Review: Black Legend – Lost In The Fog

When it comes to a good game setting, there’s a curious sort of gap when doing anything remotely historical. We get a lot of the High Middle Ages, usually as reference for heroic fantasy. We get a lot of modern day Information Age settings in military shooters. But what is often referred to as the Early Modern Era (approximately the 16th and 17th Centuries) seems to be ignored, both for historical settings and fantastic inspirations. The last historic game we had in that general period was probably Assassin’s Creed II and its immediate spinoffs. As far as fantasy, Greedfall almost gave us a taste, but seemed to hew closer to the 18th Century in terms of tone and visual style. So Black Legend, a new tactical RPG from developer Warcave, doesn’t have a lot of competition in terms of aesthetic or setting. Sadly, it doesn’t take the opportunity to establish itself credibly in that space.

Set in an alternate version of the Low Countries, Black Legend has you start by creating your particular avatar, then entering into the cursed city of Grant. The purpose is simple: you’ve been given a royal pardon for unnamed crimes, but you have to clean out an army of crazed cultists who sprang up as devotees of an alchemist known as Mephisto. The alchemist saved Grant from invasion, but used a chemical weapon which has trapped residents in their homes and driven cultists completely mad before he abandoned the city to its fate. Now, a miasma hangs in the streets of Grant, warping the mind and sometimes the body of those who still walk the thoroughfares. Pockets of resistance exist, but you’re going to have to find them and recruit them.

“This town really has gone to the dogs.”
“Shut up, Bertholdt.”

If you’re an admirer of artwork from Dutch masters like Rembrandt, Pieter Brueghel (The Elder and The Younger), or Rubens, then Black Legend will certainly have a sense of verite to it. The armor and weapons are period appropriate, the environments look very much what you would expect to have inspired a painting of a seaport town (ignoring the occasional cultist banner or hanging corpse), and the NPCs could easily serve as part of a scene. However, there’s a far greater sense of restraint when it comes to the fighting element. Certain status effects like immolation and poison do have distinctive halos around the character model, but they’re unusually muted, enough to suggest but not quite deliver a sense of urgency. Other visual effects are equally on the subdued side, with one or two exceptions. There’s also a very odd bloodlessness to combat, a lack of physical results which you would expect from people having partisans and crossbow bolts driven into them. A level of gore found in Peckinpah or Tarantino movies isn’t required per se, but a little arterial spray wouldn’t be out of place.

The music and sound effects in Black Legend are really nothing to write home about. There’s little variation in terms of battle or exploration themes, and it quickly reaches a point where you just want to turn off the music, which probably would do more to give a sense of creeping horror to the environment a la George Romero with Night Of The Living Dead. The voice acting is decent, but not exceptional, and there’s some discrepancies between what’s said and what the subtitles (which cannot be turned off) display.  Much like the music, you quickly find yourself wanting to turn off the sound when characters speak.

You’re going to be hearing a lot of uninspiring music trying to make your way to the other side.

In terms of gameplay, Black Legend has to be one of the most disappointing and poorly executed tactical RPGs released in the last few years. And it’s especially frustrating because there’s a lot of neat elements in there. Combat is structured around positioning and an action budget of movement combined with attacks. The attacks are either specialized based off the class you’ve assigned a unit and the weapons being used which apply different “humors” to the target or a general “catalyzation” attack that consumes the humors for extra damage. By using different attacks, the character learns them permanently, allowing you to customize classes with extra abilities. So far, sounds intriguing.

Unfortunately, it gets tedious quickly because you’re either finding new weapons (which sometimes necessitate switching back to a class you used earlier) or you’ve not unlocked enough abilities to create a good variety of skills within a certain character. Moreover, even on a decently sized TV, the damage calculations are relegated to an almost postage stamp sized area in one corner, making it hard to tell if you’re about to deal a lethal blow or simply a flesh wound. And while the basics of flanking and backstabbing are easy to pick up, the camera controls make positioning your units cumbersome when faced with stairs and some other elevated positions. Even worse, the combat system has some of the most ridiculous limitations on line-of-sight you can imagine, with ranged weapons requiring a minimum distance from a target before making an attack rather than allowing “from the hip” shots at point blank range. As long as you box in a ranged unit and prevent them from moving, you can maul them without any consequence.

“The sexton is definitely not going to be happy about this.”

Party management is a shambles. You’re limited to four mercenaries, including your own avatar. Worse, if you try to add a wandering mercenary, you’ll duplicate both the mercenary you just added and the one you just dismissed, which weirdly creates a fifth character on the field to fight for you. The inventory system isn’t much better. Since your class affects the weapons you can use as well as the armor you can wear, you sometimes unlock a class where you’ve got the weapon but not the armor. Running around naked with crazed cultists and unholy mutants in the streets is never a good thing. And the class system itself runs into information overload, giving players so many potential options that it’s sometimes difficult to work out what should be the optimal advancement paths or party composition.

“There may be insane cultists, abominations, and mutants crawling outside the walls, but the begonias will by God be perfectly maintained!”

The difficulty curve is another issue. On Normal difficulty, walking through the streets of Grant and taking on cultists is a punishing slog, where units do not heal up between battles. On Easy, it’s not punishing thanks to health being restored at the end of battle, but it’s pretty joyless. I hate to think how godawful it’d be on Hard. Random mobs will respawn after a while, which will certainly help give you opportunities to finish learning skills, but sometimes they will respawn in the worst possible spot, creating a big battle encounter you would prefer to avoid. And, going back to the party issue, you don’t have a whole lot of incentive to swap out different party members when you’ve built up a wrecking crew of highly trained killers. Especially not if it means hauling yourself back to the section of town serving as your base and risking mobs respawning when you come out.

Adding insult to injury, the mercenaries you recruit off the street have no way to train while you’ve got your current party out in the field. Their levels will remain at the same point you found them and they will have no skills beyond the basic Mercenary class, which means you’re expected to drag a lot of cannon fodder out into the field and hope for the best. Plus, you have no means to try and expand your ranks or translate your knowledge of the city into a working strategy. You’re basically in a dungeon crawl more than fighting on a battlefield.

“If I’m so inept or so gutless I get scared about being lost in a well, this city is screwed.”

When it comes to plot and story, Black Legend doesn’t deliver anything particularly legendary. There are some small moments which are interesting, usually when talking to townsfolk barricaded in their homes. But other characters you run across are frankly not that interesting. Either you’re coming across random mercenaries who are asking for a curative item or you’re dealing with the clutch of NPCs notionally managing the resistance forces and who’ve screwed up by the numbers till you came along. There’s no random bits of lore laying around to read, no signs or handbills left over from the original crisis, and nothing to give the player a sense of impetus or urgency. As you go further, you will find different mobs made up of different types of people and monsters, and there are boss fights which can go sideways pretty quickly if you’re not careful. But there’s too many faceless hordes, and the bosses don’t particularly stand out as characters themselves. Narratively speaking, there’s way too much “tell” and not enough “show.”

The height of alchemical fashion in 17th Century Holland.

I badly wanted to enjoy Black Legend. As a history buff and as fan of the tactical RPG genre, I looked forward to something that matched the high water marks established by more “modern” offerings like XCOM or Jagged Alliance, something that gave players a grim and gritty low fantasy setting instead of the high heroic fantasy of the Fire Emblem series. But between the clunky systems, the needlessly brutal difficulty, and the paper thin story elements, Black Legend doesn’t deliver the goods. There are better tactical RPGs out there, and Black Legend failed to learn any of their lessons.

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