Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled
Platform: Nintendo DS
Publisher: Graffiti Entertainment
Developer: Studio Archcraft
Genre: Traditional RPG
Format: Cartridge
Released: US 06/09/09
Official Site: English Site

Graphics: 80%
Sound: 75%
Gameplay: 75%
Control: 90%
Story: 80%
Overall: 80%
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Neal Chandran
Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled
Neal Chandran

There is a strong neo-retro trend in gaming these days, and independent RPG developers have been ahead of that curve for a long time now. There is a strong desire to recapture those warm fuzzy feelings of rose-colored nostalgia that gamers around my age felt back when we were tweens or teens playing Final Fantasy IV-VI on the SNES or Phantasy Star II-IV on the Genesis. Studio Archcraft's debut DS RPG, Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled, is certainly a pair of rose-colored glasses, albeit with a few scratches on the lenses.

The most prominent attractant to rose-colored nostalgia is Black Sigil's graphics. Put simply, the game looks a lot like 16-bit Square / Enix classics (as the two companies were separate back in those days) such as Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, or Terranigma. Sometimes eerily so. To some gamers, Black Sigil looks like a blatant forgery of these classic games, whereas other gamers see Black Sigil as homage to a bygone RPG era. My opinion falls more in line with the latter sentiment. Games such as Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, and Terranigma still look good to me and therefore I think Black Sigil looks nice too. There is no mistaking the vibe of the aforementioned classics in Black Sigil's sprites, tiles, spell effects, and text font. There is also no mistaking the nod to 16-bit classics in the Mode 7 overworld, though it does not look as pretty as the lushly detailed towns or the expressive character portraits that accompany dialogue. Black Sigil may not have strikingly original visuals, but it is an attractive game that captures an intended retro essence.

Complementing the retro visuals is an equally retro soundtrack. These MIDI-based orchestral compositions would not be out of place in a 16-bit RPG. The score is enjoyable to listen to, with nicely composed tracks, but despite the consistent quality the score itself is not very memorable and not a single track stands out to me. At least the music sounds good through the DS's speakers. It is hard to imagine any other kind of soundtrack accompanying this style of RPG.

If you have played a traditional JRPG, the gameplay does not deviate from that classic "town-overworld-dungeon, with occasional sidequests" formula. Towns have NPCs that sometimes say different things depending on who is speaking to them and some dungeons will really kick players' butts. Battles occur randomly and play out similarly to those in Anachronox, meaning they are Chrono Trigger-style ATB battles with multi-character combination attacks and an option to move characters around the field, thus adding additional strategic elements. All characters gain full experience regardless of whether they participate in battle, but they can only learn combination attacks if they fight together.

Some of the gameplay aspects that players will either like as cute quirks or dislike as outdated annoyances are as follows: One is that although there is a dash button to allow running in dungeons and towns, there is only a single slow walking speed on the overworld. Two is that it is sometimes hard to tell whether a wall in a dungeon is a dead end or an obscured passageway, or whether a floor can be walked on or not. Three is that, though items are pooled outside of battle, each party member can only carry his/her own limited inventory of items into battle. Four is that, despite a quicksave feature, opportunities to save (whether via save points or the overworld) are often spread too far apart. These are gameplay aspects that, though mildly annoying, I am able to somewhat overlook. There is, however, one aspect that I find impossible to overlook.

I find it impossible to overlook a random encounter rate that is too high. Getting into battles every three steps is not fun and makes exploring more tedious than need be. I often wanted to escape from battle, but I had to figure out how to on my own since the instruction manual does not mention how to escape. And like in most Final Fantasy games, the enemies will pound on you while you try to escape. The "randomness" of the random encounters does not end there. Due to a plot element, the main character sometimes enters battle with random status ailments, which can be aggravating until rectified by a plot point much later in the game. I do not have the kind of patience for high random encounter rates that I used to have as a kid.

Enduring the negative gameplay aspects is made much easier by Black Sigil's solid story. Players will not find some crazy, convoluted, avant-garde plot here: just a good, clean RPG story harbored by cool characters and fun dialogue. The story is a slow burner that takes a good 6 to 8 hours to pick up, but once it does, it maintains its momentum for its 35 to 40 hour duration. The ending has multiple outcomes depending on how many subplot-based sidequests are completed and if one or both of the hidden characters are discovered. These sidequests generally do not open up until the latter portion of the game when the party obtains a sky ship, so the tale is fairly linear for the most part.

The tale starts out in the snowy country of Bel Lenora where magic flows through peoples' veins like blood. Bel Lenora saw great turmoil fifteen years ago when the traitorous General Vai, a magicless marauder, wreaked havoc on the land. Vai was defeated by Duke Averay who subsequently adopted Kairu, a young boy orphaned by the terror. Kairu was reared alongside Duke Averay's biological daughter, Aurora, as his own son. Unfortunately, Kairu does not possess any magic and that similarity between he and Vai makes him a pariah in Bel Lenora. Thanks to his supportive and loving family, Kairu has become a strong, level-headed young man and not the whiny, despondent angst-bucket you would expect him to be. He is tight-lipped and standoffish with most people, but is devoted to Duke Averay and lets his guard down with Aurora. So long as Kairu has his dad and sister on his side, he can endure the seething hatred from everyone else in Bel Lenora.

In true RPG fashion, Kairu's destiny leads him far beyond Bel Lenora's snowy mountains. A government order forces General Averay to exile Kairu to the Cursed Caves. Kairu takes his exile like a man, but who should he encounter in the cave but his dear sister Aurora! There is no way she is letting her brother disappear without her, so she snuck out to be part of the adventure. So now, a cool-headed boy and his fiery-tempered sister venture off into the unknown where they will embark on the adventure of a lifetime filled with colorful new friends to meet, an evil empire to topple, treacherous areas to trawl, and shocking revelations to learn.

It is certainly no revelation that I enjoyed Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled. The game took its sweet time to grow on me, but grow on me it did. The more I played the game, the more I liked it. This is definitely not a game for the impatient or easily frustrated, and if you can look at the game's foibles as endearing "retro-chic" quirks, then there is joy to be found in Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled.

Post Script Note: Many people have reported their games freezing up after as little as 3 hours of play. In my playthrough of the game, I did not experience any freezing, lock ups, or crashes. Graffiti even issued a statement that freezing only occurs with pirated versions of the game. The one or two glitches I did encounter were inconsequential and did not affect my experience in any way. Even modern RPGs by big name developers on major consoles aren't always glitch free, and Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled is a pretty clean game in that regard.


© 2009 Graffiti Entertainment. All rights reserved.

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