Thursday, July 23, 2009

Review: Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled

Platform: Nintendo DS

Developer: Studio Archcraft

Publisher: Graffiti Entertainment

# of Players 1

Rating: E (Everyone)

Official Site

Score: B+

If you're in the mood for some old-school console RPG goodness and have quite a lot of time on your hands, Graffiti Entertainment's latest Nintendo DS game, Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled has your name written all over it. Montreal-based developer Studio Archcraft has cooked up a nicely done homage to the days of 16-bit JRPGs with a game that looks and plays like a Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis classic. Is this a good thing in this day and age of every game being judged “by today's standards?” The clear answer depends on both your current gaming tastes and how open minded you are when it comes to the game's idiosyncrasies.

The plot covers a few typical JRPG notes starting with an adopted outcast lead character cursed by an unknown force, a wisecracking cute female sidekick the castle guards fawn over and plenty of other familiar elements. The young hero, Kairu, is a great swordsman, but his inability to use magic makes him a pariah in the spell-filled land of Bel Lenora. Kairu's cute half-sister Aurora manages to keeps his spirits up while not so subtly inserting herself into his supposed to be solo adventuring. Kairu gets put through a few tough tasks that eventually end up getting him exiled from the kingdom by his adopted father (much to his surprise).

Naturally, Aurora unexpectedly tags along and although Kairu wants her to go back home, she can't thanks to a one-way enchantment. So, the duo is stuck together for a few game hours, eventually ending up in a new world they've never imagined. As they travel the land, they'll discover that magic isn't necessarily respected outside of Bel Lenora and Kairu is part of a larger plan that eventually could destroy everything or save it. The story takes a good amount of time to get rolling, but in true JRPG fashion, the more you let yourself go with the flow, the more enjoyable the twists and turns are.

Aurora's fire-based and healing spells help out considerably in the game's early hours, a good thing given the hefty encounter rate. How you deal with the frequent random battles really boils down to a combination of learning the battle system, using it efficiently, running when necessary and your overall amount of patience. having played well over 1000 RPGs, I didn't find the battle frequency so bad. After all, you need to fight in order to level up, right? Running from fights (by holding down the "B" button when a battle starts) constantly will only leave you too underpowered to deal with the tougher enemies and bosses, so suck it up, soldier - you're in it for the long haul.

The pair eventually meet up with a few more interesting characters, all with reasons of their own for joining the cause. And yes, the cause changes as the plot progresses. There's the mysterious Nephi, tomboyish freedom fighter, Isa, Rogurd, the always smiling adventurer with a heart of gold and Nym, a young beast-like boy who can summon powerful spirits during combat. You can have up to three active members and the rest in reserve, swapping out members at blue save points.

Everyone has their particular strengths and weaknesses, but as you level up, combo-based skills can be learned depending on who you have in your active party. There are two hidden characters to track down, but you really don't need them both to complete the game. Players who seek out every nook and cranny will be rewarded with some nicely powered party members as well as some choice items (some of which are necessary for a side-quest or two).

Combat allows for No Wait or Wait modes and which one you choose can make the game insanely difficult right from the start or a lot more manageable once you understand which works best. Both modes use a timer bar that shows when your party members can attack, but Wait mode lets you choose a target without being swarmed. No Wait mode can be a pain when dealing with fast enemies in groups or bosses that get in free extra attacks when struck. Feel free to experiment with both modes, of course. Pulling off combo moves requires both characters know the skill and both timer bars to be full. Some of these attacks include devastating spell/weapon combos, healing spells that can top up HP or revive fallen comrades and more. Of course, enemies are no slouch, dropping death from above in the form of poison, blindness, charm, elemental attacks and more.

Kairu is also affected with random status effects for a good portion of the game as part of the plot. It's not explained initially, but you can sort of see it coming if you're paying attention during the early cut scenes. This can be a bit pesky when you can't use special attacks on a boss or are otherwise hampered. However, if you've been grinding away and gaining levels, the combat becomes less and less difficult. Making your way through some of the trickier dungeons and other locations can be harrowing, what with elevator that need to be taken in a certain order, birds that can lift you to other locations and a few other interesting elements.

If you're not properly leveled, a few places in the game will seem impossible when the plot steps in and forces you into a new area with enemies at much higher levels that your current party. Sometimes, you'll lose a party member or two, forcing you to take one or two characters through a stretch of tough fights that will sap your healing item reserves unless you're lucky. You regain spell points by walking around, using items or oddly enough during battles. While it's essential to fight constantly in order to level up accordingly, the game's biggest flaw is trying to establish a sense of scale by not allowing you to run on the overworld map. This makes getting from one dungeon to the next or to a much-needed village inn or other safe zone quite a painful trip. The good news here is you'll eventually end up with a boat and later, an airship (two console RPG staples), which helps out a great deal, but you still need to slog it on the overworld map once you disembark.

Whether you're getting beat up by the local monster population or not, the game looks great, recalling the 16-bit glory days perfectly. Character art, portraits and backgrounds are lovingly detailed and the game has a well-done score and sound effects. While spell effects aren't as flashy as found in some SNES or genesis RPGs, they get the job done when it comes to wiping out foes. Some may complain that the game doesn't use any sort of 3D effects or the DS touch screen as effectively as other games on the handheld, but that's a blessing in disguise. Touch screen functionality is mouse-like, allowing you to tap on maps to move, select combat options, menus and such. The game can be played completely using the D-pad and shoulder buttons if you like and Im guessing most players will go this route.

There have been a few technical issues noted on message boards that can hamper the overall experience. These issues may include occasional game freezes during extended sessions, at least one character combo that can't be accessed and a "Monster Gauge" that doesn't seem to work at all. While my game never crashed during my first playthrough, some of the other issues made me wish the game was tested a bit more. However, if you use all three save slots and save often, you'll be less likely to be bothered by these issues. Given the long development cycle and this being Studio Archcraft's first professional game, the overall impression is positive, especially after around 70-plus actual hours of total play. The back of the box says 30 hours, but plenty of leveling up and completing sidequests definitely takes up a nice chunk of time.

Overall, Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled will eat up hours of your time once you're drawn into the game world and characters, but the game will have far more appeal to folks like me who can appreciate all the work that goes into crafting a total game experience. More jaded gamers, those with short attention spans or folks who want innovation at every turn might find themselves wanting something faster-paced and more dynamic. Nevertheless, I'm hoping this developer gets another chance to dive back into the past and come up with an even more polished genre classic.

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