[Reviewer's note: I suppose an explanation is in order for why a game released in June is being reviewed in October. To be honest, I bought the game upon release to review it, but I became seriously depressed after playing through the first half. It wasn't until about a week ago that I could bear to pick it up again and finally finish it. Read on to find out what kind of game can drive a man to depression.]
Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled is a desperate attempt to hearken back to the ‘glory days’ of the SNES era RPGs. Almost every facet of the game, from programming to art to game design, was worked on by three people who probably think back to the mid 90′s with wistful, romantic nostalgia.
It comes through plainly in the game, which seems to be a Frankenstein-esque fusion of Chrono Trigger‘s gameplay and Final Fantasy 6‘s general story progression. After all, if you take cues from the two best RPGs of the best RPG era ever, what could possibly go wrong? Right?
Unfortunately – and it pains me to say this – an awful lot can go wrong. Just like Victor Frankenstein created a monster when trying to create something wonderful, Black Sigil is an experiment that completely fell short of its big dreams to recreate what was likely looked at as a better time for the genre.
You play as Kairu, a man without the ability to use magic in the land of Bel Lenora – a land populated entirely by magicians. As a result, Kairu is looked upon with fear and resentment, as the last magicless resident of Bel Lenora, the general Vai, starts a bloody war. After taking adequate time to establish that nobody likes Kairu, he himself gets ‘exiled’ into some sort of magic cave. His sister Aurora follows him, and as they venture into the cave, they are somehow magically whisked away to a new land called Artania.
This is already a little weird, because it sort of negates the first few hours of the plot. After all that work in establishing the great fear that Kairu inspires in the residents of Bel Lenora, he is taken to a completely different land entirely, where people who have magic are the ones who are scary. In any case, Artania is currently in a state of upheaval, as the military nation of Sammarkand is slowly moving across Artania and subjugating all nations.
Are you beginning to see the parallels to Final Fantasy 6? You’re a character whose particular traits (or lack thereof) makes him an outcast. But, incidentally, Kairu will wind up being the hero who helps lead the rebellion against Sammarkand, an obvious nod to the Empire of Final Fantasy 6.
Black Sigil‘s characters and story stay very true to the source of its inspiration, there are many striking similarities. The problem is, it doesn’t capture what made Final Fantasy 6 a truly great narrative. The actual plot of FF6 was pretty bland and overdone, even for its time; it had been done in countless other films and novels. The ‘heroes rebelling against the evil empire’ shtick was old, even in 1994. FF6 was amazing the compelling characters and drama contained within, and Black Sigil has none of that magic.
Sure, there are some cool things; the dialogue can actually be pretty funny at times. In particular, Kairu and Aurora were one of the more entertaining duos I’ve seen in an RPG in a while. But other than that, the characters have pretty predictable motivations and backstories, which seem to be set in place simply because the developers deemed it so, and it feels very unnatural because of it. And, without the wonderful characters and drama, we’re left with a bland, overplayed story that’s even more disorganized than the usual rebel-against-the-empire plotline.
The similarities to Chrono Trigger pop up mostly in the gameplay. Black Sigil‘s combat is an active time battle system. Each character has a set of eight special techniques they learn, which make up a combination of physical attacks, as well as magic spells from a specific element. Also contained in combat are dual techniques; each character has a set of three abilities that require the use of another character.
Combat, however, is what truly makes Black Sigil a frustrating experience. How do I count the ways? First off, there are random encounters, and the rate at which these pop up is absolutely absurd. I’ve actually had situations where I’ve pressed a direction on the D-Pad and triggered a random battle, before it could even animate my character to take a step. The more common situation is to have random battles for every one second of movement, and that’s not even hyperbole.
This is exacerbated by how clunky and slow combat is in general. Black Sigil uses an ATB system, meaning that characters get to take an action when a gauge fills up. This gauge fills up incredibly slow for the entire game; It takes about six seconds at the end of the game, so at the start of the game, it’s can be even slower. Enemies have tons of HP, meaning you’ll need to hit them a ton of times with normal attacks to kill them… if you can even reach them, that is.
You see, during combat, your character has to actually walk up to the enemy and attack them. This sounds innocent enough; but, your characters can’t pass through other characters. So, if combat starts with your characters in a line in a narrow hallway, only one of them will be able to do regular attacks. Everyone else will have to use magic or sit around being completely useless. Even better, you can choose to attack someone with a character, and if something obstructs their path before they arrive, their turn is completely wasted.
So, you’ll use your magic spells a lot if you hope to make use of all three characters in a fight, which is bad news. Magic spells cost a ton of mana, and while you do regenerate MP at the start of each battle, it’s a very inconsequential amount – not nearly enough to cover the rate at which you’ll be using it.
You could run away, but even that is a slow process. It takes about 15-20 seconds to successfully escape, meaning that all enemies will get one, maybe even two turns each to wail on Kairu and co. as they attempt to flee. That still didn’t stop me from running away from over 3/4ths of all battles in the game.
After all, combat is slow, lengthy, frustrating, and you can expect to to about one second of movement on the map between battles on average. When I think about it, it sounds like some sort of ironic punishment I would read about in Dante’s Inferno or something.
It really breaks my heart to see a group of dedicated people work really hard and make a poor product, and I really sympathize for Studio Archcraft in that regard. In another regard, though, I think this kind of project demonstrates a very infuriating school of thought; games like Black Sigil communicate to me that there are people who really think that games aren’t getting better, and that our best days are behind us.
Not only do I disagree with this, but I think it’s the least true about RPGs compared to any other genre. RPGs are the genre of gaming that have resisted evolution the most, and have the biggest need for it. Surely, there were games worth remembering from the SNES era; but, that’s true of every era. Instead of looking backward, face forward; games aren’t over with, and there’s still plenty of time to make more games worth remembering, rather than tragically trying to relive an old, yellowed memory.
The game's graphics and style reek of Chrono Trigger rip-off. The only problem is a lot of the maps and monster designs are kind of ugly.
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There are some neat gameplay features, but every single one is executed in a way that will make you want to pull your hair out.
The score consists of very standard and repetitive music.
The game will last you for a while, if nothing else. I beat it in 26 hours and did most of the sidequests. I've have heard that it took some gamers 40 hours, somehow...
Black Sigil is a game made to deliberately give an old school experience. However, that experience is mired in tedium, never-ending combat, a story which is both mediocre and convoluted, and several huge glitches. If that can't dissuade you from buying the game, then maybe you'll enjoy it. Maybe...