of ranged overwatch. For the most part, this remains true for the selection of other special abilities as well. The only new things here are buffs to the newly added Endurance stat, some feats that let you cast spells in metal armour and a row of three “+10HP” options.
Weapon talents have been slightly changed as well. Instead of going from 0 to 20, they now scale from 0 to 100, with 4 tiers (at 0, 50, 80 and 100) that give varying degrees of initiative, damage and crit chance bonuses.
Finally, the spell selection. This is probably the only part of the character system that I would call an improvement overall, because many of the spell values and effects got re-adjusted. Witch Spit now replenishes Endurance, making it slightly more useful. Fireball does considerably more damage. Move as the Lightning is much less broken, etc. Apart from this, the spell selection is identical. Characters get many more astral points at the start, too – Cassia starts with 40 – so you don’t have to off-spec immediately into a ranged weapon to stay relevant.
Simply put, the sum of all of these changes simply suck. Why? Because, due to the void left behind by the removal of base values, you have considerably less options to choose from, and raising your character's stats now becomes a complete no-brainer. While in the previous game, you had to think hard about planning your advancements, considering stat requirements and choosing between raising a costly attribute or getting a new ability, in Blackguards 2 you just pick everything that you need immediately. Only mages are left with some degree of choice because of the spell selection. Fighters, however, just pump one weapon skill, pick a few special abilities, two talents and are good to go, no questions asked. This is further combined with the general XP costs of advancements staying more or less the same as in the previous game, on top of additional XP rewards to boot. To put this into perspective, after playing for about four hours, I think Naurim and Takate reached power levels similar to their alter egos in Blackguards 1, from around the start of chapter 3. I may be exaggerating just a bit, but this is due to the fact that it is actually very hard to even measure a character's growth and power level in Blackguards 2, simply because everything is just so... samey. Just about the only difference you will note between improving Takate and Naurim in this game, is that one will have the Power Attack tree, while the other will have Feint & friends.
Reading through all this, you might also wonder, ‘wait, where are my to hit chances, dodges, encumbrances and stuff?’ The simple fact of the matter is that... they aren't there. Sort of. Kinda. Because by trying to make their system 'less confusing', Daedalic have put everything ass-backwards. All to hit chances have been fused into 'Offence' (God knows what that is and what calculations go on behind that term) and all the dodges and parries are merged into 'Defence', ditto. I *think* it works on the basic principle that you have a 100% thc (more on this later), do some calculation of Offence minus Defence and apply the result to the 100% to get a chance to break a parry/dodge. But the point is, those big categories ultimately say nothing, and it’s even more frustrating when you realise that parry and dodge actually do have different scores, but you can’t check them anywhere due to the Defence moniker. Is dodge on top of that score? Is it shared with parry? What?
Some of the derived stats really were put to the axe, though. Like encumbrance and magic resistance. Mres is now just percentage damage reduction derived only from armour, while encumbrance doesn’t exist in any way. This is also annoying, and further removes choice and consequence from character building – just pile the bulkiest armour you can find on everyone and call it a day. Mobility penalties? What mobility penalties?
And speaking of armour, it looks to me like the item selection is for the most part recycled from Blackguards 1, but with a few changes and additions. There are more armour sets now, a few new ones altogether, while utility items like potions and poisons are dropped more frequently. Like I said before, armour no longer has any encumbrance values (just flat penalties if you lack the appropriate armour talent). It also doesn't have flat damage reduction from an armour rating, only resistance percentages.
When it comes to the main character, there is no 'character generation' per se. Cassia simply starts with access to all skills and spells from the get-go. All of these you can start learning right after the prologue. Did I mention less planning involved and everyone being identical? Also, Daedalic once again demonstrate that they hate archer companions, so I really can't help but feel that making Cassia an archer with a handful of spells is the best course of action you can take.
The final addition to the character system is Endurance. There’s nothing much to say about it other than "it’s mana that powers special attacks." I had enough of it to last me through any of the fights that I played without trouble, but I suppose it does limit the Death Blow spam a little.
The "adjustments" to TDE™ that were introduced into the character system are bad enough, but you will only fully realise just how bad they are once you finally go into combat. That is where I feel Blackguards 2 drops the ball entirely.
As I said before, you might now be wondering how spell failures and to hit chances work in this system, since it got rid of base values. Well, here’s the bummer: they simply don't exist.
That's right. Read it again. Not there. Your spells will always work and your attacks will almost always hit.
