There is a fine line somewhere between homage and outright copying, and also a line between recreating the best elements of a classic in a modern setting and bringing something that was shackled by its’ time into the future warts and all. Black Sigil is a game that captures much of the magic from the 16-bit era of jRPG’s such as Chrono Trigger, Vay (recently released for the iPhone), the Lunar series and so on, but it also brings along a load of things many gamers might have hoped would have stayed back in the 1990’s. If you can’t tell already, I have pretty mixed feelings about Black Sigil.
Bel Lenora is a world where people are born with magic at their command. Years ago, to single man walked the land with not magic in his veins. There am brought death and tragedy in his wake and was banished by to brave General AT to great cost. It you have been fifteen years since his banishment and eleven again, to Young man with not magic walks the land of Bel Lenora.
Join Kairu, to Young knight, born with to cursed spirit…
* You live environments create to realistic yet imaginative landscape
* 40-50+ hours of game play with tons of side-quests
* Dark secrets and powerful original plot twists create an and intriguing story line
* Strategically customize your 3 person party from up to 8 unique characters
* 100+ different physical and magical skills/stands for casks
* 100+ different weapons
* 200+ different pieces of armor
The story is intriguing: you play as Kairu (Japanese for frog) who is a youth born with no magical prowess. The last time this happened was when Vai brought death and suffering to Bel Lenora. He was eventually defeated and banished by Duke Avery, who has since taken Kairu under his wing. As the game begins we see that Kairu possesses considerable sword skill but no magic, so when he spars with other students in non-magical combat he is victorious but when magic is allowed he takes a beating. We see reflected in everyone he meets an innate fear, distrust and hatred of him for his lack of magic.
From there you launch into a fairly standard game where you need to wander from village to village interacting with folks and completing quests, slowing building your party as you work your way through the story. There are many interesting and distinct characters to interact with, varied locations to explore, plenty of quests to complete, and tons of combat challenges.
The combat – and more specifically the frequency of combat – is the big controversy, so let’s get right to it.
There are two main areas of combat: in dungeons and on the overland map. All combat is based on random encounters that can happen anywhere in the world, and is actually quite challenging. You can win every battle, but the frequency is such that you really need to have a solid strategy to make it through any dungeon you enter. More on frequency in a minute. The combat system itself is fairly typical of a game from the ’16-bit era’, using a ATB (active time battle) system where everyone gets turns but they need to wait for time to give them another chance at a real-time action. It is actually a solid system, which is why it was so successful in the classic console RPGs of the 1990s! Black Sigil augments this with the ability to use some of the action points to move around, and some nice combination attacks that build with the continued partnering in combat.
The problem with combat is that it gets stale very quickly. The combat options work very nicely, and there are some decent sets of enemies to encounter, but very quickly you will start to feel like you have already seen it all. Jeff Vogel of SpiderWeb Software wrote an article about ‘trash collection’ in RPG games, by which he meant dealing with an interminable flow of low level enemies in order to create a sense of danger and excitement. That is how I felt much of the time in Black Sigil – and it reminded me somewhat of Dungeon Lords in that regard. The dungeons and areas were fairly well designed, but it was easy to take a wrong turn or pursue a path to check for any hidden loot and end up in five or six low-level encounters, to the point that it is hard to remember why you went that way in the first place!
However it might sound, I really had no issue with dungeon combat. It is fairly typical of retro-styled games, and I was able to gain enough items to keep going and enough experience to gain levels fairly rapidly. My problem was on the overland map. When you are in the dungeon you can press a button to run more quickly, but on the overland map there is one speed – glacial! So in order to get from the town to the dungeon – both of which are visible on the overland map simultaneously – might take several minutes due to the terribly slow travel speed and the every-few-steps random encounters. When you hear people complaining about the game, it is because of this … and it is deserved.
Boss battles are a whole different story! They are challenging and require you to work out a strategy in terms of positioning your party and making use of all of your skills and abilities, and of course proper use of potions and items.
In terms of technical stuff the game works quite well. Graphics are definitely out of the last decade, but as you play you will notice that there is more motion to the sprites and more details all around and so on. It is a classic style updated to the point where it is more alive but without losing the original feel. The soundtrack also works well, again sounding like it could be 15-years old, with MIDI-orchestral themes abounding. None of the songs will stick with you, but they are fun and complement the feeling that you are playing a game that is at once classic and modern.
Aside from combat, there are the story and characters. I already mentioned the basic setup, but there is much more to it than that. You meet Kairu’s adoptive sister (Duke Avery’s daughter) Aurora early on and figure out that there will definitely be plot elements revolving around her. The overall story is solid, with Kairu ‘starting a new adventure’ (avoiding spoilers here) serving as the breakpoint where things really get interesting. If you are playing and about to give up, persevere until past that point (trust me, you’ll know) and give it at least another couple of hours before quitting.
I said from the beginning that I had mixed feelings about Black Sigil – the frustration over the random battles and glacial overland speed really wore on me. I played for hours, put the game aside, then played more, then put it aside, and so on. But the question remains: should YOU get it? Well, taht depends entirely on your love of RPGs from the 16-bit era, tolerance for excessive random battles, and ability to deal with slow overland travel, then I have no doubt that you will absolutely adore this game. However, if you look at this list and already start to chafe, don’t feel bad – getting through much of the game feels more like work than fun. That is why I am so mixed on the review – there are many really good things, but there are also things that will stop most gamers dead in their tracks.
Where to Buy: Amazon.com
What I Like:
+ Classic jRPG look and feel
+ Fun combat system
+ Solid story and characters
What Needs Improvement:
– Glacial overland travel
– Too many random encounters