When NEC Interchannel's Black/Matrix was first announced for the Sega Saturn, the accompanying screenshots really impressed me and made me look forward to the release of the game. From the early pictures and descriptions of the game, I was expecting an improved version of Square's Final Fantasy Tactics from Black/Matrix. Upon receiving this game, however, I was severely disappointed at how different Black/Matrix is from Final Fantasy Tactics, and especially at how it's not quite as well executed as FFT either. However, once I got over my initial disappointment, I came to discover that Black/Matrix is a solid strategy RPG in its own right.
In Black/Matrix's world, society is divided into two classes: masters, who have black wings, and slaves, who have white wings. Long ago, this social structure was determined by an epic battle between the White God and the Black God, with the Black God proving to be victorious. You play as Abel, a white-winged slave, and you (as the player, not as Abel) get to choose one of 5 different black-winged females to be your master.
As the game begins, Abel is injured and bed-ridden, with his master nursing him back to health. During this course of events, it becomes obvious that Abel's master has fallen in love with him. Conflict is sure to follow this development, since it is forbidden in Black/Matrix's society for a black-winged master to fall in love (with a slave or otherwise), and it does, as local law enforcement officials discover this crime. Abel's master is taken away and imprisoned somewhere far off, and Abel is tossed into a dungeon.
In his cell, Abel is paired with Levrobes, a ruffian who immediately pounds Abel into submission to establish the dungeon pecking order. Soon after, an unhappy black-winged master named Pilipo comes into the cell to talk to Abel. Abel then performs a miracle by transforming Pilipo into a white-winged slave. The other prisoners see this feat, and a mysterious voice from the shadows proclaims that Abel is the savior of the white-winged slaves. From there, it's up to Abel and his newfound allies (Levrobes, Pilipo, and another prisoner named Gaius) to escape from the dungeon and go rescue his master.
Black/Matrix certainly doesn't get off to an auspicious start, opening with an FMV so poorly constructed that I wonder why the programmers even bothered including it in the game. Not only is the FMV extremely grainy in appearance and horribly choppy in animation, it's completely uninteresting in content. It just shows a camera panning over a variety of bland landscapes, while credits roll.
However, once the game actually starts, the visuals get much better. Like Final Fantasy Tactics, Black/Matrix is mostly shown from an isometric viewpoint. However, Black/Matrix makes a departure from most RPGs in that its theme is darker, and its graphics reflect that theme. The maps are all very dark, but are detailed and extremely well drawn. The same goes for the characters, who are also detailed despite their relatively small size.
Despite its general darkness, the color palette used in the game looks great, as bright colors are used in appropriate places. The character designs and art are also mostly well above average, particularly those of the black-winged masters that you get to choose from at the beginning. The black-winged masters that you choose from range from an extremely cute little girl-type (Plica) to a sexy dominatrix-type (Praha).
The one gripe I have about the graphics is in the backgrounds of the maps. Despite the generally high level of detail in them, some of them really could have used a few more colors to round them out a bit.
Black/Matrix is an isometric strategy RPG that plays somewhat similarly to the aforementioned Final Fantasy Tactics in its battles. The battles are turn-based, with distinct player/enemy phases, and weapons, magic, and items can be used by your characters. Like Final Fantasy Tactics, you can move after you attack, and fallen foes don't perish immediately after you take them out of the battle.
The similarities end there between the two games, however. Black/Matrix has no job system the way Final Fantasy Tactics does. Instead, character customization revolves around blood points. Blood points are obtained by killing your enemies (this can be done by attacking fallen foes), and are basically the equivalent of magic points. In between battles, you can assign a certain number of blood points to each of your player characters (up to their BP limit), thus determining how much magic each of your characters can use in the next battle. Blood points can also be junctioned to weapons, lending them attributes such as increased damage when you attack with them.
Another innovation that Black/Matrix presents is in the experience point system. Unlike most other RPGs, Black/Matrix pools all experience points that your party earns. Once the battle ends, the player gets to assign the experience points to each of the individual characters, thus opening up some customization in the party. Each character also gets bonus attribute points after leveling up; the player can increase any of his or her characters' attributes the way he or she wants to, within the limits of how many bonus attribute points are received.
Black/Matrix does have some key flaws in its gameplay, though. I really dislike the gameplay in the towns; instead of being able to move your characters around the town, you just move an arrow around and point at what you want to examine or who you want to talk to. Also, there is no camera control in Black/Matrix. I do not like isometric viewpoints to begin with, but they become even more annoying when you can't rotate the camera. When there are a lot of characters on the battle map, the computer is sometimes really slow at deciding what its next move is going to be, making the enemy phases really drag. And finally, this is more of an observation than a flaw, but interested parties should be aware that the learning curve in Black/Matrix is really steep. The game starts off easy enough, but gets really hard quickly.
Black/Matrix's control is quite solid. Like that of most strategy RPGs, the control revolves mainly around cursor movement and menu navigation. The cursor is responsive to the control pad, despite the fact that it moves in steps rather than in smooth, continuous motions. The menus are reasonably well organized, but aren't among the best that I've ever seen.
The biggest weakness from the control comes mainly from the fact that it's sometimes difficult to see exactly what your cursor is pointing at in towns and battles. This problem is compounded by the fact that the view is isometric, and you can't rotate or tilt the camera to get a better view. Also, the cursor controls isometrically.
Black/Matrix's storyline may appear to be a typical save-the-girl snooze, but it remains interesting because of its unusually dark mood and strong character development. Your player characters are not the typical heroic bunch from most RPGs; some are murderers and thieves from your dungeon experience, while others are defeated foes whose motivations remain suspect. The blood point system also encourages the player to not just defeat, but kill the enemies, and therefore reinforces the dark mood of the game.
However, the events of the plot are interesting, and are definitely thought-provoking. The aforementioned character development also keeps the player involved.
Black/Matrix's sound department is sort of a mixed bag. The sound effects are solid, but aren't that memorable. However, the voice acting is tremendous, and there is a lot of it. The talented cast features, among others, Noriko Hidaka, who has shined in the past as Feena in Grandia and Akane Tendo in Ranma ½.
However, I did not particularly like Black/Matrix's soundtrack. Mildly influenced by trip-hop bands, the score features funky beats and sampled voices in many of the tracks. I didn't have any problems with the musical style of the soundtrack, but I didn't find the majority of the melodies to be memorable at all. To its credit, the mood of the soundtrack (dark and somewhat sexy) does match the mood of the game well.
Black/Matrix isn't a game that will appeal to the squeamish, but hardcore strategy fans will likely enjoy it. It may be really hard to find nowadays, since it was produced in very limited quantities, but upcoming Playstation and Dreamcast ports of Black/Matrix should help remedy this problem. Black/Matrix isn't in the top echelon of strategy RPGs, but its excellent visuals and interesting and deviant storyline merit a hearty recommendation.
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