Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Review of The Bard's Tale

I'm old enough to have played the original 1985 Bard's Tale game shortly after it came out, in glorious 320x240 4-color CGA. That may not seem like much to you kids, with your 1920x1080 16.7 million color 3D accelerated graphics, but it was a vast improvement over Bard's Tale's predecessors, such as the two color Wizardry. Like Wizardry, Bard's Tale was 3D, in that it involved exploring a dungeon in first person, with ten foot steps (none of that smooth, continuous movement of modern, or even old-school, first person shooters). Combat was text based, with you selecting each character's actions each round, but the real test was the exploration, mapping out each square of the dungeon on graph paper as you identified every trick, trap, and puzzle. And there were a lot, such as teleporters and spinners and areas of complete darkness--all intended to make mapping the area as difficult as possible.  I played through the first two games, but never made it through the third.

Well, like all things 80s, Bard's Tale is back. There's a 2004 remake sequel spiritual successor--well, a game by the same name anyway. It also has one of the same designers, Brian Fargo. Apparently, inXile Games, the designer, wasn't able to get the rights for the original game from Interplay, but they were able to, uh, borrow the name. Aside from the name, and some subtle references, there's not much similarity in story or gameplay. Which I guess is a good thing, as today's kids don't have the patience for the careful mapping it takes to play the original. Instead the new game is an action RPG in the vein of Diablo, but with less resource management.

I didn't get around to playing this new Bard's Tale until the last week or so, when I bought the recently released Kindle version for $3. After having played through it, I can say that it was well worth the time.

The protagonist and sole PC, the Bard, is not exactly a paragon of virtue. He's solely interested in coin and women, so it's curious that the imprisoned princess Caleigh has chosen him as her champion, and offered him the requisite price for his services (hint: it's not just money). Of course, Caleigh isn't picky. She's named dozens of Chosen Ones, mostly untrained farmboys, and the Bard is constantly tripping over their corpses. Fortunately, he's both more canny and more skilled than the aforementioned farmboys. Though perhaps not canny enough. He wanders around, solving almost as many problems as he causes, with the help of his summoned allies, his loyal dog, and a narrator who despises him.

The gameplay is straightforward and simple. You summon allies with your music, starting with a rat and progressing to tunes to summon knights and assassins. You can also cast spells with your limited selection of adder stones. But mostly, you whack things with your sword or shoot them with your bow. There are three levels of martial techniques for each weapon type, starting with basic competence and moving to more advanced types, all of which you can execute using just the attack and block buttons. I preferred dual weapon, with sword and dirk, but you can select weapon and shield, bow, two-handed sword, or flail. I never found the flail all that useful (while it can't be blocked, it takes too long to spin up), but some of the best weapons in the game are two-handers, and the bow makes certain fights much easier. As I mentioned earlier, Bard's Tale has simplified resource management. There are no trade-offs within a weapon type, so when you pick up a new weapon you'll either automatically equip it and convert your current weapon to silver, or convert the new find to silver, depending on which weapon is better. And while you can pick up a variety of junk, from pants to snow globes to self-help books, usually you convert them straight to silver.  Like most games, conversations usually have options, but your choices are always nice or snarky, and usually the nice is pretty snarky too.

I can go on about the gameplay and the story, but ultimately this game lives or dies by its humor.  The game is constantly poking fun at the tropes of computer role playing games, such as the cliched rats-in-the-cellar quest (it's a giant fire breathing one) and the wild animals dropping swords and silver (the narrator refuses to read those parts).  You'd also think it was a Rodgers and Hammerstein production, given the number of times drunks and monsters unaccountably break out into song and dance.  It's clear that this is a game that doesn't take itself too seriously, as you can see from the trailer:

So clearly, if you want to relive the original Bard's Tale games, you won't find it in this game.  But you should probably buy it anyway, as it comes with all three of the original games run in an emulator.  So you get the original games, and a very funny action RPG, which is a pretty good investment for $3, the going price for the Kindle version on Amazon.

You can buy the iOS version for $1.99, or find it for PCs on Steam for $9.99, which is pricey, but it's probably a better platform for the original Bard's Tale games.

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