Black Matrix - Reader Retroview  

Take a Pill… Red or Blue.
by JuMeSyn

25-35 hours
Click here for scoring definitions 

   Some tactical titles delve deeply into the occult, and RPGs that involve religious subject matter are hardly unique. Black/Matrix goes further than most, however, which may account for its forever being stranded in Japan. With all the other quality titles the Saturn did not receive from Japan, this one is hardly at the top of the list when the inevitable historic appreciation of the system is needed. It manages to be rather different from other tactical titles, however, and provides quite an interesting experience despite its interface issues.

   Black/Matrix begins with a mute man being adopted by a woman who nurses him back to health from some traumatic experience. This differs from a Harlequin romance in several ways. There is the matter of the man having white wings and the woman having black wings: in this world black winged people are dominant. The black winged people also pay more than lip service to Satan. As expected in a world where Satan is omnipresent, love is a Bad Thing and once the woman admits to having feelings for the man, they are forcibly separated and the man meets up with allies in prison. Then a number of Biblical allusions are run through in the course of a battle against the oppressive forces of Satan (though figuring them out from the Japanese may take some effort).

   Moving through the game will find the player thrust into a number of tactical battles, with the mute man (whose given name is Abel, incidentally) always being the leader. Tactical battling feels more like Final Fantasy Tactics than Shining Force, thanks to the isometric view and the lack of cut-scenes to show actions taken. Each character can move, attack, or use magic during a turn, with any two of these actions being permissible. The direction being faced does seem to affect damage done also. Characters can be armed with a number of weapons; swords and axes are basic melee weapons, certain varieties of sword can hit diagonally around a character, archers strike from a distance, and spears pierce two squares away. Characters can strike friends as well as foes with equal impunity, though with the powerful enemies wandering about this is usually unwise. Magic operates rather like it does in many tactical RPGs - save for the Blood system.

   The Blood system is but one interesting quirk to the way Black/Matrix operates. Unlike most titles, falling in battle is not the end. Any healing spell or item will get a character up and moving again, though with less healing than is granted to a member still conscious. The only way to truly end it is to strike a character again once all HP are gone, at which point the character is skeletonized. When skeletonized (with a weapon, magic does not count) Blood points are granted to the player. Blood points enable spells to be cast by the player, and are assigned to characters prior to each battle. Blood points are ONLY granted by butchery of enemies, and more is better for the final areas of the game.

   Blood points are used for two other purposes aside from basic magic. One of these is to infuse weapons with Blood with the goal of altering the weapons favorably. The other is to summon, for summoning works differently in Black/Matrix than in any other title I have encountered. Not only does summoning require an enormous expenditure of Blood (650 Blood points is a lot in this game) but it cannot be done by a single character. The position of the summoning character will determine which allies are going to lend a hand with their own Blood points, and if a summon is possible it will make all allies inside that summoning radius use up all their movements for the turn.

   The isometric playing field rears its ugly head once again, as there will be times when the player cannot see exactly what is blocking movement or what sort of a position a character is taking. The isometric view is hardly the only issue with interaction however. The style of Black/Matrix's play ensures that battles take longer than usual, thanks to the need to make corpses of enemies being the usual goal. Shopping is reasonably straightforward save for one enormous oversight: the player cannot sell anything. There will come a time when the inventory fills and the player must start giving up items because of this. Experience is not good or bad, just different: the player will receive a certain amount after each battle to distribute to characters as preferred, with the player also being granted points to increase character statistics at the player's discretion. Towns are also different: the player moves a cursor around to speak with people instead of moving Abel around the town.

   Visually Black/Matrix is interesting in its use of character artwork that brings Yu Watase or Naoko Takeuchi to mind. Save for this, its visuals are not terribly impressive, though certain spell animations are rather different than their counterparts in other games. The audio is also interesting: few of the compositions have a classical origin. The most common piece of music is a hip-hop tune that can get annoying, and certain other pieces have a decided Nine Inch Nails resemblance. Another brings to mind Dick Dale. There is copious voice acting in every story scene, most of it well-done. Gaius is not very emotive, however.

   Black/Matrix is very linear. The only reasons to replay it would be to have a different female benefactor in the beginning (though this female will vanish until the ending and has no effect upon the 98% of the game that she is not in) or to pick up a few semi-secret characters. The game could probably be completed in 25 hours, with that rising a bit should players wish to take advantage of the opportunity to engage in additional battles in town (the rewards for these are not large). As to challenge… as the game goes on enemies get stronger and stronger compared to the player, and have their own summons that will knock out any player characters in range with one hit. Playing strategically is vital, and no character is an unstoppable tank. The hardest fights are at the end.

   Black/Matrix is definitely not for everyone thanks to its subject matter, and the notable caveat of its being in Japanese. Its style of play is unique among tactical titles, however, and may be worthwhile for that reason alone. The game originated on the Saturn but quickly went to the PlayStation, thus making it more accessible to quite a few RPGamers. While not an unqualified success the game's intriguing nature sets it apart, and that may be enough.

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