Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled (Second Opinion)
Nintendo DS
Reviewed: 07/11/2009

Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled is the story of a boy named Kairu who cannot use magic, in a land where everyone else can. This makes him a horrible human being, so his adopted father goes out of his
way to have the crap beat out of the boy in hopes the boy will miraculously unlock some magical powers. When this doesn’t work, his father gives the boy a sword held in the family for generations, the
titular Blade of the Exiled, and basically tells him to GTFO. As the story unfolds, the boy realizes that he’s far from the only one who can’t use magic and that the threat to his homeland is actually a threat to two separate worlds. Up to eight playable characters, a multitude of side quests and seven possible endings can be found at the heart of this game, wrapped up in the trappings of 16-bit nostalgia and in the vein
of such classics as Breath of Fire and Chrono Trigger. How could a game like this suck?How a game like this could suck, indeed.

A history lesson is in order. This game was developed by a Quebecois company called Studio Archcraft and this is the studio’s debut release. Black Sigil was originally developed for the Game Boy Advance, but about the time it was going to be completed the GBA market had dried up; as such, the game was modified for the Nintendo DS. It was originally known as “Project Exile” and gathered a cult following due to its playing off of RPGs of yesteryear. It was delayed a number of times in its final form, for reasons ranging from debugging to the publisher Graffiti Entertainment needing more money for distribution. During this time, fans were kept up to date from the Archcraft Official Forums (yes, that phpBB logo has been there for over three years.)
Expectations from the community were pretty high.

At first glance, it really is a pretty decent game. While it is a throwback to the 16-bit era, thus meaning there’s exactly zero innovation in the way the game looks, it all comes together nicely. The world has a very distinct feel to it; despite some really unusual choice in names like “Xanadu Castle” …Seriously? Each place has an original feel to it that at times reminds oneof such titles as Treasure of the Rudras. Obviously, a lot of thought and planning was put into the art direction of various places in the game world, and it shows. Shame that similar attention wasn’t given to the DS’s upper screen, which lacks any real utility.

The music is about spot on of what a title like this would need. The music never really rises to spectacular status, but it never got old and it always seemed to fit. If a soundtrack were ever released, it would be worth a purchase. It’s solid through and through.

The story is pretty spot on as well. It does suffer a fair bit from telling more than showing, but the personality of the characters comes through in their dialogue. They don’t feel like archtypes, which is refreshing considering the genre. The events that unfolded are also very interesting, and come together for a real sense of epic adventure.

However, this game isn’t a novel. It’s an RPG. And like any game, someone will eventually find themselves playing it. That’s when the game slaps us across the face because its drunk and has had a hard day at work and we don’t have dinner ready.

To start with, the encounter rate is exceptionally high. I mean “Wow, Breath of Fire wasn’t that bad” high. I mean “Wow, that battle is over, time to — oh god I only took two steps what the hell?” high. It has been argued that this is a throwback to games of old, but not even the original Dragon Warrior/Quest game had this many encounters.

So, whatever, there’s a lot of fighting. This wouldn’t be the dealbreaker that it is if the battle system wasn’t so god awful. The screen will fade to black, and the characters will be placed somewhat randomly on one of several map styles predetermined for the area. There, players can choose to move around on their turn, or attack, or use a spell. However, the characters are often placed in some of the strangest places, and characters can’t move through each other… which means that they get to stand by and be useless while the other characters have a go at it.
Then there’s the fact that at the beginning of many battles, characters are given random status effects. As such, the player will find
themselves in battle, with limited usability of their characters; they’ll go to use a charge technique, and come to realize that they
can’t use it because, oh hey, the top screen says they can’t run or cast magic.

Attacking without using a skill, by the way, is exceptionally useless in this game. Towards end-game, skills can outdamage normal attacks by several digits. It’s very safe to say that this game expects the player to use special attacks, as well as comboed attacks learned by two characters. After all, these have the greatest reach and do the most damage. However, these attacks use up a lot of
SP. SP can be replenished by items, which are few and far between; they are also replenished over time, but at a rate so slow I can barely keep up with it.

Furthermore, none of the battles are ever challenging. There’s a lot of tedium in the battle system, especially the long waits between being able to do anything in the first third of the game. The few boss fights in the game are battles of attrition. There are a few bosses that have an affinity to an element that makes party set-up changes important, and they all have a fair bit of HP, but that’s all there is the battles.

So, to recap, you’re getting into a battle every one to five seconds, finding yourself in maps with random enfeeblements on the party, forced to spam skills and hoping one won’t run out of SP, in a tiring exercise of tedium and frustration.
Adding to this harshness is the fact that save points are few and far between, which is absolutely BRUTAL when trying to play this game on the go. When the player happens to die, they get to start WAY back at the last place they saved, and go through that several dozen fights all over again.

The alternative, of course, is to run from battle. Oddly enough, nowhere within the game, or even the game manual, does it mention that holding the B button down initiates running. However, this technique is functional. This basically gives the monsters free reign to hit the party mercilessly for around 10 seconds before they escape, possibly killing a member or two before they all can flee.

This tedium is present for all thirty to forty hours of the game, with the exception of the end dungeon. Strangely, the dungeon requires quite a bit of tedium to run through, but the final boss can easily be defeated in about five strikes. Something’s wrong with game balance when a boss battle takes just as much time as a random battle before it.

The game is also $littered with bugs. The first time I was wandering around the overworld map of where Kairu serves his banishment, grinding to my hearts content, I found the screen go to black as if a battle was about to start. The game stayed that black. This happened to me again, much later on in the game; another seemingly random battle that just froze the damn game. I may be one of the lucky owners of this game; from some sources, I’ve dodged the bullet on a few others that are specific to certain choices made at certain parts of the game. Quite amazing, since this game was in debug testing for well over a year.

In short, Black Sigil tells us that it loves us just as much as it did when we were childhood sweethearts way back in the way back when, filling us with nostalgia and letting us know that everything’s going to be alright. Then it beats us, because it loves us, repeatedly striking us where it hurts and choking us within an inch of our life because we made it angry. It squanders our hard-earned money and never really owns up to his marriage vows… but we stick with it, because we hope that maybe, someday, he’ll change. He’ll be the man we fell in love with so many years and Youtube trailers ago.

Black Sigil never changes; it’s an abusive lying prick pretty much to the end.

Black Sigil, I wish I’d never met you.

-Timothy Olsen

Score Breakdown
Below Average
Out of 10
See our Review Criteria
Gameplay Bad
Story Good
Graphics Good
Sound/Music Good
Replay Value Very Good
The Verdict: Four