Black Sigil : Blade of the Exiled Review
Studio Archcraft, the first time developer behind the new Nintendo DS RPG Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled, deserves nothing less than an A for effort. A large scale RPG like this one is a mammoth task to undertake, and for a brand new developer, what they've accomplished here is nothing short of outstanding. Charming, throwback graphics, a well done musical score, a fairly interesting story with some fairly interesting characters, a battle system that is a little different but works well, lots of sidequests and items to collect… any developer, ancient or newborn, should be proud about getting a game of this scale to the market. BUT… while Studio Archcraft may have as bright a future as any new company in the tough gaming market, their first outing falls flat. A stack of gameplay problems, bizarro pacing and a handful of other issues that, while not much individually, combine to drain most of the joy from the overall experience keep the Black Sigil from being the new developer's first grand slam home run.
I'm pushing all the usual review stuff off to the side for a second to address Black Sigil's, and honestly the entire RPG genre's, biggest, most annoying problem – random encounters. If you are new to the whole RPG thing, I'll explain; the random encounter system is an antiquated RPG cop out from the 8-bit days the forces you to build your characters' levels and stats. It also makes games nearly unplayable in terms of exploration and the fun found in doing so. Basically, as you move your character around in an RPG with this system, you are stopped dead in your tracks every fifth step or so by an invisible enemy which you are then forced to fight. When you win the battle, you are jarringly transported back to the area you were previously exploring, where you'll only travel another handful of steps before being sucked back into battle, whether you like it or not.
Black Sigil's random encounter rate isn't as high as some other top RPG offenders, but the battle system is extremely slow-paced; the fights, wanted or not, require even more time to complete, which makes exploration a time consuming chore when it should be a fun part of the overall game. I can't hold Studio Archcraft or the Black Sigil solely responsible for keeping the random encounter alive, but its inclusion in this game, or any new game for that matter, easily knocks 15-20 points right off its review score. Technology has come so far so fast that it is fork-in-the-eye inexcusable to continue to subject gamers to wave after wave after wave after wave after wave after wave after wave after wave after wave of invisible, completely unavoidable enemies. We'll now get back to our regularly scheduled review stuff. [Ed. - an undocumented feature allows you to avoid encounters by keeping B pressed down]
Black Sigil's story starts with an interesting twist, but becomes standard RPG fare all too quickly. Everyone has played the RPGs where the main character is somehow special or different from his contemporaries – wings, magic powers, descendant of someone else who was special, magic toaster… I don't know. Black Sigil turns this overdone concept on its ear; the main character, Kairu, isn't special because of what he can do, he's special because of what he can't. See, in Bel Lenora (Black Sigil's setting), everyone can use magic. Except Kairu… and some really bad guy who did some really bad guy-type stuff a few years previous. Naturally, everyone remembers him and hates you for sharing his inability to cast fira and other spells. It's an interesting take on the RPG cliché, but its originality comes with some severely annoying gameplay penalties I'll let you discover (and suffer through) for yourself. Sadly, from that point, Black Sigil bounces like a bumper car between every last RPG cliché in the book. Towns, shops, armor, characters, plotlines… mixed in with the endless random encounters, you'll feel like you're in an endless spiral of memories of games you've played, for better or worse, tons of times before.