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Review – Black Sigil

posted on August 4th, 2009 by chris

Black Sigil screamed promise. After being impressed and occasionally a bit burned with indie games, a DS game by a small but dedicated team of RPG fans sounded really good. Graphically inspired by Chrono Trigger, its visuals are both nostalgic and fresh on a system that needs more sprite-based games. Even after the release date was pushed back… and back… and back, I still was somewhat excited upon its release.

I maintained this excitement through the first area. The first section is mostly story, but your initial quest is to walk to an area on the world map. “You walk a little slowly”, I thought, “but that’s okay – surely they’ll eventually give me a boat, hovercraft, flying castle, etc.” And then the random encounters started. And continued. I had at least ten encounters on the way, and each one played out exactly the same way. Attack, attack, attack – SP is too precious to waste – and eventually victory. “This is a little boring”, I thought, “but surely with more party members things will become interesting.” While you do get more party members, the random encounters become only a bit more interesting in that they end a little faster when you use combo abilities.

It’s not like Black Sigil has no redeeming factors. There are several reasons I like it: the characters are fun and their interactions entertaining, there are dozens of sidequests and secret items to find, even the battle mechanics are interesting in theory – though battles run pretty slowly. At the best of times – usually when exploring a town or going through one of the major plot scenes – Black Sigil feels as though it deserves a place among the best of JRPGs. It evokes the same feelings as Lunar, Chrono Trigger, and Skies of Arcadia.

The story is entertaining despite the blurb on the back of the box, which makes it sound horribly cheesy – yes, Kairu is a magicless person in a magical continent, but that only forms the basis of the plot for the introduction of the game. The overall story is more of what you’d expect from an RPG: aggressive empires, valiant soldiers, bumbling adversaries, honorable allies, ancient evils, and so on. Veterans of the genre will probably see the major twists coming, but there are very few games where they wouldn’t.

There are a few bugs in the game, most of which are harmless graphical glitches. I did have the game freeze on me in two different places, though – one of which required going back through 20 minutes of dungeon to make up for lost progress. Others have complained about bugs as well. Graffiti Entertainment has said that bugs are only present on pirated copies, which sounds like a great way to alienate your fanbase.

There’s only really one bar to Black Sigil being great. If the developers had tweaked the random encounter rate – reduced it to, say, a quarter of what it is now – this game would be really fun to play. It might be shorter (my completion time was 24 hours) but then I might have been willing to explore more areas, find the rest of the ending subquests, et cetera. Black Sigil has this one tragic flaw that mars the game just enough that I can’t recommend it to friends. If battles were half as frequent or twice as fast, this would be on par with dozens of other RPGs – Suikoden V and Skies of Arcadia have similar issues. But the encounter rate is so incredibly high that fighting every battle is nearly impossible (I would know; I didn’t figure out you could actually run away until halfway through the game). You’ll end up on death’s door near the end of every dungeon, if not before, if you even try fighting each batch of enemies.

Despite its flaws, Black Sigil still manages to be inspiring. If a team of five people can make the bulk of this game – which would have been fantastic if it weren’t for a few issues – then making a production-quality RPG is possible for a sufficiently dedicated, small group of people.

The DS may have a little bit of everything else, but the few original RPGs that have come out have been disappointing in one way or another. Black Sigil is the latest – and hopefully the last – in that string. Despite all that, I’m looking forward to Graffiti Entertainment’s next entry and hoping they learn from their mistakes.

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