In my constant quest to find an interesting game to satisfy my XCOM cravings (instead of playing through those games yet again) I came across Black Legend over on Steam, a tactical RPG that attempts to break the mold of how most tactical battle titles work. The game certainly does that in a lot of ways, though whether or not players enjoy the shift that it offers will depend largely on how much they are willing to learn Black Legend’s somewhat complicated, and at times convoluted, battle system.
The plot of Black Legend is pretty thin. It’s presented at the beginning of the game but never really pushed after that. Don’t expect to see a lot of cut scenes or moral choices in this game. The plot more or less just sets the stage for why you happen to be locked inside this medieval nightmare of a town, battling a cult that has totally taken over most of the city.
The plot, such that it is, follows the story of the city of Grant, which was under siege from powerful enemies. So they did what any city would have, enlisted the services of an alchemist named Mephisto to create a plague that drove all of their enemies insane. The problem was that it eventually also twisted the city’s residents as well, and the alchemist disappeared. A mad cult rose up to take over the power vacuum left in the city, and the king has hired you to fight them and free Grant once and for all. Technically you are some kind of prisoner who is being offered a pardon in return for your services, but again, the plot of Black Legend matters very little in the grand scheme of things.
You get to create your main character with a fair amount of cosmetic options, but are then assigned three other people to round out your troop. Why the game does not let you customize your entire group, I don’t know. I wanted to make a themed adventuring party, like maybe avenging nuns or burly men with big beards, but had to settle for whoever they gave me to work with my main character. I reloaded the first of Black Legend many, many times until I randomly got a squad I really liked.
One of the reasons that your squad’s composition does not matter much (and why the developers may have skipped customization for them) is that classes in the game are based on weapons and equipment, an odd mechanic that actually has surprising repercussions. So if you want to use a sword, you might be a mercenary, while if you put a crossbow in your character’s hand, they are suddenly working down the sharpshooter skill tree. You advance and earn experience as you use your chosen weapons, and can swap classes and equipment at will. This makes finding new weapons critical because it opens up new class options and helps you to create a balanced party that can take on any battle.
Combat in the game is turn-based, and Black Legend does a good job of separating movement and combat actions so that you can take your actions in any order on your turn. So you can move, attack and move again if you want. Unlike most turn-based games, Black Legend does not heavily rely on random numbers and percentages. So you wont see a percentage to hit someone. Instead, you pretty much know if you are going to successfully strike. Where you skill comes in is in how much damage that you can do.
Striking from behind gives a big damage boost, so rogues with a lot of movement can zip behind opponents and land a critical hit pretty easily, though this might expose their own back if you don’t plan ahead for that. Also, as you fight you gain adrenaline, with more being created if you are using proficient skills. Adrenaline gives a damage bonus to critical hits. And each time you don’t get a critical hit, your chance to get one next time increases until it becomes a certainty. Critical hits do massive damage and can really turn the tide in your favor.
Height also matters for ranged fighters, not so much because of damage bonuses but because you need to have an enemy in line of sight before you can shoot. Starting combat, where you place your troops on your side of the field, can give you a big advantage if you put your shooters up on high ground. Even standing on a box or crate can give them a good field of view in all directions. This is one of the best ways to ensure that your ranged fighters can make a difference in combats.
All that already makes Black Legend a bit different from other tactical shooters. But the biggest difference is the alchemy system. This unique mechanic is based on 17th century alchemic practices, where they believed that the body was made up of various humours. If you don’t know, (and I don’t know why you would) in the real world alchemy traditionally recognized four humours in the form of yellow bile, black bile, blood and phlegm. Some alchemists also added ectoplasm to that list. In Black Legend there are a lot more, and humours are based on colors, while combining various colors can lead to devastating effects if you can then catalyze an imbalance you have put into your enemies.
If it sounds complicated, it is. So let me try and give an example. Let’s say one of your characters has an ability that does normal damage, but then also adds a red humour imbalance to your target. You hit them and then cause that imbalance. The imbalance does nothing on its own, but makes them vulnerable. Then if you strike them with a different ability (you or one of your teammates) with an attack that imbalances the black humour on the same target, they now have a compound imbalance. Because red and black humour imbalances are pretty serious, they become a ticking timebomb. Now all you need to do is give them a so-called catalyzing strike, which does damage and also activates those imbalances. I found that the sharpshooter gets a catalyzing strike ability very early in their skill tree, so that is how I often got my catalyzing strike at the end of my turn. When you hit someone with a catalyzing strike, they generally take massive damage if any humour imbalances exist.
Honestly, I found the humour system to be a little bit over the top. You have learn all the right combinations as well as little peculiarities, like the fact that black and yellow humours don’t stack, to get really good at combat. Many of the trinkets and magic-like items that you pick up require humour-based triggers to work too, like giving you a buff if you do a certain combination of humour damage to your opponents. I was able to figure it all out, but it just felt like an overly-complex way of adding “magic” to the game without calling it such. And all the time you spend learning the secret humour buffs is time away from actually playing the game and having fun.
Graphically, Black Legend is pretty lackluster. The city seems procedurally generated, with every street and alley looking like the same combination of maybe a dozen or so set pieces. Some of the plainness is hidden by an ever present fog that prevents you from eyeing anything too closely, as well as the fact that everything is terribly dark. It doesn’t look bad, but don’t expect to be wowed by it. Even on maximum graphical settings, Black Legend looks like a game that could have come out 10 years ago.
One of the things that Black Legend does right is a very detailed difficulty level system. You can control how tough the enemies you face will be, as well as how often the groups respawn in cleared areas. At the easiest levels, you can probably go through Black Legend without even engaging too much in the complex humours system. At the hardest, you better have a master’s degree in medieval alchemy if you hope to make it more than a few blocks into Grant.
While Black Legend as a whole probably wont become a classic turn-based combat game loved by millions, it does offer some unique and solid gameplay for anyone who is looking for both a challenging experience and a unique take on the genre. I had a good time while I was playing Black Legend, though it was not compelling enough to draw me back in after my first time conquering the city.
Black Legend earns 3.5 out of 5 GiN Gems for offering gamers something a little bit different in turn-based combat games.