Review: Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled

Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled
Developer: Studio Archcraft
Publisher: Graffiti Entertainment
Genre: Tactical RPG
Release Date: 06/09/2009

Black Sigil is the first game by a new Canadian developer known as Studio Archcraft. Originally this game was developed for the Game Boy Advance, but it appears due to delays, they ported it to the DS instead. After all, they haven’t made GBA games for a while. This is also the second game we’ve reviewed from publisher Graffiti Entertainment. Last September Mark B. took a look at their release, Mazes of Fate and was pretty happy with it. It was nice to see an independent developer and an independent publisher coming together to put together an enjoyable, if under the radar, game.

Black Sigil has been on my list for quite some time. The story sounded neat and the graphics and gameplay reminded me of all those Working Designs localized games I played on the Saturn and Sega CD: Lunar. Vay. Albert Odyssey. These were all staples of my youth and somethin in the preview footage I witnessed reminded me of those. Now, was Black Sigil a return to the quality RPG’s of yesteryear, or was this a game best left ignored?

Let’s Review

1. Story

The Land of Bel Lenora is a frozen wasteland. One might wonder how an entire kingdom survives in an arctic climate like this, but there’s a trick. Everyone in the kingdom can use magic. Well nearly everyone. Two decades ago a man named Vai was born without the ability to use magic. Due to prejudice and overall derision from his fellow man Vai “The Magic-Less” grew into a dark and twisted soul and honed his physical prowess beyond what any in Bel Lenora had seen before. Vai raised a might army and war broke out. Vai was eventually defeated and sealed away in the Cursed Caves, but now fifteen years later the adopted son of the man who defeated Vai is revealed as another magic-less being, sending the community into a fearful frenzy.

Although this young man, named Kairu, is a good soul, only his sister Aurora treats him as such. Eventually even his own father sends him into exile by shunning him to the Cursed Caves as well, where only magic can set one free. Of course, Vai’s sister Aurora sneaks into the caves before they are sealed, and Aurora swears to stand by her brother until he finds a way to use magic. However, somewhere in the cave lies a portal to another world where things are reversed. Here in this new land, magic is rare and viewed with heavy suspicion. Everything these two teenagers know is turned on their head. With adventure in their hearts and a quest to unlock Kairu’s magical ability in their heads, the two set out to make new friends and discover the link between both worlds.

I have to say, I really loved the story in this game. Kairu was an enjoyable main character and Aurora, Nephi and all the other friends you make along your journey are really well fleshed out. You really grow to care about your motley cast and crew and there really hasn’t been an RPG with this level of characterization and storytelling in quite some time. Even the NPC’s you encounter in towns are a lot of fun to interact with. There are quite a few laugh out loud moments and I really enjoyed the fact that some characters would have completely different things to say to your party, depending on who you had as your lead character. Because of this I spent far too much time randomly talking to unimportant characters, just to see what would happen.

As we will see below, the actual gameplay and mechanics of Black Sigil will no doubt put off a lot of gamers, but for those of you who believe story is king, boasts the best plot and characters I’ve encountered this year.

Story Rating: Classic

2. Graphics

The graphics in Black Sigil aren’t going to win any awards, but for those of you with fond memories of games like Azure Dreams, Arc the Lad or Sword of Vermillion, you’ll be swept away in a wave of nostalgia. I really loved the sprite designs and character portraits, and although the game is obviously sporting GBA visuals, it’s still a lot better looking than other DS games I’ve played this year, like Knights in the Nightmare, Avalon Code or even Square-Enix’s own Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume. That’s pretty impressive.

Backgrounds are pretty decent too, although sometimes it’s hard to tell what is a wall and what is something you can pass through. In dungeons this can be a killer, if only due to the sheer amount of random battles in the game. Monsters are also a bit of an eyesore, with even bosses being a bit dull at times. There are only a handful of monsters per each section and most of them aren’t very detailed. Special effects like skills and magical attacks are very uninspired, and unlike the character designs, these would have been outdated even on the GBA for which this game was originally designed.

Basically it boils down to this, when you know the origins of this game and compare it to other RPG’s on the DS< the in-town graphics are fairly impressive, but the battle graphics and world map visuals are pretty underwhelming. Call it a thumbs in the middle here. Graphics Rating: Mediocre

3. Sound

Again, as this was originally meant to be a GBA game, no one should be surprised or upset at the lack of voice acting. This is an indie game through and through. Besides, with a story and characterization like this, voice acting would almost ruin the retro feel of this game.

Sound effects are a bit dull and there’s not a lot of variety to the music in this game. I have to admit, the slow pace of a lot of the score just didn’t do it for me. I really wish there had been something faster paced as it would have fit the tone of the game better. The slow melodies would work great for touching or gripping scenes, but not in battle or when excitement is afoot.

Overall, this is easily a game you could play with the sound muted. Listen to a CD or your I-tunes library instead. You probably have something in your soundtrack collection that is more fitting. Might I suggest Dark Wizard or Guardian Heroes?

Sound Rating: Poor

4. Control and Gameplay

Okay, I have to say this. Black Sigil boasts the worst manual I have ever encountered in DS history. It reads like stereo instructions and it was obviously put together by someone who has never printed anything before. I mean it used web resolution graphics and type on a printed page. It’s an eye sore. You may be wondering why this is in the control and Gameplay section. Well because the manual is so badly put together I missed out on a VERY important aspect of the game. Two actually. Why? Because these controls weren’t mentioned in the manual at all! The first was how to switch character when someone’s turn came up but they couldn’t do anything. The other was how to run from battles. I spent the first three or four hours of the game not knowing how to do the latter and I accidentally discovered the former about two hours in. This led to my party dying in a cave when running from a fat general because there is a random battle about every three steps and I lacked the ability to leave battles. I thought this was a horrible programming decision when really, it was just a badly written manual. So as a gift to you, here’s how to do BOTH.

If you want to run from a battle, you need to hold down B and even then most of your enemies will get an attack or two in before you successfully escape, making this option worthless when you are low on healing items and spell points. To switch from a character that can’t attack or do anything from his or her location, well, all you can do is hold down the L or R button to move the character manually and use that as your move. There is no actually “Wait” or “Defend” option. It’s either move and attack by choosing attack, skill or spell, use an item or just move. This can get pretty frustrating for gamers used to the usual straight up escape or defend options. As such, expect a bit of a learning curve to break yourself of old habits.

The actual battle system, once you figure it out after that realization that a good portion of the controls are never explained to you, is actually pretty interesting. You’re dealing with an active time system. Each character has a bar that slowly fills, and once it has, you can make you move. Don’t dilly-dally though as you opponents’ bars are still filling (even though you can’t see them) while you are making decisions. Besides a normal weapon-based attack you can use healing items, special skills or spells that you have learned, and even combo attacks where two characters team up for a super attack. This is most useful against a boss, but it’s a waste of time and skill points against run of the mill enemies.

The item system is the game is pretty messed up and is the one really big flaw with the game in my opinion. Each character can only hold four items. I’m fine with that. It’s realistic. However, if one character has a particular type of item, NO OTHER CHARACTER CAN CARRY THAT AS WELL. That means only one character can carry the blue herb, which is your basic healing item. What type of game is designed like that? Every character should be able to carry a healing item. Otherwise you might as well only have magical healing. This is honestly stupid beyond belief and most people that play Black Sigil will have a problem with this at first, if not throughout the entire game.

Then we have the random battles. My god, are there a lot of random battles. Every three or four steps you have a battle. In fact, I have never encountered a game with THIS MANY random battles since the Japanese version of Thousand Arms. The real problem with the random battles is that you fight so many, that you are often way overpowered for the battles you encounter. The only time I have ever died in the game is when I have been in dungeon where I am not able to leave for plot reasons and I run out of healing items so I am slowly whittled down while looking for the exit. Bosses are almost a cakewalk. THIS is the huge downside to having your engine supersaturated with random battles. The game loses any and all challenge save for the times where the poor escape option combines with the poor item management. That’s some bad engine design for sure.

So with all this negativity, you’re probably wondering what’s GOOD about the gameplay? Well, not much. Your characters move extremely slow on the world map, your main character is supposed to suffer from random negative status effects, but there’s a bug in the engine so it affects whoever you have as your party leader (Hint, make your party leader your weakest character or whoever uses magic.) and there are several glitches in the game where it will just freeze up, forcing you to restart. As you can only save on the world map or in selected spots, you will end up losing quite a bit of your game due to these issues. There appears to be little rhyme or reason to the freezing, which is unfortunate. Thankfully I only had three or four freezing issues throughout the entire playthrough, but each time I lost an hour or more of work.

Black Sigil is not a bad game, it’s just a massively flawed one. The story is as awesome as the overall engine powering the game is crappy. If these errors had only been cleaned up we’d be looking at a GBA game of the year contender. Instead, we’re looking at a game where you have to ask what is more important – the story or the gameplay. If it’s the gameplay, run away now.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Bad

5. Replayability

Black Sigil is a pretty linear RPG. As much fun as it was to see the story unfold, the engine was such a mess I’m not sure if I’ll ever play through it again. It’s not akin to something like Lunar or Shadow Hearts where you have a great linear story BUT the engine is just as enjoyable as the plot. This game will probably stay on my shelf as it is the best story I’ve encountered in a game in 2009 and because it’s a game I’ll probably never find again if I trade it in or give it to a friend. Still, it’s linear, it’s buggy, and a lot of the game will probably lose its luster on a second playthrough.

Replayability Rating: Bad

6. Balance

Alright, a broken engine would be enough to give this game low marks here. The sheer amount of random battles would be enough to earn this game negative comments here. The fact the battles are far too easy because you’re often overpowered by the amount of random battles in the game is yet another strike against the game for balance reason. However, there’s one more big problem. In each section of the game you will only ever have three or four battles and those battles repeat themselves endlessly. The game only has a few battle layouts per section programmed in. So you will always encounter the same type of monsters in the same type of pattern with the same sort of follow-through. This means after the second or third time with each battle, you will know exactly what to do to make things short, sweet, and succinct. Again, this is just simply shoddy programming and offers the player little to no challenges. Only the boss battles changes things up a bit but again, you’re often far too powerful for the boss by the time you encounter it to make the encounter even remotely exciting. Remember, this is WITHOUT level grinding. Oy.

I really wish Studio Archcraft had tweaked this engine, or at least seriously playtested it, because I really wanted to recommend this game to people. When all these minor things add up to one big red flag, I have to categorize the game as broken, and that’s a damn shame.

Balance Rating: Bad

7. Originality

Although Black Sigil certainly FEELS like an old school RPG with the depth of the story and characters, it’s actually quite innovative. As flawed as the engine is, you can really tell that Studio Archcraft was trying to make an engine that stands out from the pack. I really enjoyed the battles at first until I got sick of their frequency and the fact that it was the same few battles per area repeated over and over again. I learned not to care about the item issue and instead focused on exploring dungeons and trying to get to the next part of the awesome story.

Speaking of the story, it’s a very well done tale and I’ve never encountered anything like it. I really liked the opening twist with the characters being in a land where everyone can use magic instead of it being a special ability. I also liked several of the twists with the characters and was quite shocked with who one of the two hidden characters in the game was. Nice touch SA.

The engine does have some severe issues, but one can’t discount the uniqueness of the gameplay and how much the story will stand out for everyone who can look past the gameplay issues and continue foraging on.

Originality Rating: Good

8. Addictiveness

I had a really hard time putting Black Sigil down. Normally when a game freezes like this, I would throw it down after the second time and basically say, “Unplayable piece of crap.” But the story! Wow, was the story great. I just sucked it up each time I lost an hour or two of gameplay and continued on after a great deal of profane utterings. That’s pretty impressive because with nearly 300 reviews under my belt, I have little to no tolerance for game ending bugs.

I’ll admit it, a good story is the most important things for me in an RPG. If that’s there, and it usually ISN’T these days, I’m hooked. Hell, I played through Lunar 2: Eternal Blue for the Sega CD even with the “magic experience” crap, the spending XP to save the game crap and the evil that was Borgan, and I STILL LOVED IT! This is much the same case here. Both games had some strange decisions made to the engine (Although with L:EB, that was Working Designs making some insane choices with localizing.), but the sheer quality of the story made the game well worth playing through to the end. I can’t say that Black Sigil is as good a game as any of Eternal Blue‘s incarnations, it’s still in that same vein.

If you’ve been as hungry for a quality story in 2009 as I have, Black Sigil will more than satisfy you. Otherwise, you may have a hard time STICKING with this game as the freezing and overall engine issues will bore/frustrate you senseless.

Addictiveness Rating: Good

9. Appeal Factor

I’ve been pretty hard on the engine and rightfully so. The vast, and I mean VAST majority of gamers are going to hate this game. I mean, it freezes up on you, it gives you more random battles than any other game I’ve played in a decade (and no one likes random battles in the first place!), and the item system should have been retooled. HOWEVER, Black Sigil is a diamond in the rough and for a select group of gamers, it really does have the potential to be a memorable and perhaps even someone’s favorite game for the DS. Kairu definitely deserves a nomination for “Best Character of 2009” from us come December and I would love to see another RPG from Archcraft down the road. I wouldn’t even be opposed to a sequel although that seems like it would be a bit hard to do.

This game is really going to appeal to only two niche audiences: those that long for the days when we could experience RPG’s like Shining Force II, Persona: Be Your True Mind and Vay, and those that consider story to be the most important aspect of their gaming experience. Everyone else should probably stay clear as the gameplay is enough to drive most gamers batty.

Appeal Factor: Bad

10. Miscellaneous

Although I’ve definitely given Black Sigil some very negative criticism throughout this review, I do have to say I really did like this game. The characters and storyline will be hard to forget and I LOVED how NPC’s would change their dialogue based on who they spoke too. I enjoyed several of the choices available to my characters and it makes me wonder if there are multiple endings to this title.

Most importantly for a first ever game, Studio Archcraft deserves to be commending. I’ve played games this year from larger, more well-established studios that were worse than this title. I’ve played games this year that were better on a technical level, but didn’t come as close to touching me on an EMOTIONAL level. That’s the true key – a game needs to really connect with the player, otherwise the best made game in the world is never going to be more than an “ok” experience to that individual. As a critic, I can’t deny that Black Sigil really should have been cleaned up and given more playtesting before it was released to the general public, but as a GAMER, I can’t deny that Black Sigil gave me the quality story and characters I’ve been waiting for someone to provide this entire calendar year. Here’s hoping we see more down the road from Studio Archcraft and Graffiti Entertainment down the road.

Miscellaneous Rating: Good

The Scores
Story: Classic
Graphics: Mediocre
Sound: Poor
Control and Gameplay: Bad
Replayability: Bad
Balance: Bad
Originality: Good
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Bad
Miscellaneous: Good
FINAL SCORE: MEDIOCRE GAME!

Short Attention Span Summary
On a technical level, Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled is a bit of a disaster. The game gives you a random battle every three or four steps, it is prone to locking up and freezing your game, costing you minutes, or even hours of gameplay, and there is almost no variety to the random encounters, giving a gamer a constant sense of either deja vu or boredom. HOWEVER, and this is a big however, Black Sigil also boasts the best story I’ve encountered in a game this year, Kairu is a shoo-in for a “Character of the Year” nomination for us come the end of the year, and even with all the engine issues, I was more than willing to overlook them as I just wanted to see what would happen next. If gameplay is the most important thing you look for in a title, stay the hell away from this. If STORY is the most important thin, than you’re going to need to track down a copy of this hard to find title. As such, call Black Sigil a game right on the fence with the bad balancing out with the good.

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