bshirk's Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled (Nintendo DS) review

A Brilliant, But Flawed RPG That Pays Homage To 16-Bit Classics



People have been clamoring for a sequel to Chrono Trigger for years now.  Some gamers consider Chrono Cross to be a superb sequel to that time-traveling epic, while others found it to be a dud.  I thought Chrono Cross was an excellent RPG, but I had always desired another 16-bit RPG that had the same impact on me as Chrono Trigger.  That game of 1995 managed to amaze a young 5th grader like me, because many of the game's concepts were so fresh.  For one, there weren't countless random battles.  Chrono did away with such an archaic system, and instead, instituted a fast-paced battle system involving three characters and enemies you could see on-screen before you engaged in battle.  Skirmishes were quick, you could combine moves, and you rarely had to level.  Chrono also featured amazing artwork and more proportionate characters than previous RPGs.  Besides this, it had a fresh time-traveling quest spanning multiple eras and featured many possible player-affected outcomes.  The music was also quite memorable, so overall, it was a well-rounded package.

Fast-forward fourteen years and multiple console generations later--we now have a new RPG called, Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled, that is modeled after classics like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI.  Studio Archcraft, the Canadian developer who was responsible for the game, spent four long years working on this 16-bit-style RPG that originally began as a GBA project, but ultimately ended up on the DS.  After spending nearly 40 hours with the game, I've decided to judge Black Sigil on its own merits rather than simply comparing it to its 16-bit brethren.  Read on to find out if this RPG modeled after the classics is worth your time, or if it's as crusty as those dishes you left in the sink for over a month.

When I first powered on Black Sigil, I was greeted to a beautiful intro.  It wasn't tranquil like Chrono's Millennial Fair or action-packed like the imperial entrance into Narshe in FFVI, but the game clearly had a foreboding atmosphere.  You begin the adventure as Kairu, who is an orphan born into a magical kingdom called, Bel Lenora. Even though he was raised by a powerful duke who was commander of the army, Kairu lived a lonely existence due to people's prejudice and fear of those who lacked the ability to use magic.  A powerful swordsman named Vai who also lacked magic had previously threatened the kingdom, so their fear wasn't completely unfounded, even though it was fairly irrational.  Kairu isn't a silent hero like Crono, but is fairly likeable due to his mostly serious and sometimes humorous nature.  Early on, he is accompanied by the spunky Aurora who is the duke's daughter.  I know.  You're probably thinking she sounds like Marle, right?  Well, even with her appearance out of the picture, she's quite different due to her use of sarcasm, and her being somewhat of a romantic instead of being a rebellious tomboy with a case of the giggles. 

Kairu and Aurora were quite likeable, but I also grew attached to the game's many other characters.  There's a mysterious character who wields powerful dark magic that is somewhat of a ladies' man,  a nomadic, but kind-hearted character that will remind you of Gau, a female scout who has the ability to use magic, but has a tragic past, and an adventurer that feels like a hybrid of Setzer and FFIV's Cid.  These six blokes are all great characters with a variety of abilities, but they're also accompanied by two secret characters, who I won't reveal.  They're fairly difficult to find, as you have to accomplish quite a few tasks outside of the main storyline, but they're both valuable assets to your party, like Magus was in Chrono.

So, Black Sigil has excellent character artwork and a crew full of wonderful personalities, but how is the storyline?  It isn't as groundbreaking as Chrono Trigger's, but it's an epic tale that holds its own against many games of today.  In the previous paragraph, I mentioned the magical land of Bel Lenora, and the extreme prejudice Kairu faced, but I failed to mention the aftermath.  I don't want to spoil much of the story, but as the title implies, one of your characters is exiled, and you eventually find yourself in a new land that is seemingly devoid of magic.  This land, called Artania, is home to several continents that appear to have no relation to Bel Lenora.  There are several kingdoms throughout Artania that are clearly inspired by historical kingdoms in Asia and Byzantium, and they seem to have co-existed peacefully for the most part.  The empire of Sammarkand was on the ascendance however, and had begun conquering various kingdoms through military force and the use of airships.  People who've played FFIV and FFVI have seen some of these themes before, but there is quite a bit underneath the surface that I'd rather not spoil.  Slavery and issues of prejudice are prevalent themes throughout the game--which makes Black Sigil much more serious than most games of the 16-bit era.

