I'm a huge fan of turned-based strategy games. I absolutely love the genre, reminding me of the pen and paper RPGs of my youth, they'll always have a special place in my heart. I'm also attracted to any game that has a dark, grimy world to explore, so I was instantly intrigued by this latest release from Belgian-based developer Warcave.
Black Legend starts by introducing the city of Grant. Set in an alternative 17th Century style world, this once beautiful city was ravaged by war and beset by enemies on all sides. In desperation and with nowhere else to turn, the people asked the menacing and terrible alchemist Mephisto for help. Using his arcane knowledge he releases a choking fog into the area, poisoning all who breathe it in. The invading armies are quickly overcome but it's only then that the citizens realize the terrible cost. Only those loyal to Mephisto are given the cure to the noxious gas and, as dissenters and objectors die off, his cult quickly rises to dominate the entire city.
Flash forward several years, and numerous attempts to liberate Grant, the task has now fallen upon you. Released from prison, and promised a full pardon if you succeed, it's up to you and your squad of mercenaries to sneak into the city, eliminate the fog and free the population from the grasp of the Mephistian Cultists who control their lives.
It seems to me that the Devs have tried to create a game that was difficult, atmospheric, and had deep mechanics in its class and combat systems. If so, they should be pleased as Black Legend ticks all those boxes. However, it does have some small glitches, some annoying bugs, and some UI choices that hold the game back from reaching "classic" status. Despite these flaws though, I found myself drawn back to it and the more I played, the more I enjoyed it. I can easily see myself going back to this one on my own time to have a second playthrough.
When starting your adventure you'll be presented with a basic character creation screen. Here you can put together your character from a few preset faces, hairstyles and beards (don't expect Fallout 4 or Cyberpunk customization levels) before being dropped at the city gates to begin your quest. Within seconds of entering, you'll stumble upon an NPC and he'll take you on a journey through the streets of Grant which serves as a tutorial. He'll teach you how classes work, how to learn skills, how to carry out the basics of combat, and how the Alchemy system is essential in winning fights, before dropping you off at the Guild house that acts as a hub. From here you're given a few quests, along with their general location, before being left to your own devices to explore as you see fit.
I would have liked to have seen this story go into more detail, to be honest. The initial story sets up the tale of the City rather well and does a good job of establishing the dark and foreboding atmosphere of Grant itself. It doesn't build on this foundation though. NPCs will give background lines but don't really go into much detail on what's been happening under the Cult's control. Talking about and seeing their daily lives, and how they survived under the horrors of the cult, would have elevated the story above a decent framing device but instead, it felt slightly like a missed opportunity.
What is developed well though, at least in my opinion, was the city itself. Feeling like a character in its own right, Grant is a dark and horrible place where litter and debris are stacked up everywhere. Its maze-like streets are riddled with dead ends and doors locked from the other side, making just getting around a confusing experience. You'll want to search each nook and cranny though as vital supplies are hidden everywhere. Containing money, consumables, weapons, armor, and new class types, these chests make life easier as you search the city for your mission objective: which isn't as easy as it sounds.
You see, Black Legend doesn't hold your hand when it comes to showing you where to go next. There's no glowing path to follow, no giant arrow to head towards, or a map of any kind, in fact. Instead, objectives are given in a vague line of text, telling you to head west to the harbor district or north to the shopping district or whatever and leaves you to seek out signposts on the way to make sure you're still heading in the correct direction. Modern gamers might find this lack of direction a bit frustrating but it was something I rather liked. Signposts became a welcome sight, giving essential info on whether I had taken a wrong turn and helped point me towards a new district I was approaching for the first time. It leads to you learning the City of Grant more organically, remembering where you opened a shortcut and where the dead ends are, as you return to the Guild, search out treasure or seeking the lit buildings that indicate where the occasional terrified citizen can be chatted with.
I did get a few issues with stuttering, and loads of pop-ups, while exploring but I was playing an early build and these problems might be specific to Switch. It doesn't impact gameplay in any way, but as the game is hardly a looker, it shouldn't be happening at all as I can't imagine the game is pushing the limits of graphical power. I also experienced a few total crashes that kicked me straight to the dashboard that was more annoying but happened less frequently after the beginning area.
But let's continue...
As well as chests, signposts, and lit buildings to watch for, probably the most important thing to keep an eye on is the presence of the Cult of Mephisto in the city. Its members are everywhere. Stalking the streets, blocking off the roads, prowling the town squares, and generally making a nuisance of themselves by making progress a hassle. Now I've already said that Black Legend is a difficult game and this difficulty mostly comes through in combat. It's layered, with many angles to consider but the first of these, the class system, should be thought about before you even enter combat. All in all, there are 15 classes to get to grips with, although you begin with only 4 and discover more as you explore. Each team member (you have a maximum of 4 in your squad) can change class as many times as you like, and you can do it outside of combat whenever you want by simply opening the inventory. Each class utilizes its own weapon type, armor type, and most importantly, its very own unique collection of skills. These skills are wide and varied, ranging from healing, different attacks, applying effects like burning or crippling, as well as causing buffs and debuffs. They also each cause different alchemical effects, called Humours, to stack but we'll talk about this essential combat mechanic later. What makes classes something to keep your eye on, however, and something that you must constantly manage, is the fact that skills can be permanently learned and then used by another class. Each time you use a class skill in combat, it earns a little experience. Fill the experience bar and this skill becomes permanent, allowing you to assign it to a skill slot no matter what class you now belong to. You can use mercenary skills as a Rogue, or rogue skills as a sharpshooter, or basically any combination you can think of. You'll find you need to rotate the roles played by each member, allowing each the opportunity to learn the widest range of skills, which in turn means they have extra options in combat.
