Reviewed On: PC
Confession time: despite it sitting in my library for nigh on a year I never played the original Blackguards, leaving me to head into this sequel with no expectations and a mild case of trepidation. Luckily for me while this sequel does have ties to its predecessor, namely in a few returning characters, knowledge of the previous Blackguards isn’t required here.
It’s good to be bad, as the saying goes, something which you’ll discover playing as Cassia, a woman dumped into a dungeon by her malicious husband Marwen and then driven mad by the venom of huge spiders. Presumably thanks to an idiotic architect who didn’t understand the concept of a prison properly she wanders through the labyrinth she was hurled into beneath an arena and eventually stumbles upon the exit a mere 5-years after her imprisonment. The mere existence of the exit sets the stage for a story that’s enjoyable, but a bit rough around the edges. More than a little angry she does what any sensible person would do and declares war, intending on not only getting revenge on her husband but also claiming the throne in the process. For this task she’ll naturally need some help, which she gets in the form of a group of morally questionable comrades and plenty of mercenaries looking for work.
It’s not often we get to play as the bad guy, so Blackguards 2 immediately earns itself some free kudos for taking the more interesting approach. Cassia is bonkers, there’s no way around that, and in camp you even have the option to have her speak to herself, the resulting conversations usually falling into either the amusing box or the downright creepy box, or both at the same time. On her path to vengeance she’s going to spill a lot of blood, and along the way you’ll be given chances to prod her personality in slightly different directions. That’s not to say you can turn her into a Disney Princess, but you can pick just how cruel and evil she acts, opting to hang people rather than just let them go, for example. Likewise her companions are a seedy bunch all ably voice acted, if slightly too over the top at times. There’s a testy dwarf by the name of Naurim who has lost his fortune in gold; Zurbaran, a slave who Cassia purchases, and Takate, who was a gladiator. It’s just a shame that neither the overarching plot nor the dialogue manager to ever make full use of the characters and their fun personalities, partially because it never really commits to painting these people as true villains. Instead you can feel that the writers have attempted to mix in more traditional roguish elements to keep them likable. It works, but it would have been far more interesting to see the writers let loose.
Overall the narrative just fails to get a hold on the player and captivate. The details surrounding why you’re doing things are rarely ever explained, leaving you to question how events are linked or why certain things have taken place. It’s like there’s entire chunks of the tale missing, and that’s jarring. Thankfully the characters manage to somewhat balance this out. You might not care about the plot, but you’ll stick around to find out more about Cassia’s companions.
Combat is what you’ll spend much of your time locked in and is a turn-based affair with a hex-grid system used for getting around. A character’s possible movement is clearly highlighted using two colors: one is for the absolute maximum distance that character can travel in a single turn, and the other indicates how far they can move while still also performing another action, like hitting someone in the face with a sword or setting fire to whomever is unlucky enough to be in the way. This distance where you can move as well as perform an action is usually about half of what a character can travel in a single turn, so heavy emphasis is placed on positioning your party so you can anticipate the enemy. You can also opt to simply end your character’s turn, make them wait until later in the turn or order them to take cover which provides a defensive bonus, but also limits what they can do next turn. If standard attacks don’t cut the mustard then there’s often boxes than can be toppled, puddles of oil to set fire to or chandeliers that can be dropped, though you’ll have to deal with the fact that the game doesn’t show you where these traps will hit exactly, so don’t be shocked if you either miss the enemy soldiers entirely or even end up killing your own troops with a hefty light fixture. Being able to hold down a key to be shown where a specific trap will hit would have been handy. If traps don’t do it for you there’s always the occasional treasure chest to grab, or other things to do, like pull levers to free prisoners or spin wheels to lower bridges.
The game tries to mix things up with different styles of mission. Sometimes you simply have to reach a certain area on the map successfully to end the mission, perhaps while freeing trapped mercenaries along the way. Strangely enough these missions actively encourage you to avoid combat as enemies tend to have an infinite amount of reinforcements and you can become bogged down quickly, so its best just to make a run for it. Other times it’s a straight-up kill everything mission, but even then some interesting elements get introduced, like having the option to try to lower a bridge or two in order to bring in more of your own troops.
Through the sheer amount of skills and spells at your disposal combat actually has surprising depth to it. You can, for example, cast a spell that raises a solid barrier across a path in order to funnel troops into the perfect kill area, where an explosive fireball could deal major damage. Environments tend to be open enough to allow for some decent maneuvering, and careful thought must be given over to each and every move. Some things feel like they are missing; there’s no bonus for flanking an enemy, for example, but as you progress and more options become available combat comes into its own, creating quite a satisfying system, though clumsy movement animations and weak look attacks take some of the shine away. It does hit its stride eventually, but takes too long to get there. The opening hours really hurt as the developers fail to showcase combat correctly, forcing you to grind through tedious battle after battle using characters whose attacks barely seem able to dent the wings of a fly. In this initial stint there’s not much tactical depth on offer, so you just grind away, whacking enemies over and over until they fall down and you can do it all again.
It has bigger problems, too. The slow pace of combat is fine, after all it is a turn-based system, but it doesn’t take long for it to start dragging as you spend the vast majority of the 20-hour runtime commanding your heroes around maps. Larger encounters with loads of enemies means having to impatiently watch as a legion of foes slowly go through their turns, and just mere hours in you’ll be wondering why nobody included a fast-forward button, or even a method of skipping having to watch enemy movement entirely.
