To Boldly Go Where
Everyone’s Gone Before!
Within the first year of the DS’ launch, we had pretty much two RPGs to choose from – Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time and Lunar: Dragon Song; by the second year in, the system still had very few games in the genre to choose from. However, fast forward to the present, and it seems the Nintendo DS has taken up the mantle of the PS2 for being the system to own if you’re a fan of role-playing games.
Studio Archcraft and Graffiti Games have now teamed up to throw their latest creation, Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled, into the ring. Does it have what it takes to stand out as a contender among the growing library of RPGs on DS? Black Sigil is a game whose development almost pre-dates the DS hardware and was originally intended to be released as a Gameboy Advance title. With so much time in the hopper, expectations are, for many, understandably high. The story takes place in a fantasy world where magic is the norm. However, one man, who alone did not possess any magical abilities, was exiled for draining the life from the people of the land. Years later, our hero Kairu finds himself also without any magic coursing through his veins, and through alienation and deception, he’s thrust into a grand adventure.
To put it plainly, Black Sigil is old school – very old school. You’ll begin your quest with a training session among the young ranks of the Bel Lenora army, but the game doesn’t actually walk you through any of the basics. That said, a bit of patience and noodling should easily acquaint most players with the clockwork of the battle system, and the gameplay, in general, is pretty straightforward stuff. There are some obvious cues taken from the SNES classic, Chrono Trigger, including an active-time-battle system that tries to make strategic use of unit placement on the battlefield.
As Kairu, you’re the adopted son of the duke, and early on the duke will send you out on various, seemingly unremarkable errands. The game as a whole is a slow burn, but the developers have done a fair job of tying the gameplay into various plot twists along the way. However, the overall game design is pretty archaic, and the endless onslaught of random encounters is sure to prove monotonous for even the purest of RPG enthusiasts.
Black Sigil has borrowed more from Chrono Trigger than merely elements of its battle system, and you’ll soon find yourself venturing forth into the great unknown. There are some interesting environments to explore, but finding your footing can be frustrating when you’re constantly drawn into battle by merely nudging the D-pad.
You can have up to three characters in your battle party at any given time, with an active time bar for each party member. Each character’s time bar fills at a rate based on their inherent speed, and you can toggle characters using the right shoulder button. The battle options are simple: you can choose a basic attack, single-character spells, multi-character spells, or you can use items hot-keyed to a particular character. You can opt to control the action with either the face buttons or the touch screen, and either works just fine. That said, navigating dungeons with the stylus can easily prove fatal, since control is a bit too sensitive when trying to avoid hazardous obstacles.
There’s no free movement or direct control over your characters during battles; however, commanding them to attack certain foes will cause them to advance to a specific area of the screen. So, having a character attack a monster that’s perhaps on the far end of the battle screen might prove a good strategy if it moves them out of attack position of a stronger monster. Unfortunately, your characters don’t have unfettered access to all enemies onscreen, and if a monster or one of your other party members is blocking their path, they’ll be stuck, often unable to attack at all. As Chrono Trigger was cutting edge for its time, Black Sigil would likely have had an impressive impact on gamers 14 years ago. Up against today’s competition, however, the combat here feels dated.
For the most part, battles are uneventful and time consuming, and it doesn’t help that they make up the bulk of the experience. To the game’s credit, everything – from the combat, to the exploration – is quite competent. There’s nothing broken about Black Sigil, and though the story can feel a bit trite at times, it moves in a sensible fashion that’s admirable. The main issue we have with the game is simply that we’ve done it all before… years and years ago.
As with any other RPG, you’ll level up your characters, acquire new weapons and armor, and learn new spells. New personalities will take their cue to enter the stage, and if you can muster the wherewithal to trudge through the game’s plodding pace, you’ll often be rewarded with interesting story developments. Black Sigil doesn’t really tread any new ground in that respect either, though, and there probably isn’t anything compelling enough about its prose to keep players rapt ‘til the end.
As a game that got its start as a GBA title, Black Sigil looks reminiscent of SNES games of the distant past. You’ll occasionally catch glimpses of 3D textures while roaming the overworld, but the rest of the game is set in a 2D world with sprites that look conspicuously out of place as they animate on DS. That said, folks who had no problem with the recent rebirth of Chrono Trigger should equally appreciate the visuals of Black Sigil. There’s plenty of environmental variety, and the 2D artwork during cutscenes is really quite beautiful.
Like almost every other element of this game, Black Sigil’s music and sound effects are something of a relic from the past. Themes aren’t quite as crusty as the games of the 16-bit era, but they definitely are generic in the extreme. Sound effects are often fitting, though battles come off as underwhelming due in large part to a general lack of “umph” when attacking and casting spells.
For all the time Black Sigil spent in development, it’s disappointing to see such a ho-hum experience unveiled. Make no mistake – it’s not broken. The combat works, for the most part, and there’s a story worth experiencing, if you don’t mind unearthing it out from under a seemingly endless stream of random battles. However, the game just feels so out of date and out of touch with, not only the trends of today’s RPGs, but also the general entertainment values we’ve become accustomed to seeing on DS. With so much variety to choose from now on the system, Black Sigil’s yesteryear approach is a hard sell.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.5 Graphics
The look of Black Sigil seems decidedly out of place on DS, but considering what the developers were going for, it’s a fairly polished product. Character stills and cutscene artwork have a great look to them. 3.5 Control
The controls are simple and mostly straightforward, though a couple of the button-mapping choices are questionable. Touch screen controls work fine in battle, but they are not recommended for exploration. 3.4 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Better than SNES, though not really up to par for DS. Ultimately, there’s an overall lack of energy when it comes to the game’s music and sound effects. 3.1
There’s a lot of game here, constructed in a way that may prove interesting to a select few. The pacing, however, is slow and mired further by endless random encounters.
3.4 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.