Unfortunately, this means you spend a little too much time in menu screens manually comparing stats and selecting skills than you might like. The game doesn't do a good job of telling you certain info in a way that's easy to absorb and leaves you to manually compare stats to determine effectiveness. Weapons for instance don't have the usual green for good/red for bad colored text that tells at a glance whether they're more or less effective than what you have equipped. Skills that can't be used don't give a reason for it either, leaving it up to you to work out why. Just looking through your available items feels clunky and, in fact, this feeling applies to the whole UI. Obviously designed for PC with mouse and keyboard, even simple navigation of the inventory feels cumbersome and can make assigning new weapons, skills and classes for each member take much more time than it should. Add to this a bug I encountered repeatedly (which required a reboot to solve) where I would be unable to change weapons at all and I spent more time tinkering in menus at some points than I did actually playing.
But when actually playing the game, and especially when puzzling out the combat, I found myself really enjoying my time spent. Fighting is a layered affair, with many things to consider, and can go wrong quickly if you're not prepared. While patrolling the map opponents have a vision cone indicator around their feet and stepping into this will instantly switch to the grid-based screen where combat takes place. Sometimes the first steps to victory might be as simple as choosing when to start the fight, waiting till the enemies are spread out can be advantageous, allowing you to attack each opponent with your whole squad, rather than having them gang up on you.
After being spotted though, the game switches to a grid-based layout and combat properly begins. At first, the fighting takes a familiar form but you'll quickly realize there's more to it than initially appears. When combat kicks off, you're given the chance to pick your team's individual starting points on a highlighted section of the map, and then the turn order is shown. The character or enemy with the highest initiative goes first, followed by the next highest and so on until all characters have a turn.
Familiar so far, right?
In their turn, each character has two point pools that govern all the actions they're allowed to do and can use them in any order they wish. First up is movement points and these govern, no points for guessing correctly, your movement. Each point allows one square of distance to be covered. Secondly are your Action Points (AP) which govern your attacks and skill use. It's pretty easy to keep track of and can be used in any combination you like or even broken up and used to move, use a skill, move some more, use another skill, or whatever. Once all points are used up, or when you choose because you don't have anything to do, the turn ends, and the next character, whether your side or the enemy, takes theirs.
Again, familiar so far right?
What adds an extra layer of strategy though, and makes you have to think much more, is the game's Alchemy system. Just sticking to basic attacks, or using the same skills, will quickly lead to defeat in Black Legend and to take down enemies quickly and efficiently you'll need to get to grips with using the "Humours" I mentioned earlier to their full effect.
You see many of your skills, along with just dealing a little damage, will also apply a stack of "Humours" to a target. Based on an old medical idea, if these humours were out of balance your health would be affected and they sort of play the same role here. They come in 4 flavors, Negredo (Black), Albedo (White), Rubedo (Red), and Citrinitas (Yellow), which can be combined to create "Catalysts". Only certain combinations will work, and enemies have an indicator above their heads to help you keep track, but you need at least 2 humours working together to get the effect. Once the correct combination of Humours are stacked on an opponent, you can hit that character with a normal attack, and trigger the catalyst, creating a super damaging hit that drains a huge chunk of health. Playing tactically boils down to trying to stack as many combinations of Humours as you can, as quickly as you can, while avoiding enemies trying to do the same to you. When combined with trying to earn experience to learn new skills permanently from the class list, combat becomes a multi-layered affair that's one of the game's highest points. It requires you to think out your moves, especially on higher difficulties, and pulling off a big combo of Catalysts feels great when you see the huge chunk of enemy health just disappear.
Enemies can be difficult though so saving is a top priority. Luckily the game has a pretty decent autosave system and you can manually save at any time through the options screen. This brings me to another bug, unfortunately. I'm a "save every 2 minutes" kinda guy. I save before every fight, after every fight, after I find something, or just because a few minutes have passed since my last one. However, I kept getting a glitch where the options screen would simply refuse to appear. No matter how many times I hit the button (+ on Switch) the menu wouldn't pop up meaning manual save became impossible. Only a full reboot of the game would solve it and it got a little annoying. I will say though, this was an early build and patches have been coming in which may fix this. It's something to note if planning to grab the Switch version though. On top of this bug, I also experienced a few others. Sometimes weapons wouldn't change, there were numerous crashes in certain areas, stutters were common and graphical popup happened a lot. Despite these minor irritations though, I found Black Legend to be a very interesting experience and that I found myself being drawn back to and plan to play more of in the future.
Black Legend is a turned strategy game with a dark setting and multilayered combat that veterans of the genre might really enjoy. The class system leads to much experimentation with different roles to learn skills and the alchemy-based combat makes battles something that requires thought. The City of Grant is atmospheric and gritty but not quite used to its fullest to aid in storytelling. Mid-level graphics, some pop-up and stuttering, clunky menus, as well as a few bugs don't detract too much from the basically interesting experience. They do however stop it from becoming a classic. Definitely enjoyable, especially in combat. Those looking for something more cerebral in their turn-based strategy titles just might find this to their liking.
Note: A copy of the game was provided for the purpose of the review
Final Score: 7/10
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