I know it’s a kitschy joke these days, but developers do continue to be inspired to create “the Dark Souls of XXXX.” So influential is that masterpiece that it has become a reference point across the entire industry. Black Legend is an effort to be the Dark Souls of tactics RPGs. Interestingly, though, that’s not because it’s necessarily hard. Once you’ve figured out how to play (which isn’t as straightforward as it should be thanks to a poor onboarding process), Black Legend isn’t so difficult. It definitely tries hard to crib the atmosphere and aesthetics we commonly associate with Dark Souls though.
The entire game takes place in a city infested with a perpetual, poisonous fog, manifested through an evil alchemist named Mephisto – as in, Mephistopheles from the Faust legend – and while it lends the game a permanent grimness that can be exhausting, it’s also a perfect take on the “pea soup fog” from the early industrial era, which approximates the historical period that the game is set. The game immediately conjures up images of Jekyll and Hyde, Jack the Ripper, and other nightmares of the dark hiding around each little corner, and backs it up with a labyrinthine level design of tight corners and claustrophobic alleyways. There’s no map to trace where you are in the city of Black Legend, and that is a compromise that does affect the ease of playing and quality of life, but also enhances the game’s thematic strength. You do start to learn your way around the city, and building up that organic relationship to it actually makes it the most effective character in the game.
On the other hand, the location only achieves the distinction of being the best character because the actual characters are such empty shells. None of them express any personality in the way they move or fight, and your interactions with them are incredibly limited. They all have stories to share (you recruit people by running into the few “good” people that haven’t yet been tainted by the fog and hell-cults) but those stories are so wafer-thin that you never get a sense of who they are as individuals. This is particularly disappointing because you’re meant to be building up a mercenary band. When I think about games where you play as mercenaries, what I want to see is a wide variety of eclectic soldiers and heroes that have only banded together out of a single common interest: profit. Mercenaries and militia are interesting subjects for stories about battle because, unlike with regular armies, these bands can be colourfully diverse. In Black Legend, you can change your character’s class, but each character with that class behaves in an identical way. You compare this to Fire Emblem – which typically focuses on bands of mercenaries itself and gives each character a unique person with a full story – and Black Legend is left far in the dust as a narrative experience.
Black Legend has one unique gameplay mechanic going for it, and it’s both a blessing and a curse. It’s the “humour” system, which, historically, was a medical concept that existed before germ theory modernised how we understand people get sick. In this game, the system means that there are four alchemic elements, and your goal is to inflict “stacks” of two separate alchemic elements on an enemy. The larger the stack, the more damage one specific, special attack will do. Different “regular” attacks will have different effects, as is normal for tactics RPGs (some cause poison, blindness, etc), but that effect is relatively minor, as is the damage done from these attacks. The only way to efficiently defeat an enemy is to get some big stacks happening, and then wipe off big chunks of their health in one go.
On the one hand, this is a strategic system. Most classes are good at inflicting one or two humour colours, but not all four, so you need a balanced party to get those stacks going. Throw in the need to tactically take advantage of higher ground, flanking opportunities, and initiative, and Black Legend has a genuine claim to being a tactical RPG. On the other hand, each individual battle takes a long time to play out, because each enemy will need to be hit with a half-dozen minimal-impact abilities before you can go for the KO blow. Because the AI uses the same systems, you’ll almost always have one or two heavily-injured characters after a battle, and the only way to substantially heal them outside of combat is to head back to base, resulting in a lot of downtime in back-tracking.
Black Legend also has a woeful onboarding process, which makes the early going much more frustrating than it should have been. I didn’t even realise that the tree in the middle of the little barren courtyard that serves as an initial base of operations was the thing that would heal your party, and that’s partly because the game didn’t bother to tell me and partly because why would a tree be the game’s equivalent of a Poke Center?. I only discovered this by accident after a frustrating few fights where my team had less-than-optimal health, and I only discovered it because I looked away from the screen for a moment, my party bumped into the tree, and when I looked back the “interact” icon had appeared on screen. Even the game’s critical humour system is poorly explained in the tutorial, and I ended up learning its nuances through a fair few hours play.
The game doesn’t look great on Switch, with characters that are fuzzy on screen (particularly in handheld mode), and so have even less personality, as well as extensive loading times. This grimdark aesthetic can look great – play Othercide to see just how visually impressive it can be – but Black Legend isn’t particularly inspired in its art direction, leanding to something that is much more mundane than it should be.
Black Legend is not completely without merit, but it’s a game that had better ideas than execution. The big, unique gameplay mechanic that dominates its combat system is also responsible for making each battle far too long, and while the game’s atmosphere is excellent, the art direction is uninteresting and there isn’t nearly enough of a narrative to actually make something of the setting. There are a lot of excellent tactics games being produced these days, and I fear that the developers of Black Legend won’t even be able to use patches to bring it up to the standard of the least of their competitors. The flaws are simply too ingrained into the core experience.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb