Black Sigil's story is a long and fabled one. Beginning its life way back in 2006 as Project Exile, its name was quickly spread far and wide through word of mouth to the legion of fans of the role-playing genre for its old-school artistic design and retro presentation that would give players a chance to walk down the annals of memory lane and satisfy their lust for the golden years of the Super Nintendo RPG.
The developers had hoped to release this game on the GameBoy Advance, but due to the fact that by the end of 2006 the platform was going through its final days, they decided to shift focus to the Nintendo DS -- a move that would ultimately pay off in spades thanks to the handheld’s exponential growth in the market, outselling even its console counterparts. Despite experiencing a number of delays, the game was finally released last month.
Does Black Sigil have what it takes to stand up to its high-profile brethren, or does it join the list of hundreds of wannabes? Let’s find out in this review.
The story begins in Bel Lenora; a snow-covered continent where magic is the basis of sustenance for its people and is ready to be used at their will. The main character is Kairu, a young swordsman who faces exile (hence the subtitle). Legends are told of men without the gift of magic being cursed entities and signs of disasters, which make mockery and cynicism a daily part of Kairu's life. He is constantly being persecuted by the people because of his lack of magical ability.
It doesn't help the fact that his father is a famous general, making live even harder for our protagonist, who strives hard to meet the high expectations placed upon him. Despite this, his efforts to gain any sort of magical powers always ended in failure, but it does not take long for him to realize that there may be some truth behind Bel Lenora's legends.
The story was a real highlight for me because I have always been a big proponent of character development in any game regardless the genre, and luckily the script here is first-rate. All of the characters are brimming with charm and likeability, with a heavy dose of drama, plot twists, and show-stoppers thrown in for good measure. There was also never a shortage of people to talk to either, and each had something unique to say to you. Players can find themselves spending up to a hundred hours in this game alone, which is helped along by the multiple endings, adding to the replayability of the game itself.
To touch only briefly on the artistic design, it is as you would expect. It goes without saying that the style draws heavy inspiration from the old-school crowd, and there really is nothing extraordinary that makes it stand apart from that audience, but it definitely invokes the sense of nostalgia that the developers were aiming for, and I suppose that is all that really matters. Other than that, the game looks exactly the same as it did 3 years ago when it was being made for the GBA, and you will find much better looking games out there. I wouldn't say that this this game looked bad by any means, but all it did was make me want to pick up Chrono Trigger DS instead.
This brings me to my first big problem with the game -- the atrocious encounter rate. The system is just so damn frustrating that it may have well been concocted by a masochist. You will spend so much time in this game doing the classic stutter-step shuffle (1 step, battle, 2 steps, battle) that a lot of players will quit over this hassle alone, and because each battle offers such a low amount of experience points, you will find yourself taking part in hundreds of battles before the end of the game. This is even worse than traditional RPGs, and that is saying something.
For example, I timed myself to figure out how long it was going to take me to reach one side of the room in a dungeon to another, and it took me a grand total of 14 minutes! Heaven forbid I would wind up in the wrong room and have to backtrack to another corner of that very same room to find out where I am supposed to go. I am not someone who is easily frustrated, and I tend to actually enjoy games with random encounters, but it was hard not to feel pessimistic about this aspect of Black Sigil, and there was more than one time where I felt downright alienated because of it.
I will say that combat was actually an enjoyable one. Like most role-playing games, players will be able to choose up to 3 players to take with them into battle. Because the plot of the game is profoundly focused on the use of magic, don’t be surprised by the increasing reliance on skills to dispatch the different foes you will face; there are a number of times where melee attacks will barely scratch an enemy.
The battle system shows heavy shades of Chrono Trigger's Active Time Battle system, but the developers have dubbed it the "Active-Time Tactical Combat" in that you are able to manually move your characters around to better get them into position to better deliver moves such as area magical attacks.
The only real problem I faced was when I was stuck inside a narrow corridor and my main character was blocking the way for other characters to attack. I basically had the others skip their turns the entire time. If you have someone behind the main character who can only attack short range, forget about it, because there is absolutely no way to move your players around to get to the enemy in front of you, at least in that particular situation.
Save points are also few and far between. Because of the high encounter rate, being able to actually find these locations can be a chore in and of itself. I continuously found myself experiencing a lengthy part of the story with a heavy amount of dialogue, and then immediately be thrown into an area with enemies that were far stronger than myself and ultimately end up dying, essentially wasting a good half hour of my life and having to start all over. It also wasn't unusual spending more time going through a trial and error process to find the nearest save point than actually trying to advance the storyline.
The orchestrated score for the most part is gorgeous and really fits into the environments I found myself in. It can be a real treat just to sit back and let the music play and get lost in the moment. The downside to this is that whoever did the sound effects did a real poor job in that department, and I could pick out moments where some sounds were either recycled or were downright shoddy.
Despite all of the years of development leading up to the release of the game, Black Sigil wallows in a pit of mediocrity in a very handheld-unfriendly title. There is an unfortunate facade here where on the surface, the game appears to mimic some of the best games in the genre, but you end up with a game lacking an enormous amount of polish and an unhealthy helping of unoriginality, keeping it away from its ancestors, but makes a strong attempt to make up for it with a great story and beautiful music.
This isn't necessarily a terrible game, but it could have had so much more going for it if Studio Ashcraft tried to go for something more original rather than something this traditional. For now, only those looking for the aforementioned highlights need apply.
Versions tested: Nintendo DS