The storyline, art, and characters are all excellent even in 2009 (an era in which our world should be in ruin according to Chrono Trigger), but how is the gameplay?  Well, it's a mixed bag.  The creators of Black Sigil implemented some original ideas into the battle system, but unfortunately, it's fairly unbalanced.  It is evident that Black Sigil's battle system was inspired by games like Chrono, Lunar, and Lufia, but it ends up not working as well as those 16-bit titles.  The battle system is like Chrono in the sense that it features three characters that can use combination attacks and are able to obtain a maximum of 999 HP; it's like Lunar in the sense that the characters can move in battle; and it's like Lufia with its cross-shaped icon menu.  None of these aspects of the battle system are poor concepts, but the way in which they are executed is flawed. 

One of the things that made Chrono great is that there were no random battles.  Black Sigil throws that idea out the door and assaults you with more battles than an NES RPG.  It gets pretty ridiculous when you're literally fighting battles every one or two steps.  Later in the game, there's a piece of equipment that lowers the encounter rate, but even then, you still have more encounters than most RPGs out there.  Traversing the world map is especially painful because of this issue.  Unlike Chrono, you walk around on the world map, and crawling at a snail's pace is only made worse when you're barraged with enemy assaults almost every step.  I felt like I died and went to Heaven the moment I obtained an airship.  For awhile there, I was wishing my characters were limbless, so I didn't have to walk another step.

Not only are you brutally assaulted with endless random encounters, but they're also hellishly long.  It takes about 8 seconds for your characters' time gauges to fill up, and then you usually have to weather several rounds before a battle ends.  One to two minute battles were getting ridiculous, so I made an effort to constantly stock up on loads of healing items and potions to replenish my MP, so I could assault the enemies with endless magic attacks.  Some parts of the game dragged on forever, since my abilities were quite pathetic initially, but once I completed some sidequests and gained several spells that attacked all enemies, things got better.

Frequent slow battles are probably enough to deter all but the hardest of the hardcore RPG OGs, but they were made even worse by the fact that your characters can get stuck in battle.  The way Black Sigil's battle system is set-up is that you take three characters into battle.  You can arrange their order, but you can't give them an ideal starting point on the battlefield.  The problem with this is, your characters will often get stuck behind terrain and other characters, so they're left helpless, unless they have magic abilities or long-range weapons that can reach around walls.  This was just clumsy programming, and I know the developers could have done something about this if there was more time. 

Also, you're often ambushed by bosses.  Sometimes save points are infrequent, so this can be especially brutal.  Certain boss fights require you to have items equipped to a particular character (there is no stockpile of items to take into battle in Black Sigil), so you can easily hit the game over screen if you aren't prepared.  This especially sucks if you've spent over an hour in a long dungeon without hitting a save point.  Some dungeons are mazelike with exits that are difficult to see, and they also can feature brutal enemies that use status effects that cripple your entire party.  I only had a few of these near- death experiences during long periods of play, but I should mention that I'm a veteran when it comes to RPGs.  Rookies, will likely get slaughtered in the early parts of the game if they don't pay close attention to their characters and stock up on loads of items.  Like a good scout, you should "Be Prepared".

Before moving on, I have one last negative comment to stain Black Sigil's reputation.  This wasn't a major issue, as it only happened two times in one dungeon, but I actually had the game freeze on me.  At first, I wondered if it was my DSi, because I had played 22 hours of Black Sigil without experiencing any problems, but after perusing some Internet forums, sure enough, it looks like Black Sigil sometimes has freezing issues.  Apparently, this problem isn't too big of an issue, but you may experience a couple freezes late in the game, so make sure to save frequently.

