Daedalic Entertainment are known for their ability to provide gamers with interesting and immersive worlds, eccentric characters and lovingly crafted stories that whisk you away and force you to buy into their special brand of whimsy. These are all elements that make for an excellent adventure game, in which a good story can make an otherwise unremarkable game worth playing through to the end. However, when attempting a turn-based strategy game like the studio’s newest offering Blackguards 2 it’s a little harder for the story to act as a crutch, even when the game takes place inside the vast and already-established universe of ‘The Dark Eye’. So does Blackguards 2 prove that the developers can stray from what they’re best at?
I have to admit that I didn’t play the original Blackguards game that was released early last year, so even though this game isn’t technically Daedalic’s first almighty departure from the adventure genre, it’s the first one I’ve experienced – and wow was I aware of it. It took me about ten minutes to realise that I was going to miss out on so much of this story, simply because I hadn’t played the first game and I wasn’t familiar with the characters. I took a moment to wonder whether this was how newcomers to the series felt when they played Dragon Age: Inquisition, a game I praised for being so kind to fans, but in my (clearly highly biased opinion) Bioware just did a better job of introducing their world and their characters. I had a brief encounter with the universe of The Dark Eye when I reviewed Memoria over a year ago, but even that didn’t help me to feel as if I had any idea what was going on. I knew I’d been dropped into a world rich with lore, but never did I feel like the game was going to explain it to me – it seemed like I was just supposed to know it.
Initial criticism aside, the story is an interesting, albeit slightly confusing tale. After a somewhat graphic introduction sequence in which you are introduced to the protagonist, Cassia, you find yourself held prisoner by a guard who refuses to talk to you and with only spiders as your companions. Obviously, there’s no way to get out, and Cassia is told that the spider venom will eventually drive her insane if she isn’t killed by physical means first. After a few quick time jumps, you find that it might be doing just that, and that due to a lack of viable alternatives, the spiders are now Cassia’s friends – and eventually, family. She begins to question whether or not she can fight against the insanity, quickly sacrificing her morals and inexplicably growing power-hungry as she tries to remain in control of herself, and to gain control of the world around her. Following her inevitable escape from her underground prison, she enlists the help of several characters from the original game, who for various reasons agree to help her on her somewhat evil quest.
I say ‘somewhat’ evil, because it’s sometimes unclear where Cassia’s morality stands. I love that the protagonist of this game is a woman, clearly a capable woman, and I also love that she’s a little bit bloodthirsty – I just wish there was more to it than that. Sometimes, she shrugs off massacres and orders pillaging of entire villages, but then turns around and shows mercy for no reason at all. These are options that I, as the player, can choose, but often it doesn’t seem logical that Cassia would choose the peaceful option. The side characters – (a mage, a warrior and a dwarven… hoarder?) are a little stereotypical but are interesting enough, though I feel like I needed to play the first game in order to feel any real attachment to them. Each one has their own strength and fighting style, but I found that out by chance more than anything. As you gain experience you predictably level up these strengths and weapon skills, but to be honest I had trouble figuring out where their original skills were directed, so levelling up was a little tough.
The combat works on a hexfield and plays out basically like a round of Dungeons & Dragons but without the fun narrative elements. Characters move based on speed and initiative and can attack, take cover, or interact with objects during their turn, though getting them to these objects can often be frustrating. If you don’t step out the path hexagon by hexagon, sometimes the characters will run right into traps that you can see are there, even though there’s a clear way around them. Considering being able to notice traps is an upgradeable skill, you would think that the game would recognize that you had seen the trap, but… that’s just a minor gripe. A bigger gripe is with the way the game sporadically feeds you tutorial hints, but even when they’re there they’re not that helpful. When it taught me how to equip weapons, I went into the menu to do so but apparently couldn’t equip them at that time. It showed me at the start of every single round how to place my characters, but never did it properly explain how to upgrade weapon skills. On top of that, even though the arenas are pretty in true Daedalic style, there’s no way to rotate them or change angle, so I lost my characters on the field more than once. And when the rounds are already frustratingly long, I didn’t need to waste more time searching. To have three or four characters on your side fighting about eight opponents and be forced to watch the whole thing play out slowly is just tedious. When the fights also quickly become very same-y, it quickly stops being worth the payoff. Even when mercenaries were introduced to aid Cassia and her heroes in battle, it felt like they were just there to make the rounds longer.
I’ll be the first one to admit that I’m not a mad turn-based strategy fan, and maybe I don’t appreciate Blackguards 2 as much as someone who was; and yet, if I had to choose a TBS game to play, it wouldn’t be this one.. If you liked the first game then there’s probably something to be found here, or if you’re willing to put hours into carefully considering skill point allocation even when the game doesn’t really explain the whole system then maybe this is for you. But all in all, I just found it kind of dragged on. The soundtrack was good, the voice acting was good, the game was quite pretty – in fact the narrative cutscenes between missions has some gorgeous artwork in it, so props to the artists for that. But it just wasn’t fun. I didn’t enjoy Blackguards 2. Feel free to question my opinion if turn-based strategy is your thing, though. Congrats on your patience.