The enemy AI is a strange mix of intelligent behavior and outright bloody stupidity. Sometimes the enemy will smartly stay in cover, or position themselves well on the battlefield. They may perfectly time a break for a level which unleashes a monster menace And yet at other times soldiers will blindly charge into fire or poison, and in many cases died as a direct result of their actions. Other times they’ll box themselves into corners, or barely react to clearly being surrounded. The game makes up for this inconsistency by sheer numbers or by tossing in a couple of very powerful damage sponges, both facts which contribute to combat often feeling too slow. Smarter enemies that don’t require simply sheer numbers would be far more satisfying.
As you would rather expect the camera can be tilted to give you a slightly better view of the action, but strangely that’s about it for camera manipulation. You can skim around the battlefield with the WASD keys or by using the mouse, but you can’t zoom in or out, nor can you rotate the camera. This gives rise to frustrating little moments where you can’t quite select a hexagon properly because something is in the way, and the distance the camera sat from the battlefield never truly felt right, at least for me. More camera control would be a huge improvement.
There’s a bounty of things to tinker with when it comes to levelling up characters and playing with stats, aided by plenty of lovely numbers representing just about every aspect of your heroes. Action Points can be spent on buying and improving basic weapon skills, spells, a variety of special abilities and more. A nice touch is that a slider under each main weapon skill can be adjusted toward either offense or defense. You can improve standard stuff like health, Astral Energy for casting spells and endurance, plus bump up skill with armor, dual wielding and dodging attacks, and heaps more to boot, such as getting in a free strike on passing foes. It’s an impressive roster of stuff to play with, and incredibly daunting at first. Take heed and really consider the path you want each of your primary characters to take as a lack of planning early on can really hurt you due to the sheer amount of choice, especially since there’s a good bit of freedom with Cassia, who can learn spells, fire arrows and tackle enemies in mellee. This is of course all on top of decking our your characters with armor and weapons earned after battles, with bonus gear awarded for opening chests and killing messengers.
Between battles you’re presented with a world map where you choose which objective to chase next, conquering towns, mines and assorted other locations as you go. Each location tends to offer things like upgrades to your company of mercenaries who can be taken along on certain battles. After three “turns” the enemy will attempt to retake one of the areas you’ve captured, and during these battles you can only select members of your mercenary company, unless any of your four “heroes” happen to be stationed in the area. You’ll also get to place down defensive items that can help repel the attackers, which brings a minor extra element of thought to the combat. There’s not much to say here past this, which in a sense says quite a bit. Moving around the map is an interesting addition, but there’s not enough done with it to make it anything but vaguely interesting. You move from place to place with little thought really needed. Between fights you can chill out at either your camp or any of the towns you’ve captured, giving you the option to purchase new equipment from the local merchants and get potions brewed.
New areas and other things can be discovered via the fine old art of torture, though. Cassia will capture many prisoners along the way, and by visiting the cages you can try to get information from them. Interrogation is a simple case of listening to what they say, and countering with threats, offers or kindness, depending on what you think will work best. Here we see a flash of Blackguards truly committing to the idea of being the bad guys, and it’s actually quite cool. Don’t worry, it’s never overly graphic, but there’s a strange satisfaction from breaking a prisoner for handy intel, and then acting on it.
Technical hiccups were present, with some moments of serious framerate drops, sometimes all the way down to 20 or below, hardly expected in a game that really isn’t very demanding to begin with. Other users have reported crashing and such, but this didn’t affect me for whatever reason, presumably just due to my mix of hardware. had issues with getting the controls to respond on occasion, leaving me clicking on a tile to move to several times. Not a huge problem, but annoying nonetheless. In the same vein there were some problems selecting enemies for attack or selecting a specific square to move to, leaving you to slowly circle the mouse around to get the damn game to register your desire, a problem which the aforementioned camera didn’t help.
Let’s get into the game’s audio and visuals elements, which are pretty mixed in terms of quality. The game can frequently look rather pretty, as you can likely see from the screenshots scattered throughout this review, and there are moments of lovely lighting, but from an artistic standpoint it’s pretty standard fare. In movement the game look far less impressive, though. Characters trundle around with stiffness to their animations, and are clearly moving along the hex system rather than moving through a real world, creating a disconnect. Some spells look pretty cool, but many of the animations that unleash them don’t, likewise attacks from melee characters often look and sound weak. The voice acting is actually quite good and the musical score is solid, but battlefield audio is weak. It all adds up to a rough presentation.
Blackguards 2 struggle to get up to speed, casting a bad light on its combat in the opening hours by making you feel ineffective, tactically limited and slow. Once it finally gets up to speed, though, it’s actually a very enjoyable turn-based RPG with combat that remains badly paced but with enough depth to get you hooked, and plenty of scope for building up your heroes. Not an essential title, but worth considering.
+ Combat gets good later on.
+ Playing as the bad guys.
+ Lots of customisation.
– Slow opening hours.
– Story is sort of meh.
The Score: 3.5/5 Good, bordering on being great.
Flawed it may be, Blackguards 2 is still worth a play. The slow combat can drag if you spend too much time with the game, but it’s still quite satisfying when played in moderation.