Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled

Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled
Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled Cover
Platforms Nintendo DS
Genre Canadian JRPG
Score 2  Clock score of 2
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During the Super Nintendo era, Squaresoft was peaking with Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy VI, and Chrono Trigger. The developer defined the Japanese RPG genre with those titles and also completely owned the marketplace for years to come. It’s easily arguable that Square has since lost the JRPG title to other developers such as Atlus (with its recent bit of awesomeness titled Radiant Historia in particular), but they’ll never have their triumphant 16-bit period taken away from them.

Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled is a love letter to that era. With sprites and animations seemingly ripped straight out of Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, and a story that sounds by-the-formula familiar to fans of the genre, this 2009 Nintendo DS release appears to be just another Japanese RPG title. But surprisingly, Black Sigil was developed in Montreal, so yes, this is one of those rare Canadian Japanese RPGs.

Developed by Studio Archcraft and published by Graffiti Entertainment, Black Sigil is also a bit of an indie title. The credits listed the same eight names over and over while the title was so long in development that it was originally targeted for the Game Boy Advance.

Unfortunately, the team had their goals so loftily set that I believe they lost sight of what made Squaresoft’s games so great: they were fun. Black Sigil is plagued by some major issues that most people will find the game unplayable beyond a few hours. I stuck it out though, and here’s my review.


Gameplay: 3

Ignoring the battle and item management systems, Black Sigil makes for a pretty typical Japanese RPG. Overworlds are explored, dungeons are crawled, levels are upped, magic is learned, and bosses are felled. The tech/magic learning system is pretty simple as characters instantly learn a skill when they reach the appropriate level. Stats are affected by weapons and armor, though the defense stat felt either broken or as if it barely played into the damage algorithm.

The trouble starts as soon as you step out into the world though, as you will get into random battles more frequently than any other JRPG I have ever played (and yes, I’ve played The 7th Saga). Every few steps seems to kick off another battle, which wouldn’t be that big of a deal if they were simple, mash-the-A-button affairs we saw in Golden Sun: Dark Dawn, but the fights in Black Sigil are overly long and harsh for reasons detailed below.

Black Sigil Battle Kairu Aurora NephiThe high encounter rate means that your biggest enemy are the forests and dungeons themselves. They’re big and begging to be explored, but there is just no way to properly do that when your reward for getting into five additional fights and taking 500 damage is a potion that heals 50 hit points. And more than one curse will be thrown at the game for leading you down another dead end path in your quest for the exit. The numerous fights will also break your concentration and make solving some of the later dungeons quite difficult as they can have a maze-like design with lots of backtracking.

Save points are few and far between, making my end-game timer quite the lie in itself. Black Sigil is a frustration heavy game.

Things actually get worse in the actual battles, while they actually feature double techs (but no triple) and active time bars, everything is stacked against you. The developers seemed to want to create a “realistic” JRPG battle by putting you on a generated battle field that has obstacles on it; obstacles that can’t be crossed or jumped over. You also can not travel through enemies or other party members to reach bad guys, so if the battle field you’re put on is narrow, some party members will literally not be able to do anything.

Your characters will also sustain a ton of damage in every battle, and for the first third of the game, the main character will suffer from a random ailment in almost every battle! This includes poison; being poisoned at the start of the battle for no reason is obnoxious and frustrating! The game or manual also does not tell you how to run from battles (you hold B for a long time), furthering my issues with Black Sigil.

Fun Factor: 1

Black Sigil Nephi OverworldAll that mess makes for a very unfun game. And I haven’t even mentioned the item management system yet. Characters need to be assigned items to use in battle (up to four, only!) and once one item is assigned to someone, no one else can use that item. And you can only equip a limited number of that particular item at a time. This is just a mess.

Playing Black Sigil would actively make me angry. Did the developers play their own game? Were there testers? These screenshots I snagged from the publisher's site probably explain a lot: everyone is at level 99 with maximum hit points and magic, no doubt the developers spent far too long with god stats that they forgot how annoying it was to play the game any other way.

Graphics and Sound: 7

While Black Sigil almost seems like they copied the sprites and backgrounds from 16-bit Squaresoft games, they’re definitely not bad games to rip off. The graphics look great, but the color choices looked rather dark. It was very hard to tell at times where you could travel in a cave or what could be interacted with. The tech moves in battle look decent, nothing very memorable, however, but it’s the characters and their speaking portraits that shine the most. Whoever drew the portraits did an excellent job matching them up with their sprites but added just the right amount of detail.

Musically, I wasn’t very impressed. I played the game on mute most of the time as I didn’t really enjoy the battle music, and whenever you finished a battle the overworld/dungeon music would start over again.

Story: 5

Black Sigil Xanadu isa RogurdWhile it never tries anything brave, Black Sigil’s plot is at least consistently okay. There are few twists and the game is mostly held together by plodding from area to area in hopes that something will happen. Heck, the very first destination in the game has you traveling to a town across the continent to see if some object reacts to you, only to have nothing happen and return to the opening area in the exact same situation you were earlier.

The characters are the game’s highlight though, as most of them never seem to fit into a stereotypical JRPG role. Sure, there’s Aurora the plucky heroine, but she falls for the ambiguously gay bad-turned-good guy. And Rogurd, the treasure hunter, but he’s a strong brute looking for “IT.” The only character that really bothered me was Nym, a total ripoff of Ayla the wild woman from Chrono Trigger, but Nym is apparently neutered male version.

Overall: 2

Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled was clearly a labor of love, but the developers obviously had some sort of tunnel vision that blocked them from seeing their game’s major issues. With a horrendously high encounter rate, difficult and grueling random battles, and an item system you constantly need to micro-manage, Black Sigil just isn’t worth it. Which is too bad, because the cast of characters is decent and the plot not too bad.

This love letter failed to reach its recipient.