Often, the end of a relationship is accompanied by such familiar, cliché-ridden sentiment as "It's not you, it's me", "You're still my best friend" or "I love you, I'm just not in love with you". Occasionally, that parting shot is less bittersweet and altogether more final, something along the lines of "I don't love you anymore, so I'm casting you into these labyrinthine catacombs to have your face and mind vandalised by giant-spider venom." So it is for Cassia of Tenos, who thankfully is a resourceful lass and one for self-empowerment so that after just four years and a 30-minute tutorial she's back on her feet, a tad miffed and crazy enough to frequently argue with herself.
What follows is a single-player, turn-based tactical jaunt across a sizeable world map, seizing control of towns, fiddling with stats and choosing just how dastardly anti-hero Cassia will be as she beats a bloody hexagonal path to her former beloved's door. Accompanying Cassia is a bunch of shady reprobates who all have their own reasons for signing up and whose fate will ultimately be decided by the choices you make along the way. Each of your companions, from the greedy dwarf with anger management issues to the mopey but dashing mage, have their own thoughts on the wider world and on Cassia's tenuous grip on her sanity, not all of which are complementary. There are also a band of mercenaries brought on board to help bolster your numbers and provide the mainstay of your forces when your meddling provokes your deranged-ex to strike back against some of the settlements that you've "liberated".
Interaction with your ragtag bunch takes place when you set-up camp or in bigger towns that you capture along the way. Here, you'll also visit the blacksmith, merchant, alchemist and trainer and uncover the main crux of the story as you question townsfolk and make some ugly choices that will affect how your new subjects perceive you. The scenarios are suitably grim and take in ritual slaughter, torture, and your own fragile state of mind but Blackguards 2 is not without moments of humour. These are mostly deliberate, although the occasionally wonky script and voice acting conspire to turn it all into a bit of a pantomime that undermines its otherwise dark overtones.
Regardless of the reasons for your actions, the meat on the bones of Blackguards 2 is its hex-based combat, myriad skill trees and the tactical decisions presented by its interactive maps. Strewn with precariously stacked boxes to tumble, traps to spring and chandeliers to drop atop foes, the levels themselves are a particular highlight of Blackguards 2. They add an additional layer of options when it comes to besting your enemies and combine well with mission objectives that help explore their variety, be it fleeing for an exit and dropping obstacles to slow pursuit or opening-up pathways for reinforcements to join your cause. Experimenting with the many levers, pulleys and obstacles strewn across levels is an entertaining part of Blackguards' combat, which is otherwise too pedestrian for too long as the game struggles to get up to pace during its opening hours.
It takes a long time for weapons and abilities to deal enough damage to feel effective, which is particularly jarring when you've just spent a significant portion of your gold on new weapons only to find that it still takes several hits to down a foe wearing little to no discernible armour. Special abilities and offensive spells, moderated by endurance and astral energy, are typically a good bet for dealing more significant damage. Using traps or level furniture to herd foes into a bottleneck before unleashing destructive abilities forms a useful strategy early on, especially as enemies often outnumber your motley group by three to one.
Occasionally, suspect AI sees enemies behave in curious ways but it also has wounded enemies try to take-up a more defensive position. Sometimes, they will effectively avail themselves of cover or break from combat to run to a nearby alarm bell or unleash a caged menace, but at other times it will see them run headlong through a cloud of poison or box themselves into a corner, thus sealing their fate. For the most part, the AI relies on sheer force of numbers, or one or two hard-as-nails super-baddies, rather than exercising genuine strategy. This brings with it the downside of fights that often drag on for longer than is welcome or necessary and after just a few battles you'll wish for the ability to fast-forward through enemy turns. Later in the game, as more exotic and powerful enemies are introduced, things become less of a drag, although with no option to save mid-battle or even quit to the world map it's a case of winning or having your entire party wiped-out in order to escape.
There's plenty to fiddle with in between battles to avoid them becoming overly tiresome, though. Five skill trees range from general passive perks to weapon-specific abilities and a comprehensive spell book, and while each of Cassia's companions comes pre-skilled in particular areas, there's still plenty of scope in how best to equip them for battle and which areas they might specialise in. Cassia, on the other hand, is a blank slate and can be moulded into a ranged terror, a melee expert or a spell-flinging menace, with early specialisation being advantageous if she's to grow capable of doing serious damage later on.
There's also a subtle balance between attack and defence stats that can be tweaked for each weapon set. This, like much of Blackguards 2, becomes more readily apparent and genuinely useful several hours into the adventure. The UI, which feels unnecessarily fiddly and opaque at first, eventually reveals scope for creating heavily customised warriors, while the sedate pace of the game lends itself to poring over character development and micro-managing your minions.
One of the delights of settling down to a turn-based tactical RPG is poking around to understand how its systems combine and then utilising those systems in imaginative and tactically satisfying ways. In this regard, Blackguards 2 delivers. Eventually. The writing and presentation are serviceable rather than spectacular but there's a decent level of scope for customisation and engaging combat if you can push past its trudging opening hours. Cassia and co's deep-seated issues and baggage make them an entertaining bunch and while they won't set your world alight, they eventually prove capable of providing many hours of surprisingly amiable companionship.
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