Magic has been overhauled completely so as not to frighten the frail people who keep whining about the random number generator. There is now absolutely no risk involved when casting spells – because characters have no magic resistance, they have no way of evading spells, and your only countermeasure for magic is the Willpower talent, which only reduces the duration of curses by 1 turn, making it downright useless as far as anti-magic is concerned. Simply put, magic in Blackguards 2 has been elevated to the status of Godhood. More astral points mean you can cast more often. Unified XP costs for all spells means less decision making. All spells being available from the start means less planning. Auto-success on casting means risk-managing has been thrown out of the window. You are no longer forced to choose between a nearly-guaranteed weaker spell that can pull you through just one turn, or a global freeze that will debuff everything on the map for a longer time, but which has only 60% chance to succeed. Again, like with many other aspects of the game, it's a no-brainer – just stick to your biggest guns and keep using them each turn.
A similar change, and one no less popamole, has crept into physical combat. Whereas before, every character had one parry + unlimited dodges per round (which meant you always had to roll to hit), now everything has only 1 parry and 1 dodge. After a character has spent both, all attacks hit it automatically. Why this has been even implemented is completely beyond me because not only does it suffer from the same problems as the new magic system – no risk management, hardly any decision making – it also enables a stupid tactic that Daedalic have always spoken against, which is bumrushing an enemy with multiple dudes. They kept mentioning time and time again that this is why they aren't implementing flanking. So for God’s sake, why introduce something even more exploitable in the same regard? As it is now, you can simply hit a high-value target twice with two sucky characters first, and then proceed with the administration of lethal punishment with everyone else.
Doing the above is even easier than you might think if you look back on Blackguards 1, because in Blackguards 2, you always have an ample amount of cannon fodder at your disposal. When you start any fight, you get to choose from a pool of mercenaries that you can deploy. These fellows come with no strings attached – no cost, no consequence for dying – and get better as you conquer more lands. All battles have set limits on how many characters you can deploy (sometimes this includes main characters as well), but some grand slaughterfests will allow you to add up to nine mercs.
All of the above aspects converge into Blackguards 2's ultimate flaw. This simply isn’t a roleplaying game to me anymore. It's a "game with RPG elements™". Daedalic have stripped the game of almost all the randomness that is vital to the RPG experience. When your attacks always hit, your spells are always cast and your attacks even always hit for the same frikkin' damage – yup, fixed damage values, weapons no longer have damage ranges – you just have to ask: where does the character skill enter the picture? Literally everything you do here is influenced only by player skill. You simply look at the map, invent a plan of action from first to last step and carry it out without worrying about something not working. Panzer General was more of an RPG than this! And why? Because there were some people who whined about the random number generator. The same people who will probably not even bother to play this game, or who will quit in boredom before even leaving the prologue.
All of this is worsened because the removal of randomness kills any sort of tension and difficulty completely. When everything you do succeeds, you become complacent. When you become complacent, you stop caring. When you stop caring, the game starts sucking. There is nothing fun about steamrolling every combat setpiece because you’ve hatched an infallible master plan right at the start. There is also nothing fun about even seemingly "elite" enemies becoming pushovers after they get their defenses completely stripped by the meager attacks of two cannon fodder mercs. You are even auto-healed completely after every battle (although whether this is also true for multiple sequences of fights remains to be seen because I haven’t seen any), and even the protagonist keeps regenerating a small amount of HP every turn. Why? For fuck’s sake, WHY?!
Finally, one would at least hope that something could still be salvaged from this game thanks to proper encounter design. NOPE! From what I’ve seen, the fights in Blackguards 2 are pretty shitty as well. The preview version I played was to be "around 6 to 8 hours long" with 16-20 battles. I’m pretty sure I played all the battles I could find before seeing the 'this concludes the preview!' screen, and it took me about four hours. Not a lot to be sure, but I think it still managed to give me a good enough view of the situation.
After those same four hours in Blackguards 1, I’d already get pounded into the ground by the baroness rescue mission, I’d also have at least some trouble against the bayliff's men and perhaps even against the swamp troll. None of the fights in Blackguards 2 made me even break a sweat, and all of them ranged from pushovers, through snorefests, to massive timewasters. Some highlights include:
1. The entire prologue. The person that designed the prologue should get flogged. It's composed entirely of running around big empty maps with one character, pushing levers that open doors and fighting off the occasional spider that dies in one hit. Then it puts two of your characters in an "arena", where they get attacked by a few incoming duos of swamp apes and finally a jungle tiger. As you can imagine, this prologue is exciting as hell.
