Blackguards is a classical western roleplaying game developed and published by Daedalic Entertainment. Along with Dragon Age and others, it comes at a time where the RPG genre is undergoing a mild renaissance, as people clamouring for a revisit to the long-languishing genre have supported a re-emerging industry in the field. So does Blackguards deliver on that classic RPG promise? Well, yes, it does, but this is a kind of warts and all revisit, as it has a lot of the foibles that one may recall with the genre.
Blackguards opens with its strongest asset -
a well-written if somewhat generic story with good character writing
The game opens with the player character, whom you can customise with a middling amount of different options, accused of a murder, with whether you did it or not left rather ambiguous. You are jailed, and the two individuals whom help you break out are the first two companions and they present some of the strongest part of the game. The premise of the game is to have a world to whom the criminals or antagonists are the ones that have to save it, and the character interactions that help flesh out those personalities are the strong point of the game. They all are pretty interesting, and pretty decently-written. There are definitely some characters whom are better than others, but there wasn't a single one that I hated, just some I definitely liked better than the others, but they're all pretty decent.
The art design, sound, and general production values are great
I was quite impressed with the look and feel of Blackguards, especially considering its modest budget. It really could pass for a AAA console game in terms of the production values, in particular the art - it looks very stylish, but the texture quality in the 3D segments of the game is a bit lower resolution. Nonetheless, it looks good, is presented well, and is pretty slick as a result. The voice acting is pretty solid (though a bit reliant on stereotypical accents) and the sound design is decent as well. So all in all, it looks great.
Probably one of the things I noticed was the kind of graphics style of the 3D segments was that the style in which they presented. One of the things that many forget is the style and flair of models themselves can be part of the art design, and they seem to have taken some careful attention to how the models will look at the various actual views they will be seen at. It's something of a pet peeve of mine when a game wastes good potential with high-res textures on the one femtometre of a a mostly never-seen model, whereas what you see surrounding yourself is low res. There's some craft and care in how things look taken here, and I think it especially shows here.
Character progression comes at a good clip,
but the combat waters down that pace to almost nothing
It's easy to understate how much of a problem it is for Blackguards that the combat bogs things down as much as it does, because it really is such a fundamental problem for a game basing so much of it's content around it. The combat in the game is the connective tissue between the different hub areas and through the quests, and so much of it feels so slow. This is somewhat endemic to turn-based games, but most turn-based games have some manner of automation and base assumptions to different combat behaviours available, to expedite the process through each turn, and Blackguards marries a lack of that, with a radial menu that often requires several clicks to navigate. Spells are one of the more egregious examples: click the character to bring up the menu, click the appropriate spell school, then the spell, then select the target for the spell. It's ponderous. Then once you start getting a larger party, you need to do this for every turn, with every character, and then wait through the entire enemy's turn as well.
I don't normally mind the pace of turn-based games like that, but Blackguards is particularly egregious in that fashion. Whereas games like X-Com or Heroes of Might and Magic have a variety of options to speed up the game (such as fast-forwarding through the enemy turn by not animating hostile actions) there isn't any real such options of that regard in Blackguards, unless you count alt tabbing out to watch YouTube videos as I ended up doing, and in general, any game where I feel I end up having to entertain myself during the course of, is one doing something wrong.
Combat encounters are fairly badly-designed,
and the hub areas often feel quite empty in design
A significant second part to the problem lies in the design of those combat encounters. Many of them overstay their welcome - and then overstay it some more just to double down on the awfulness. I had a couple that lasted almost an hour, and taking that much time in a single encounter, especially one of just one singular enemy or type of enemy, starts feeling very grindy and samey indeed. It doesn't help that many of the attacks feel very plinky, and that doesn't improve too much until towards the end, and towards that end, the enemies start getting "bullet-spongey" to compensate. There's a few disciplines that are unbalanced that can get around that, but it feels exploitative, and if it feels like you have to exploit the game to compete, it's a bit of a sign that the game design is a bit wonky at best.
Another area where poor encounter design shines through is the difficulty curve of the game, which, were you to plot it out on a graph would probably resemble a hairball coughed up by a cat. it's terribly inconsistent, especially in the side missions, where presumably the excuse is that it is optional, and you can breeze through one combat just to get utterly murdered in the next. The X-COM style hit chances where you can have 95% chance to hit and still consistently miss in practice certainly doesn't help the difficulty either, to say nothing of my blood pressure.
The character progression comes at a decent clip, to be fair, but it is hard to want to dig in to doing it. It's terribly easy to get bogged down in a slew of mostly-generic and uninteresting side quests, and most people will probably stick to the main story quests, where the game shines - which also avoids the majority of the really drawn-out battles since they exist in said quests.
Blackguards tries to pretend its more of an open world than it is, the navigation being the old Baldur's Gate sort of overworld with certain locations to pick to go to, but they pretty much serve as little more than set dressing, with a few vendors and perhaps a single side-quest if you're lucky, but they're pretty empty. Whereas many RPGs give you at the very least some small amount of flavour text to interest you in those side areas, there's very little of that in Blackguard. It's not the hugest problem, but more of a missed opportunity.
All in all, I would actually say that best represents Blackguards - "a missed opportunity". There's a lot that it does right, but a lot it could have improved on as well. It could have been much better than it was, and there's a glimmer of some true brilliance and some obvious attention to detail, and yet such glaring problems with the encounter design and combat that make it impossible to recommend without qualification.