Think of the turn-based strategy genre and X-COM comes to mind. It’s king of the hill when it comes to this style of game and, unfortunately, the one that all grid driven combat games are compared against. Black Legend is trying to break away from being likened to that classic by including action RPG elements and free movement around the world, and layering some more sophisticated combat options and a wealth of classes to experiment with. It’s also going for a pretty unique setting and story, one that’s dank, depressing and devoid of hope… until our hero arrives on the scene at least. Does it manage to bring enough new bits to the table to consider it worthy of feasting on?
Set in an indeterminate time period that could be an alternate Edwardian era that feels like a blend of the 17th and 18th Centuries, Black Legend centres around the town of Grant that’s been steadily going to hell as a cult has taken over and a mysterious fog has blanketed most of it. The fog is making the denizens mad, and not surprisingly as it’s been created by the Alchemist cult leader, Mephisto. As the hero of the tale, you venture into the town as a mercenary looking for a payout from the governing figures in helping them remove Mephisto and his followers. Things aren’t exactly as them seem though, and the angry mobs of civilians aren’t all you’ll encounter whilst exploring the various districts of Grant. You’ll need strategic thinking in both moving around the world and in the fights to come out on top, and be prepared for things to get hard and ugly as more of the strange happenings are uncovered.
Black Legend is a turn-based strategy title, so of course combat is at its core. Your squad of four will face animals, humans and supernatural entities as they progress through Grant and try and lift the fog. Fighting is centred around both the class system and the principles of humourism – the ancient medical belief that four elements define the state of the human body – and full frontal attacks are not going to cut the mustard here. The game’s limited tutorial sets up that flanking and rear attacks will be the most effective, and that you need to consider mixing and matching the various moves of the classes to build up stacks of humour effects that can then be triggered with a catalysing strike. It feels a bit clunky and unintuitive initially, especially when some of the moves appear to do no damage, but once you’ve understood how to build up to the strike it’s very effective. In fact, it’s about the only way to do real damage and ensure that the party survives each encounter. Likewise, evaluating foes you’re about to face and deciding on the classes to take into battle is crucial to victory, and with 15 to pick from there’s a lot of experimentation needed. Layer on levelling up and unlocking more class abilities as you use them for longer, and more powerful weapons being unlocked through side missions, and you’ve a deep system to get stuck in to.
Getting your head around the core mechanics takes some time, though at least the actual battles are fairly standard in their use of move and attack points that each character can spend. Typically it allows for one positioning move, an attack, and a defensive setup before the turn ends, and getting into this rhythm early on will offer up the most success. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your party helps massively, and keeping on top of their equipment as you find better options will bring a small, but welcome boost. There’s a lot of information going on at once that needs taking in, and it is clear for the most part, just be prepared to squint at some of the text. In fact, some of it is so small you just end up never bothering reading it. With the amount of choice that’s available it’s clear that you’re meant to be trying out new strategies all the time (swapping classes is a fairly quick process outside combat), and there are no penalties for carrying kit or items. Slightly annoyingly, despite the bottomless pockets for the inventory, you can only carry two items per person into battle, and those are usually only for use by on the carrier, so tactical selection comes into play again. Squad members can die in battle, yet revive if you’re successful, and there’s the option to recruit and manage more through the barracks, but as any teammate can be any class at any time, it feels a tad redundant.
Once the combat is well and truly ensconced and you’ve been practically breezing through each battle, it’ll probably be time to tackle the first boss, and that’s when Black Legend takes a sharp turn from Interestingly Scrappy Road on to F*^k This For A Game Of Soldiers Cul-de-sac. The difficulty spike is ridiculous. Nothing has prepared you for it and the only way through is to repeatedly try and not die. Easier said than done when each party member can be taken out of action in two hits. The second boss fight is arguably worse as he can lock members of the squad in place for several turns before they just drop dead. You deal very little damage, even using the humour effects to the full, and the only advantage you have is keeping your distance… which means far weaker attacks, even with gunpowder and explosive based weapons. Black Legend at this point becomes obnoxious, sapping any enjoyment you might have had. Worse still, and this is more with the later foes, the fighting arenas can have multiple levels and the camera really doesn’t like selecting high and low areas, so you end up with characters stuck away from the action, or unable to execute what should be easy strikes. Having looked past some of the ropier elements like late loading textures and a lack of atmospheric sound design, the gameplay hook that was keeping you engaged is eroded.
It’s a shame that the balance is out of whack here because there are some interesting ideas, and Black Legend can be quite fast paced as well which is unusual for a turn-based game. Exploration of Grant is perfunctory, though each enemy encounter is clear from the AI patrolling the streets, and with huge vision cones it’s quite easy to stealth your way past and avoid a fight altogether. There are side missions to attempt, and there’s a good design choice on having no map and needing to read signposts to work out where to go, but it’s not enough to drag you away from that horrendous difficulty curve that hits with each boss. If you’ve patience or a supernatural ability when it comes to strategic thinking then it’s a decently playable game with quite a lot to offer for the price. However, those prone to the fog of rage descending when things get tough should give it a miss.
A PS4 review copy of Black Legend was provided by Warcave’s PR team, and the game is available now on PC, Switch, Xbox One and PS4 for around £25.