Black Sigil may have some serious issues with its battle system, but you'll likely enjoy the many references made to your favorite 16-bit RPGs.  Some of these references are very subtle, while others are quite noticeable.  Avid RPG fans will likely notice that many of the character animations are pulled directly from Chrono Trigger.  The laughing, running, and spell casting animations, will all remind you of that epic, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Besides featuring similar animations and sound effects (such as the breeze found in Narshe), Black Sigil also has many events that draw on your nostalgia for the RPGs of yore.  One scene will remind you of the Battle for Narshe where you divide into three parties.  Another will remind you of the mysteries surrounding Gau.  There are many moments like this that make you yearn for the days of old, but thankfully, they don't detract from Black Sigil's already great storyline.

  

The last element of Black Sigil I'd like to cover is the music.  The soundtrack isn't quite as varied as FFVI, but what is there is excellent.  Black Sigil's musical score will likely remind you of Suikoden, Chrono Trigger, and even Chrono Cross.  The musical themes are quite emotional, and really add to the experience despite being midi files.  Black Sigil's music really makes you feel the magic of Bel Lenora, and there are plenty of songs that perfectly complement each scene.  As in many RPGs, one song will likely grow repetitive, however--and that's the battle theme.  I actually really enjoyed the battle theme, despite it not being upbeat like Lufia 2, but it grew stale after being forced to hear it thousands of times.  Studio Archcraft should have taken a page from Namco's Tales series and created multiple battle themes, but that's a minor flaw present in most RPGs.

Black Sigil clearly has a number of issues that will detract from your enjoyment of the game, but the music, storyline, characters, and artwork made it worthwhile in my opinion.  I would have bestowed Black Sigil with a lofty 9.0 if it weren't for the major flaws with its battle system, but sadly, I have to subtract a few points.  Due to the problems with the battle system, only the most hardcore RPGs will enjoy Black Sigil.  If Studio Archcraft would have spent more time balancing the game, it could have been an amazing experience that would rival the best RPGs the SNES had to offer.  Unfortunately, I just can't recommend it unless you're willing to brave the battles to see everything else the game has to offer.  Still, I'm quite impressed with what Studio Archcraft accomplished with their first RPG.  Until hitting the incredibly short credits, I didn't realize that most of the game was produced by fewer people than the number of fingers on your hand.  After seeing the credits, it didn't surprise me that the game took four years, considering the incredible amount of detail in this 40-hour game.  Since Studio Archcraft made such a noble effort, I'd hope that fans of old-school RPGs would give this a shot, because I'm sure this development team could accomplish something amazing with their next project.  Black Sigil may not have lived up to Chrono Trigger, but it's still an adventure worth experiencing for those who miss what is often considered the golden age of RPGs--the 16-bit era.

Score: 7.0

Summary

Pros: 

  • Great character and background artwork
  •           An emotionally charged musical score

  • Humorous character dialogue
  •          Plenty of references to RPG classics

  • An excellent fantasy tale analogous to many real world scenarios
  • Creative battle system
  • A lengthy handheld adventure

Cons:
  • Random encounters are far too frequent
  • Characters regularly get stuck behind objects in battle
  • Battles are too drawn out
  •            Not enough save points

  •          Bosses can surprise you when you aren't ready for them

  • Game occasionally freezes
  • Unnecessary division of your group into parties
  • Grueling treks on the world map
  • Some unconventional controls aren't explained (hold the B-button to run from battles)


3 Comments
Posted by LonelySpacePanda

It's hard to applaud a game for slavishly replicating the look of Squaresoft's SNES games, but that doesn't stop me from getting a hard-on for those screenshots.  I hate JRPGS with long battle sequences.  That sounds like a deal breaker, imo. 

Posted by ThomasP

Great review. I was thinking about making the purchase, but I don't think I will now. I should support the Canadian dev studio, though. Decisions, decisions...

Posted by bshirk
@ThomasP:

Thanks, Thomas.  I'm glad that I was able to help someone with their decision.

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