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Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled Review Package Art
GENRE
Retro RPG
DEVELOPER
Studio Archcraft
PUBLISHER
Graffiti Entertainment
LOCAL WIRELESS
MULTI-PLAY
No
Wi-Fi/GLOBAL ONLINE
MULTI-PLAY
No
MICROPHONE
No
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Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled Review

It's fairly rare to see homage in video games. While genres are continually building on what's come before, rarely do developers go out of their way to draw attention to, let alone salute the source of, their inspiration. In some ways it's more difficult to do that, and when the source is a 16-bit masterpiece like Chrono Trigger, anything that comes close should be awash in quality. Enter Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled. In reflecting Chrono Trigger and games like it, Black Sigil not only succeeds in mirroring many of its high standards, but goes so far as to exceed them on occasion.

While the look of playable characters is inspired, it's never copied. Players quickly see that Kairu and Aurora aren't Crono and Marle re-skinned, and that the rest of the party members are not shallow tag-alongs; they have their own deeper motivations and backstories. Take Isa for example, a strong commander in her people's army, trying to defend them against the onslaught of a hostile, world-dominating army. Or smooth-talking, slippery, mysterious Nephi who, though his motives may be hidden, is consistent in that he helps out while it suits him. While parallels can be drawn to characters like Frog and Magus, those in Black Sigil were built from the ground up; not duplicated.

Black Sigil lives up to and even surpasses its sources of inspiration by consistently parading its deliciously rich visuals. Details in residential locations range from flapping pennants strung across city streets to kitchens full of pots, utensils and vegetables. Miniature paintings hang on walls, and furniture is arranged differently in each room, detailed down to tiny books on tables and bookshelves. Resident NPCs are the icing on the cake, bringing all populated environments to life. NPCs have as much variety in their appearance as the playable characters, their looks being similarly informed by their identity. Sage old men sit cross-legged on street corners, children dart about quickly and unpredictably, and sailors sit in taverns while guards stand at attention. When outdoors, (different from the world map) players will see flowers, shadows of overhead clouds, individual rocks, fragments of ruins, and flowing water -- including the occasional waterfall. These aren't textured mazes, but handcrafted, living environments.

Black Sigil ScreenshotBlack Sigil Screenshot

Beyond detail, there's variety in everything from the world map to villages, temples, cities, castles and caves. Each is crafted in such a way as to feel unique. Players will know they're in a different place not only by different decorative detail, but also by the unique arrangement of stairs, bridges, tunnels, passages and rooms (some of which are cleverly hidden). Every building feels like a real architectural structure. Every town and fort like they're a planned part of the land, and the forests, abandoned cave systems and ancient temples that comprise dungeons are often intuitively navigable, all thanks to good design.

Black Sigil's music is both fitting and fairly memorable. Unlike the visuals, it's not quite up to Chrono Trigger level, but does approach greatness now and then. Players will find themselves humming certain tracks and, as with any good game music, may even find themselves wanting to listen outside the game. One particularly memorable track is the carefree, upbeat pipe music found in certain bustling towns and cities.

Some sound effects could stand a little more polish; the city portcullis that sounds like a door latch and the over-used gas sound for various monster attacks come to mind. Others are more fitting such as the ubiquitous, short 'sleep' music box tune, the ethereal sounds at save and heal points, and the satisfying click of another chest relieved of its former contents.

The opening cutscene tells the backstory of a tyrant born without magic many years ago who wreaked havoc on the world. Ultimately banished, the man who defeated him has adopted a son who also has no magic ability. As his daughter and stepson adventure together they encounter an interesting reversal in people's attitudes. They start out in a world full of magic that's highly suspicious of the 'cursed' boy, but all that changes when they're transported to a magic-less world that fears the magic-wielding 'witch' girl. More than your average 'save the world' story, Black Sigil's unfolds gradually as players get snippets at regular intervals through character interaction. Underpinning their journey through hostile places is a mysterious dark whisperer only Kairu can hear who urges him to 'assemble his parts.' Is Kairu cursed after all? What are these parts and should they be brought together?

The game plays like a typical RPG; players view a cutscene, explore, shuffle party members and gear, travel, fight monsters to earn gold and level up, rest, save, and repeat. The most noteworthy differences include a realtime progress bar that displays recharge time for character action. Monsters also function by these, but theirs are hidden from players. Characters can also be moved around the battlefield to get closer to enemies or allies for AoE attacks or healing. Occasionally it seems that characters should have enough space to squeeze by one another but can't. This isn't a huge issue however, just another factor to be taken into account when planning attacks.

Black Sigil ScreenshotBlack Sigil Screenshot

Beyond taking in the beautiful environments, Black Sigil rewards players for exploration by way of chests full of rare and useful items for anyone bold or inquisitive enough to snoop around off the beaten path. In addition to items, all NPCs should be engaged in conversation. From maids to soldiers, the well-written dialogue gives depth to the world by breathing life into its inhabitants. Not only that, at times it's laugh-out-loud funny! One example of this is Aurora's ever-present devil-may-care attitude, ever-clashing with Kairu's protective (but ultimately relenting) caution. In another instance, a child of one of the cities informs our heroes that people aren't allowed to swim in the canals, then adds: but nobody's looking! Nearby, an exasperated guard confides that he's had his fill of pulling 'brats' out of the canal.

Black Sigil offers several customization settings from screen brightness and dialogue speed to battle speed and whether or not monsters wait for the player's move once they're ready. These battle customization options, when taken together with the designers' wise placement of inns and save points, bolster the already good pacing of the story and solidify the game's accessible learning curve.

Looking at aggregate ratings, Black Sigil would appear to divide people. While a vocal minority of 'mainstream' reviewers have scoffed, others join the vast majority of player reviews in conveying high praise. Most bashers' rants contain little substance, raising questions of just how much time or effort they put into playing before writing it off. Bashers seem to complain most about: the frequency of random encounters, save points, top screen usage, and game freeze. This last one is the only legitimate concern, possibly stemming from the fact that Black Sigil was originally in development for GBA. While our copy did freeze, it was only once in the fifteen or so hours we'd put into it so far.

Other than that, random encounters are of reasonable frequency, occurring less often than in, say, Pokemon games. Plus, players can run away from most battles by holding B. Any good adventurer knows the importance of choosing your battles. This isn't printed in the manual however, which could have factored into negative reviews. Are there too few save points? Not really, no. Players can save anywhere on the world map, and usually save points are provided in dungeons when they're needed most. There's even a quick-save option if one really just needs to immediately save and go. In regard to use of the top screen, again, because Black Sigil was originally in development for GBA, top screen functionality was likely more of an afterthought. While it would definitely be nice to enjoy the gorgeous environments and post-opening cutscenes on both screens, the map and party stats are useful enough up there considering the history behind the decision. It's something to address in the sequel we'd like to see.

In short, don't make the mistake of dismissing this dark horse. Players who give Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled an honest chance will soon find themselves charmed by its many facets. Though obviously directed toward lovers of the 16-bit RPG, Black Sigil needn't be enjoyed exclusively by them; it's as accessible if not more so than other games from that era. It's apparent that the team who made this put a great deal of love into it. Where other other companies seem content to port classics with a few overhauls, here's an entirely new game that feels like a classic. Now that's refreshing.

final score 9.0/10





WRITER INFORMATION
Staff Avatar Paul Starke
Staff Profile | Email
"In Japan this was named a 'trouble bug.' (...Is it really a bug?)"


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