2. Once you finally get all four heroes, you have to run away from Naurim's underground treasure vault. You do this by beelining from one end of an unnecessarily huge map to the other, picking up a few treasure chests along the way. You are also being chased by 12 or so bounty hunters that keep swarming the place and taking their sweet time to use up all their turns. This is, essentially, lice maze 2.0 [a legendarily long encounter drawn out by the walking animation of a thousand crypt lice, ed.].
3. A fight where you have to larp Abraham Lincoln and free the slaves. They are placed in three or four cages that you need to open one-by-one, and then evac the prisoners to a safe zone. All the while, you have to fight off an ever-resurrecting tide of 4 guards. This is like one of the tutorial battles in Blackguards 1, just much more annoying, and much longer.
Everything else was just a banal and boring set of generic skirmishes against generic soldiers. One fight had a wizard that kept spamming fireballs every turn. And that's just about all there was to the preview.
With such excellent design, you don't even care about some of the additions to the maps, like lootable chests that are now more prevalent, or environmental hazards that you can use to your advantage. There is no sense of achievement in reclaiming a chest when you just have to take a single merc away a few steps to take it. There is also hardly any reason to use mechanical contraptions to drop cranes on your foes when all you need is enough battle brothers on the ground so that you may crush the enemy under your boot heels and destroy them with your bolters. That is what matters, space marine.
The game is obviously still unfinished, so I won't be going into that many specifics, but some things are already certain.
As promised, the UI has been decently cleaned up and supplemented with a few very useful features, such as a line of sight indicator for archery, a better character status bar and the ability to set up your party in a formation before starting a fight.
One feature that would make life much easier hasn't been added, though. I am talking, of course, about an animation speed slider, and I'd say the game is in desperate need of it. The battle maps of Blackguards 2 are considerably bigger and more populated than those of its predecessor, so being forced to always sit through the animations of twelve bounty hunters that move back and forth in front of a blocked chokepoint is not very fun to do.
Pretty much all the audiovisual assets, including music and character models, are recycled from the previous game, and towns are once again just 2D backdrops with icons. The overall graphical presentation has been improved a lot, however. The battle maps are considerably more detailed, and the game no longer abuses bloom to shoddily hide graphical imperfections. I also really dig the new cutscenes and loading screens. The cutscenes are made of brown artworks that remind me of Thief, while the loading screens are sketches coupled with narration (usually briefing/debriefing) that evoke a strong association with Myth. It's just painful that many of these loading screens are annoyingly long, particularly the ones before entering conquered settlements, but, well, it's still beta.
The final thing I should probably mention here is that I played two versions of the preview. The first was the severely limited one that I finished in some four hours. However, right after I'd finished, steam updated it with a "major content update" that was meant to unlock nearly half the full game. Just a shame I never got around to playing it because the update nuked my saves, and when I tried to replay it, the new build proved to be so unstable that I experienced freezes after ending literally every fight past the prologue, which quite honestly made the game unplayable.
Only dead fish go with the stream
I really wish I could stop ending articles with the same old, tired mantra of "I don’t know what happened, but [sequel of x] has screwed up everything it could." Because this is exactly how I feel about Blackguards 2.
I feel disappointed, but I also feel somewhat cheated. When the previews and showcases (Gamescom included) showed this game and talked about "streamlining" and "ironing out pointless mechanics," I felt certain that this time it was for a good cause. Did it need some UI streamlining? It sure did. Did it need readjustments when it came to raising Dexterity on melee fighters just to get Death Blow? No doubt about it. Did it need to remove all randomness in favour of instant gratification? It most certainly did not. And seeing as there is just over a month till release, it seems fruitless to hope that any of these terrible changes will be revoked. Especially since most of them concern the very basic design principles of the game. For this reason, the game seems rotten to its core.
In the end, I have to ask this question: what was this for? Why was this done?
The answer is obvious, but I still kind of refuse to believe it. It has been done to "broaden the audience" and appease the casuals, simple as. It becomes even more apparent once you check Daedalic's recently published video previews of the game. Open a bottle of booze and take a shot each time the word "streamlining" or a derivative/synonym thereof, like a desperate cry of "please buy our game, this time it’s AAAwesome!" Satisfaction guaranteed. After that, look at the bottle and realise that Daedalic drank from the Popamole Kool-Aid and forgot to check its warning label.