Blackguards Review: The Classic Tabletop RPG 'The Dark Eye' Goes Digital

By Luca Saitta , Updated Mar 12, 2014 02:00 PM EDT
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A murdered princess. A false accusation. Lost memories. A jailbreak. That’s all it takes to get ya rollin’ in Daedalic Studios’ new turn-based RPG Blackguards. Playing a male or female (but always human) warrior, mage or hunter you set out to prove your innocence across the land of Hurasia on the continent of Aventuria.

I’ve been playing tabletop RPGs for slightly over a decade now. My first ever game was "Dungeons & Dragons 3.5" when I was seventeen. I’ve since played its successor, "D&D 4th Edition", "World of Darkness", "7th Sea", "Feng Shui", three editions of "Star Wars", "Serenity", "Call of Cthulhu", "Grimm" and probably some more I’m forgetting right now. One system I hadn’t had the pleasure of playing was the German "Das Schwarze Auge", or "The Dark Eye" in English. Well, consider that gap in my RP culture filled as Blackguards rolls its way into my heart… or does it?

Whatever class you choose at the start of the game, you are joined by the dwarven warrior Naurim and the foppish mage Zurbaran. Luckily my hunter Rannih (y’all have a character you just keep making in every RPG as well?) complemented them perfectly. The core mechanic of the game is essentially your party moving across a world map that consists of either towns or battle-maps made up out of octagons. The game’s tutorial lays out the basics in an unobtrusive way as each segment of your initial jailbreak highlights another feature or ability, with pop up screens overlaying the paused battlemap and bracketed numbers in the explanatory text telling you exactly where to find what on the many menus. In towns, you can stock up on goods, get rid of loot, rest up or get healed. On battle maps you have quiet picnics and discuss Stanislavsky’s Method versus Mamet’s goal-oriented acting. Or something else, I can’t quite remember. There’s a strict compartmentalization between FIGHT and PLOT that makes Blackguards a very relaxed game to play. The absence of random encounters on the world map as you travel adds to this. This is not a game to ambush you or catch you off guard. There’s an autosave function that kicks in after pretty much every fight, on top of the ability to save or quicksave for yourself, or the option to simply “Retry” any battle that ended in a total party wipe. There was a fight with a wood troll I felt quite outmatched by, but after about six “Retry” clicks I managed it by utilizing the environment in a more strategic way than I had before.

Oh yes, the environment! Blackguards’ big selling point! By pressing V you can highlight every interactable object on the battle map, ranging from bee hives to shoot down or ropes holding up chandeliers to cut. This adds a nice dynamic to what might otherwise be a pretty staid way of playing in 2014. At its best, Blackguards is a tabletop experience brought to life on your PC, with all the coziness and good cheer that implies. Certainly, the game’s sometimes dorky, always colorful setting helps. At its worst, however, Blackguards is a tabletop experience with a GM that really wants to play "The Dark Eye". Your mileage may vary, of course, since perhaps there are big RPG buffs among you who are well-versed in the system and do not find this a hindrance at all. Take into account that I am a person who quit playing Baldur's Gate II after about ten minutes because of the horrible impenetrability of the AD&D rules at its core. Blackguards isn’t quite that bad, especially since the tutorial is really clear and helpful, and hovering over most any function/ability/skill will clearly explain what it does. It’s just that what it does is sometimes convoluted and overly arcane. In your base abilities alone there’s Cleverness and Intuition, there’s Agility and Dexterity. These do different things! Yes, you can just hover over them and read what they’re about, but I feel like stuff like this is either adherence to a system a bit too old-timey or a lot of nuance lost in translation. Magic is measured in “Astral Points”, abbreviated in AP. Experience is collected in the form of “Adventure Points”, abbreviated as AP. I was wondering why my hunter kept racking these up without being able to spend them!

And hoo boy, speaking of “lost in translation”! This is total nitpickery as it doesn’t affect the gameplay in any way, but the there/they’re and its/it’s errors I’ve encountered make me feel like I’m in an MMO rather than a single player game with texts by professionals who were paid to write/translate them! This even extends to Blackguards’ official site! I’ll actually concede that the spelling and grammar errors add to the game’s goofy charm, as if a bunch of dorks were just so excited to tell you this story of bright and colorful rogues that they just couldn’t be bothered to run it by a copy editor because there were stalactites to drop on crypt lice, man! In this way I’d say Blackguards is a bit like the most recent "Three Musketeers" movie: light-hearted fun if you don’t think about the mechanics of it all too much.

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Blackguards is now available for PC and Mac on Steam for $39.99. The latest DLC, Untold Legends, was just released last week.This review was based on a Steam code provided by the publisher. 

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