GameSpite Journal 11 | Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled

Studio Archcraft | Graffiti | DS | June 9, 2009

As a general rule amongst adherents of Japanese RPGs, Chrono Trigger is held high as a paragon of the genre. The game almost perfectly balances its battle depth, exploration, and story pacing to create what is still one of the finest games ever made. It didn’t hurt that the game’s presentation was incredible, to boot.

Despite this, however, it always seems strange that there were no real Chrono Trigger “clones.” As anyone who knows the genre can attest, the 8-bit era is littered with games that mimicked the ultra-popular (at least in Japan) Dragon Quest. And rightfully so, as it basically spawned what we think of as the JRPG in the first place. But Chrono Trigger? It doesn’t seem like anyone followed its blueprint for success, despite the accolades that it received.

To be honest, it was probably a victim of bad timing more than anything. Coming near the end of the 16-bit era, it arrived just as a huge shift in gaming was coming about. With the release of both the Playstation and Saturn (and later the N64), traditional sprite-based games gave way to polygonal monstrosities that, while technically impressive at the time, typically aged very, very poorly.

Perhaps the closest to the Chrono Trigger formula came from SquareSoft themselves, in the form of Final Fantasy VII. It’s not a perfect parallel, to be sure, but quite a few of Chrono Trigger‘s defining elements seem embedded in the design ethos of that game. But it’s still a bit removed from what I still consider to be the greatest JRPG of all time.

Suffice it to say that when I caught wind of Studio Archcraft’s attempt to make a Chrono Trigger-inspired game, I took notice. All the videos made it look like it could be a game in the true mold of Chrono Trigger. I decided to suffer through the delays, and made sure to obtain Black Sigil at launch, obtaining it directly from publisher Graffiti Entertainment.

The game certainly starts with a promising plot. With a bit of an inverted take on the norm, the main character faces discrimination not because of an ability to use magic but rather his total lack thereof. It really does draw one in. But Black Sigil squanders any goodwill with dismal pacing due to a combination of a high random encounter rate, battles as slow as molasses, and single-character parties for a substantial period of time. It was like the game fell out of the 8-bit era, despite attempting to adhere to 16-bit sensibilities. Even at only an hour or two in, I begin asking myself the question, “This is what I paid for?” But I felt that, to justify my purchase, I needed to give it more of a chance. If it had been any other game, if I had not gone to all the trouble to obtain it -- the local GameStop didn’t even have the game until a week after the release date -- and instead played through less-than-scrupulous means, I would have dropped it.

So I struggled through an interminable 10-hour slog. The game’s quality does not improve during this period. In fact, it diminishes. Why is my character afflicted with random status ailments? Why do those ailments continue to take effect, even in Wait Mode? Why does my character move so slowly on the overworld map? Why does the battle rate have to be so high, combined with enemies that can shred your party, without efficient means to deal damage yourself? All of these things make one question why they would continue playing a game that is obviously poorly put together, a pale imitation of its inspiration. There were many times where a random battle would trigger my annoyance to the point of just shutting off the system, frustrated and disgusted.

All of this comes to a head in what may be the lowest point of the game, the House of Black Stone. That particular area sees your characters without the ability to use magic, facing difficult enemies, without the techs necessary to handle enemies very effectively. The only real way to survive is to make sure you’ve stocked up on healing items. Even then, you’re likely to run from battles more often than not. It’s a holdover from an era long thought dead. In a lot of ways, the area is this game’s Marsh Cave from Final Fantasy: a picture of some of the punishment that gamers endured in the genre’s early days.

This may end up being the final straw for many gamers—provided they’ve even made it this far, of course. And by all rights, based on Black Sigil’s quality up to this point, anyone would be entirely justified to quit and move on to something else. Up to this point, I’d dropped the game several times. I could only stand playing it in one-to-two-hour sessions, because the battles became so annoying that I constantly threw up my hands in disgust. I had picked up a few other games in the interim, but nothing managed to get its hooks into me. And all the while, Black Sigil was sitting there, rattling around in my brain. I couldn’t shake this nagging suspicion that maybe, just maybe, the game would get better. Irrational hope? Probably, given how things go up to this point. But with a distinct lack of other passable gaming options at the time, I really had no choice but to give the game another shot to prove that it wouldn’t continue to be terrible.

