If a new game developer wanted to make a name for themselves by crafting a lengthy (and I do mean lengthy) RPG modeled on the ye olde schoole style of turn-based combat stat management sims we grew up with, then it would be tough to find a better example of the genre than Final Fantasy VI. Maybe Chrono Trigger, but I maintain that Final Fantasy VI is the premier title among the never-ending franchise, though Final Fantasy XII comes in a very close second. But what happens when the new game, in this case Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled, doesn’t take its cues from Final Fantasy VI so much as it virtually remakes the entire game right down to the basic story line and everything?
We wind up with my favorite thing – a chance to use movie references to enhance a point. One of the best movies released this year was the new Star Trek movie. It was a joy start to finish and absolutely, resoundingly filled the hearts of movie goers everywhere with excitement. But if you peeled back so much as a single layer, the film was little more than a direct rip-off of the original Star Wars. Did that make it less than an epic thrill ride? Not at all. But why?
Because the film makers knew exactly what made Star Wars work and applied those lessons brilliantly to the new Star Trek. The result is a tally of over a quarter of a billion dollars worldwide, so clearly people loved what they saw. The film succeeded because the elements work at a chemical level. We clearly know who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, and understand the way the action unfolds. The story elements aren’t anything new; if anything, they both crib from story basics formed centuries before Shakespeare penned his first sonnet.
The intention of Black Sigil seems to mirror that of Star Trek by pulling all of its material from a game that many of us hold in high esteem. That isn’t a slap against the developer by any stretch, so don’t misunderstand. Were I to begin smacking people around for ripping one another off I’d have to disown EA altogether. But I have to give the Black Sigil developers credit because I haven’t seen an RPG this elaborate in a long, long time – which is partly why it took me a few hours of play time to nail why it seemed so familiar.
For the record, I love it… with a few caveats we’ll discuss as the review unfolds. But were you to stop reading right here and rush out to buy it, you would be hard pressed to get more bang for your buck at the moment. This is a very rich, highly detailed old school RPG that has some flaws, but is a really solid effort once you figure out how things work.
The game opens with young Kairu learning basic sword techniques from his adopted father. Apparently everyone in the world can use magic, except him. If that wasn’t enough to make him feel like an outcast, his adopted father defeated a rogue general named Vai who also was unable to use magic. What Vai could do though was inspire evil in the people around him, and he subsequently waged war on the kingdom. Kairu makes do in the castle along with his feisty step-sister Aurora, who has a flare for fire magic. Eventually, they set out to discover the source of a problem in the kingdom, and after a betrayal they find themselves far from home with no way to get back. Along the way they encounter strange new characters including the self-proclaimed world’s best treasure hunter, another female warrior/magician, a mysterious stranger, and more.
And the strange lands are about to be torn apart by a warmongering empire bent on conquering everything in sight. Sound slightly familiar yet?
It may sound strange, but I actually have no beef with Black Sigil’s source material. If you’re going to take your cues for a lengthy RPG, you may as well aim for the stars and the developers have certainly done that in spades. The details in this game are absolutely terrific, so much so it is easy to get lost. Walking through small towns or large cities is wonderful because a vibrant luster shines on everything. Heavily detailed environments are the norm instead of the exception. This is a highly polished title in terms of graphics because it is EXACTLY like the ye olde schoole games we grew up with right down to the customization options in the menu.
Apparently a controversy has brewed over the combat and it bears further discussion. I don’t (or try not to) read other reviews for games I write about. But the combat has been the target for genuine vitriol across the internet and it bears addressing right now. The manual fails to address how to run from a fight (hold down the B button, for the record) and the combat comes fast and frequently. Perhaps too frequently, especially in the dungeons which are not small by any stretch. So players find themselves out of health packs, out of magic, surrounded by enemies, and with a long way to go before they finish the dungeon.
The company has since addressed this issue but if you go in blind as I initially did, then you will find yourself quickly overwhelmed. It doesn’t help matters than at one point in the early part of the game, your one magic user is unable to use magic of any kind as you are forced to explore a major dungeon.
One major knock I do have against Black Sigil is that it frontloads a massive, unwieldy dungeon within the first few hours that absolutely will stomp low level characters. Unless you run from each encounter (and even then you’ll take some minor damage), there is no way you will be properly prepared, and even when you think you’re all the way through it the dungeon continues. Were this event set just a few hours later, it might make all the difference in the world. But trying to fight through it without running is, to put it bluntly, suicidal. It is genuinely amazing how often you’ll find yourself fighting against random foes, so go into the game knowing how to run and you’ll be fine.
But don’t hesitate to power level in the early going. It will help when you need it most.
The excitement is palpable once the game really gets going. The threat of war between two armies with your characters caught in the middle is always there, and as the situation escalates the tension builds to as hectic a pace as a title in this genre is capable of.
You still wind up walking everywhere and exploring every nook and cranny, but that’s part of the fun. This is a game about exploration and about looking everywhere and about talking to everyone. I would recommend not trying to play this unless you have a good 30 hours or more for your first run through. I emphasize first because there are several endings available depending on how things go.
When players walk the lands, they will encounter many a foe. As mentioned earlier, holding down the B button causes your team to flee. Outside of boss fights, I was able to run from every fight. Sometimes the best offense is to turn tail and haul ass. Once you are ready, or in need of elevating your characters’ levels, combat is fairly easy to pick up. You use three characters, who can be swapped with other party members through the menu. When it is a certain character’s turn, a little menu pops up over their head giving you the choices of attacking, performing a special move, initiating a combo move involving the group’s spell caster, or using an item. Players can also run to better position themselves on the combat board.
Topography plays a more crucial role in determing how well combat goes. Soemtimes your characters will be blocked into a narrow hallway. So unless the group is uniformly spell casters, you have to move one character to shift the others. Of course, this uses up a turn for the characters who reposition themselves. One thing that is great about the fighting mechanism at work here is how it forces you to adapt on the fly. The combat in Black Sigil may be more frequent than you’d like, but it is rarely boring.
The sheer volume of places to see, people to talk with, and items to purchase would keep you occupied for a long time. Now factor in a plot that spans the globe, is rife with political intrigue, strong heroes, nefarious villains, and non-stop action and you have a rock solid first effort. As I mentioned at the top of the review, you could do a heck of a lot worse than use Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger as your inspiration for building an RPG that looks, feels, and acts exactly like the games we grew up with during the early 90s.
Yes, I’m dating myself for the Twittering class out there. But there is a depth here that I have not seen a great deal of in today’s RPG generation. When Fable is referred to as an RPG, I snicker. It is about as much an RPG as The Sims, which is to say “not at all.”
Black Sigil does have its share of flaws (the frequent combat, that insane dungeon right up front), but getting past those is less of a problem than one might think. As your characters progress, the combat becomes less of a headache and more of a chance to use that hefty new sword or spell you recently picked up. Later dungeons are not simple challenges by any stretch, but you’ll feel better prepared upon entering those.
This is a rock solid, genuinely excellent first effort by this developer. It’s a title I intend to continue playing for the foreseeable future, and one I definitely recommend to those willing to give it a shot.