The Nintendo DS has been the king of RPG’s this generation with titles like Super Robot Taisen OG Saga: Endless Frontier, Suikoden Tierkreis, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor, and a wealth of other games. Enter Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled, an RPG that has been in development since 2006 and does its part to continue the DS’ reign over the RPG genre.
Originally planned for the Game Boy Advance, Black Sigil finally arrived in the hands of RPG gamers in June 2009, though quantities were limited. Those fortunate enough to snag a copy were privy to an eerily anachronistic adventure that couldn’t be more ’16-bit era’ if it had been released in 1994. Fans of Chrono Trigger, Lufia and the Fortress of Doom, Secret of Mana, and many other 16-bit RPG’s will experience an overwhelming sense of déjà vu when playing this game. Everything down to the fonts and sprites make the game seem like it was unearthed in an old Squaresoft warehouse and copied onto a DS cartridge.
You play Kairu, the adopted son of a General of the magical land of Bel Lenora. In this world, magic is commonplace, so you naturally have no such powers. Forced into exile, you and your sister, Aurora, are transported to another world where it’s the magic users who are feared. The plot comes off as typical with each encounter smoothly directing you to the next but one thing that’s different is that you aren’t on a ‘quest.’ You don’t begin your journey mindful of an intangible goal to destroy evil or unite the world. Instead, the story evolves organically, and while this structure might hinder a player’s motivation to continue, it ensures that there are fewer obvious plot points.
The writing is excellent. It’s not the work of the Bard, of course not, but it’s classic in every sense of the word. Swords, witches and evil empires—it’s all here. Kairu is appropriately naïve at the outset and slowly becomes more mature, Aurora’s personality is playful and vaguely flirtatious without being promiscuous. You’ll also find no unrealistically dimensioned and annoyingly hostile females in this game, an archetype that has developed in recent years.
In addition to Kairu and Aurora, several other characters enter and exit your party quite often. It’s not like other games where acquiring new party members can be likened to a snowball rolling down a hill. This is also a result of the lack of the ‘final goal.’ In many RPG’s, this ‘final goal’ yields benefits to each and every party member, meaning that once someone joins, he’s there for good. In Black Sigil, on the other hand, other party members might join and leave a dungeon later out of their own volition or because of events, making character development seem very natural.
The battle system can best be described as a combination of those seen in Star Ocean and Chrono Trigger. Upon entering a battle, your characters will appear on the battlefield and each will get his turn to move when his gauge fills up. Once your gauge fills, you’ll have a choice between attacking, item usage, skills, and combos. Item Usage is unique in that you can only equip four items to each character for use in battle. The Skill/Combos are single and dual techniques, respectively. (For instance—Kairu’s Averian Thrust Skill + Aurora’s Flamma Skill = Flame Thrust Combo much in the same way that Crono’s Spincut + Lucca’s Fire = Flame Sword.) You can also hold down ‘B’ to escape.
You can also move around the battlefield by holding the L button, allowing you to flee from enemies or move into the optimal position for an Area of Effect attack. However, it is infuriating that you cannot run ‘through’ allies. Many times I have spawned on the battlefield with my main attacker sandwiched in between a spellcaster and a ranged attacker, meaning I can’t use my main attacker at all unless he has a ranged skill. This makes battles last longer than they should, it also lessens the appeal of playing the game for extended periods of time.
Another reason that you can’t play the game at length is that save points are placed at strange and inconvenient intervals and health items are far too expensive. You can end up having to play close to two hours in one stretch before finding a save point and by that time you’re so fed up with the game that you’ll want to take a break. When you’re in town, nine times out of ten you’re forced to decide between restorative items or stronger equipment. Getting money is a pain because the battle system isn’t what you’d call ‘fun,’ ‘fluid,’ or ‘varied.’ You see the same enemies over and over again in certain areas and this really makes the grinding even more irritating. However if you’re close to a town or right next to a restore point; you can completely heal your party, so it’s only a matter of patience.
The battle system suffers further because of strange glitches. You occasionally begin a battle with a blind status ailment and on one occasion Kairu became ‘locked.’ The interface is also quite unintuitive with status ailments being shown at the very top of the top screen and magic points being shown in the place where, ordinarily, the character’s level would be displayed. It’s also weird to switch between enemy targets because the cursor navigation is based on the list of enemies on the battlefield and not their position on the battlefield. This means pressing ‘left’ might not select the enemy to the left but rather the enemy in the bottom right hand corner.
The music is fine but nothing particularly amazing and a fatal flaw is that the battle music can get on your nerves. It’s also quite disorienting and puzzling that there is no type of animation when entering a battle. You’re walking along and the screen fades to black before placing you on the battlefield. You can also end up fighting a boss battle out of the blue as opposed to having that window of opportunity where you can heal or save before a large fight.
Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled is unique in that it’s a good game plagued by strange inconsistencies and design flaws. The characters and plot stand out as being exemplary but it doesn’t play as well as modern RPG’s should. Had it been released about 15 years ago, it would have been considered phenomenal but advances in RPGs make Black Sigil seem unfinished. For the most part it works just fine, but unfortunately there are the occasional points where the design flaws are far too obvious. I’d advice renting this one before buying it because the battle system is broken in that special kind of way that doesn’t entirely ruin the game.
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Published By: Graffiti Entertainment
Developed By: Studio Archcraft
Rating: ESRB E for Everyone
Platforms: Nintendo DS
Release Date: June 9, 2009
Genre: Role Playing Game