Shockingly, I was rewarded for that choice. As it turns out, as one goes just ever-so-slightly further in, the quality starts to come up from that lackluster start. You start to pick up a few more party members. You get a few more powerful Dual Techs. All of a sudden, battles that used to be a slog become well-balanced. The challenge now becomes quickly dispatching enemies, not unlike the Lunar games. And as your FP pool increases, so does your ability to keep your party alive without healing items. In fact, your party recovers FP while running around, but on a percentage basis. So now, the party generally gets back enough FP while exploring to maintain a pool large enough to stay healed as well as deal punishment to enemies. And while the encounter rate remains still ugly, the decreased difficulty helps things become manageable.

Now that the battles are no longer either boring or a harbinger of unavoidable doom, the player is suddenly free to enjoy all the game does right—namely, the exploration and the story. The former is pretty much taken directly from Chrono Trigger, and as such is as enjoyable as that game. And the story, while nothing earth-shattering, is riveting nonetheless, mostly due to the superb script... which makes sense, given that it was a Canadian team that put the game together in the first place, requiring no localization.

The cast of the game is a real high point. Granted, they all fall into mostly well-worn archetypes, but they pitch a few curveballs, and the main character doesn’t succumb to one thing that many RPGs foist upon the player: Mute heroes. Kairu comes across as a very normal, real, believable character, and that goes a long way toward making the story work. The relationship that blooms between Aurora and Nephi is also very well done, even if it can be seen coming from a mile away. The plot doesn’t let up for an instant until you reach the conclusion, just like the 16-bit greats.

Sadly, the balance issues come back up, except in your party’s favor. Everyone becomes too powerful, able to dominate pretty much any encounter, including bosses. Any suspense in the battle sequences is eliminated; eventually, instead of being an enjoyable challenge, they become a mere nuisance. At this point, you’ll likely start running from battles again.. not because they’re difficult, but because they’re the equivalent of fighting a bunch of Dragon Quest slimes, with no real incentive to go through the battle.

Still, better too easy than unreasonably hard. The game builds up enough goodwill again that it’s worth seeing the story to completion. Everything wraps up quite well, even if the ending is not a magnum opus like Final Fantasy VI, or even Chrono Trigger. And, as a whole, I found the experience quite enjoyable, despite the flaws in the game. But what went wrong? Is there some way that the game could have possibly ascended to the heights of the 16-bit heyday? The answer to that question is: Yes, through quality assurance.

A lot of love went into this game. And it shows. But building an RPG is not exactly the easiest thing to do, especially for an unproven Canadian studio trying to emulate possibly the greatest JRPG of all time. Black Sigil suffers from a lack of balance, an insane encounter rate, and plenty of bugs (even some bugs of a show-stopping variety). All of this could have been mitigated with more playtesting. That the game went gold yet didn’t hit stores for many more months is even more of a travesty, as that time could potentially have been used to polish things up, to make the game all that it could be. At least they could have eliminated the crash bugs. Even something as simple as halving the encounter rate while doubling experience would have improved the game tremendously.

Of course, this is not the first time that we’ve seen a game from a Western developer that tried to mimic a hit Square game. No, this formula was tried many years before, in the form of Shadow Madness. A brazen attempt to copy Final Fantasy VII’s formula, the game’s first boss was the hardest in the game, with the remainder of the game being a complete cakewalk. It, too, had a very well-written story, but unlike Black Sigil, the combat never achieved anything resembling fun, leaving only the story to pull it along. Direct comparisons to Shadow Madness do Black Sigil a distinct disservice. Black Sigil comes far closer to its inspiration than Shadow Madness does to its own, even if I do maintain a soft spot for Big Rain’s effort.

All of this is water under the bridge, though. The game is out, and while it’s certainly not perfect, there is a blissful 20-to-25-hour period in which it truly shines, with tons of interesting subquests, dialog, and combat. That the game is marred with the flaws that it exhibits is unfortunate, especially considering the patience that is necessary to get to “the good stuff.” In the end, I found the game to be rather enjoyable. It certainly doesn’t reach the level of the Super NES greats, but it firmly nestles itself into what I would consider the second-tier of 16-bit RPGs. And that’s some darn fine company to keep.

By Lee Hathcock? | April 14, 2012 | Previous: Battletoads | Next: Breath of Fire III