Normally it would be concerning to see an independent developer approach their release schedule with the yearly-iterative-sequel attitude of a juggernaut business like Ubisoft, but Daedalic Entertainment defies expectation in Blackguards 2. A little under a year ago the German developer released the first title in the series. The sequel is only an iteration, but it’s rife with small, important improvements.
Both Blackguards games began with their central characters in the same sort of strife. The protagonist is wrongfully imprisoned in a dungeon and is desperate to claw back to the surface and the warm sunshine. Blackguards 2 is a much more gripping take on this slightly tired fantasy trope.
Instead of creating your own hero from scratch, as in the first game, you play as a pre-baked character with goals of her own. Cassia of Tenos, a beautiful aristocratic heir enjoying the best years of her life petting kittens and taking leisurely strolls in the city, is imprisoned for political reasons in a perilous, tortuous labyrinth. Over the many years of in-game time that serve as a quick tutorial for the combat and levelling systems Cassia is attacked and bitten, over and over by pale terrier-sized spiders. Gradually, the venom invades the tissues of her body and her face grows swollen and grossly deformed. It poisons her mind too, and she becomes fanatical about taking the kingdom for herself.
Some players are certain to be upset about not being able to create their own character from scratch, especially in context of the rich, and near-prohibitively complicated Dark Eye roleplaying rules. Fortunately Cassia is a blank slate, from a statistical perspective. She isn’t any particular stock class and can instead be nurtured, like an Elder Scrolls character, into a warmongering dictator with whatever combination of combat, magical and utility skills the player might be interested in using.
Even amongst female game characters that are heaped with praise there is little diversity. Alyx Vance, BioShock Infinite’s Elizabeth, Jade and Commander Shepard would probably all get along pretty well. It feels terrifically unique to play as a woman that isn’t a stereotypically gorgeous, benevolent and slightly rebellious twentysomething. Daedalic entertainment billed Blackguards as a violent, nasty dark-fantasy game, and the sequel supports this claim better than the original. Cassia interrogates prisoners to gain intel in ways that are often brutal. She is unashamedly evil, and she gives momentum to a simple plot of conquest that might otherwise be far less compelling - and make less sense - with a player-created protagonist.
Characters from the original Blackguards, the greedy dwarf Naurim and the wizard Zurburan among others, return for the second game and they fulfill similar roles in the plot. Naurim is serviceable as the stock dwarf character. Zurburan can be entertaining, but his voice-acting still sounds like a voice that might have been employed by Jimmy Fallon in a Saturday Night Live sketch about wizards. Cassia remains the star, with her interactions and relationships with these recurring characters elevating them above their mediocre status in the first game.
Blackguards 2, like its predecessor, is a turn-based tactical combat game on a hexagonal grid. Players and monsters take turns to move, attack, cast spells and use abilities. It’s a richly complicated, highly strategic system, but in the first game it suffered from a plodding slowness. Attacks would miss more than they would wound, which looks a tad silly when every unit is a statue on the honeycomb battlefield.
In Blackguards 2 everything is punchier and more fun. Attacks rarely miss. The combat is still a touch on slow side - much of the game’s 20 hour run time will be spent waiting for enemies to form up on your position - but that allows it to remain ponderous and methodical and not sacrifice any of the planning and strategy of the core combat system.
The RPG progression system has been refined too, in a similar fashion. Now it’s user friendly and achieves this while sacrificing only a tiny amount of depth. The trouble with the first Blackguards, as I mentioned in my review of that game, was that there was only one currency to improve character stats, AP, and as a player with little guidance, you had to somehow decide how to dole that AP out between eight attributes and 29 abilities that can all be tweaked independently. Blackguards 2 pares back the progression tree. No doubt some fans of Blackguards will deem this a “dumbing-down”, and I can’t disagree with that but for most players coming in fresh the system in Blackguards 2 will have more than enough complexity to be experimented with short of appearing suffocatingly and unnecessarily complicated.
Part of the appeal of Blackguards’ combat has always been the way that it incorporates environmental interaction, which remains in the second game. Implausibly stacked boxes can be encouraged to topple onto the heads of unsuspecting enemies and bridges can be shifted around to create cover for your combatants. The design of these environments, and the grisly beasts that inhabit them, remains great, as it was in the first game.
For anybody save the most passionate of fans of fantasy tactical combat games, Blackguards 2 is a superior game to its predecessor. Combat is faster in the second game and equally tactical. Production values are comparable. The plot and characters of the second game are far better and, although the two storylines are related, there isn’t enough substance in the first story to justify playing if before the second for that reason alone. Blackguards 2 is a lean, streamlined, 20 hour dark fantasy title and is even easier to recommend to fans of tactical combat games than its predecessor.