Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled
Nintendo DS
Reviewed: 07/07/2009

“Good things come to those who wait.” It’s a saying that is, in the world of video games, often false. Three years ago, a game known only as Project Exile caught some gamers’ eyes with its “old school” graphics. The game came out after an absurd amount of delays. Not only that, but Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled starts of fairly slowly. There just aren’t enough skills available to make the battles interesting, and the plot takes a good eight plus hours to get off its feet. So, do good things come to those who have waited? After countless delays and a slow start to the game, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

The gameplay will remind players of the old Final Fantasy games. They move a giant sprite representation of their party around on a Mode 7 map, follow the tried-and-true formula of explore-story-dungeon, and zip around the world map on boats and an airship. Perhaps the only departure from the “old school” feeling of the game is the battle system. In battle, players control up to three characters as they fight in an active-time combat system that, at first, seems to mirror Chrono Trigger. There’s a catch however, because players can take control and move their characters around the map manually. It’s an added layer of strategic depth that, at the beginning of the game, seems to only be an annoyance. Characters get stuck behind landscape, and players don’t learn the skills needed to really utilize the system until they are several hours in. Once characters start learning a wide array of skills and combos, the battles become truly strategic and fun affairs. Combination skills will heal the entire party, inflict status ailments on the enemies, even obliterate every enemy on the screen in a matter of seconds. Once players get access to more skills, battles fly by, which is a good thing, because at times they won’t be able to move more than three steps without an encounter, and this is the single major flaw in the game.

In most games, a high encounter rate wouldn’t be too much of a problem, because dungeons generally aren’t too big. Black Sigil‘s dungeons, however, range from large to massive. There were a few dungeons that took this reviewer literally three or more hours to complete. That, without any save points. There is a quicksave feature, but the fear of dying after spending several hours in a dungeon and not being able to continue anywhere but at the beginning is often very frustrating. Combine that with the fact that attempts to explore the dungeon will lead to dozens of random battles, and there is a recipe for wall-punching frustration in the making. Thankfully, as mentioned before, once players get into later parts of the game with more skills available to them, the battles are less frustrating and much more fun. Each character has an entirely unique play style in battle, and there is not one that is ever useless. Even the secret characters never feel like they were just tacked-on additions to the battle party. There is also much outside of dungeons to keep players entertained.

Screen Shot
Yeah, BURN that compost!

Black Sigil is absolutely chock-full of secrets and side quests. As one goes through towns and talks to everyone, it becomes apparent that not all the chit-chat is idle dialogue. In fact, it is extremely often that what at first seems to be normal dialogue turns out to be a side quest that may not even be discovered till much later in the game. Reading a book in the library may reveal the location of a character’s secret move literally ten hours later in the game. The parting wish of an old friend to see the party again some time should be taken literally, as it could lead to another chain of side quests upon visiting him. The game is very, very full of these things. Careful reading of dialogue and actually taking things said seriously is important in Black Sigil, and that is awesome. It’s a wonderful feeling to realize that something written down hours before in the game just because of a mere mention of something that initially seemed unimportant can lead to an hours-long side quest. There are even two secret characters, one of whom takes only a few minutes to find, but the other will have players embarking on a several hour journey across the world map to various locations. Every location in the game is overflowing with secret doors, passages, items, etc. The game world begs to be explored, and the rewards for doing so are very real. The side quests are never boring, and they all have some character development behind them. Black Sigil manages to feel genuine because of all the care put into developing relevant side quests.

The story of Black Sigil is yet another part of the game that will have nostalgic gamers giddy. It feels just like a story from the best Super Nintendo RPGs. The plot develops slowly, but soon enough players will be knee deep in an intricately woven plot. There is plenty of humor to go along with the main quest. Best of all, however, are the characters. Each one has a unique personality that is molded and shaped throughout the game. From start to finish, the story remains compelling. It builds slowly but surely, and forces players to work for each revelation. Speaking of work, Black Sigil really likes to tease players with things that they know they’ll get eventually, but can’t quit get yet. The developers will throw certain characters in and out of the party for almost a dozen hours of the game. Players longing for the airship will continue to think they’re about to get it, but then have it snatched away. These things just add to the urge to continue playing, as there is always some plot point, some character, some secret that is just waiting to be acheived.

Black Sigil looks gorgeous in a way that only sprite-based games can. It manages to maintain that feeling of wonder the entire game as it presents players with unique backdrops on which the action takes place. There are tons of different locations, and while some of the dungeons feel very similar, each city, village, and a good amount of the dungeons have their own feel. It’s easy to take note of the amount of effort put into making each area look unique. Poor sections of town have laundry hanging outside and fish hanging to dry and stores display their wares on the walls (and sometimes in easily-looted chests). These added touches really help make Black Sigil feel unique and seperate it from other RPGs that attempt to recreate the “old school” feeling but become lazy on the details. The characters themselves look awesome, it’s truly a joy to watch the fluidity of the sprites in battle and the awesome spell effects. This is not to say there is nothing wrong with the visuals. The world map, for example feels a little bland. It just feels like there isn’t enough detail put into showing where locations are. Further, when in a dungeon it is sometimes easy to completely miss the fact that there are entrances in certain places because they blend in with the terrain. Also, and this is nothing more than a nitpick, why is there no transition screen from exploration to combat? It is kind of jarring to just have the screen fade and then players are in combat. Thankfully these minor details are vastly overwhelmed by the beauty of the environments.

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Neither the character shown nor the airship are easy to get.

The sound in Black Sigil stands contrasted with itself. The music is always good, sometimes great, with some truly awesome tracks that will be sounding in players heads. The sound effects,however, are generally terrible. It seems like an oversight in a game with so much detail put into it to have the sound of a sword swinging and a wolf biting be the same. It never detracts directly from the experience, but it is definitely something the developers missed.

When all is said and done, Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled feels exactly like an awesome Super Nintendo RPG that has remained undiscovered until now. The gameplay is great, if somewhat annoying, and the story, strong main characters, side quests, huge amount of secrets, bonus characters, and untold amount of secrets can keep gamers busy for literally dozens of hours.It is a testament to the newly-formed development house Studio Archcraft that the only complaints with the game are nitpicking details like the lack of battle transitions and some sound effects. For those who longingly look back at the yesteryear of RPG history, wishing they could have new games just like those classics they remember, Black Sigil could not come more highly recommended.

-Joseph Wartick

Score Breakdown
Out of 10
See our Review Criteria
Gameplay Great
Story Excellent
Graphics Great
Sound/Music Good
Replay Value Average
The Verdict: Nine