Let me sing you a song…
These days, gamers are spoilt with an abundance of things to do in-game: For example, I’ve spent the majority of my time in Red Dead Redemption 2 simply playing dominoes at the campsite, and I’ve spent far too much time playing Blitzball in Final Fantasy X, treating it like a full sports simulation game and assigning my players distinct personas.
This wasn’t always the case though and games used to be far more limited, whether that be due to file size constraints or deadline issues. But by introducing grinding mechanics into a game, you could elongate the length of the time to as long as you see fit.
The three games in The Bard’s Tale Trilogy all do this. Grinding isn’t a bad thing – many gamers enjoy spending a few hours levelling up characters – this only heeds as a warning for those interested in playing The Bard’s Tale. Be prepared to grind for many, many hours.
Coming as a trilogy and not available separately, The Bard’s Tale is split into three games: Tales of the Unknown, The Destiny Knight and Thief of Fate. It is the oldest of old-school RPGs, and even with this complete remastering, you can see the early machinations of RPGs within videogames. If you have ever played a tabletop-RPG then it will be instantly visible what these games’ inspirations were.
The first game in the trilogy has you band together a group of seven adventurers – up from six in the original release to be more in-line with the trilogy – as the only possible people in the town of Skara Brae capable of taking down the evil wizard, Mangar the Dark. In the second game, you and your team are contacted by the wizard Saradon to help in their town which is under the control of evil Archmage, Lagoth Zanta, who has stolen the Destiny Wand. The final game in the trilogy has you returning to Skara Brae to defeat the Mad God Tarjan, Mangar the Dark’s true master.
Battles are a very basic affair: This game came out before the days of RPGs where character sprites were transported from the world map to a battle arena. No, in The Bard’s Tale, character actions are simply described through text after you decide what each party member is to do on their turn. By default, the text scrolls through too fast to decipher, so if you want to know the intricacies of the fights you will need to scroll up and read through it, and by this point any tension in the battle has long since disappeared.
For its time though, there were a lot of innovative features in The Bard’s Tale. It puts the emphasis on having a bard in the party – as highlighted in the game title – as these use songs to buff your party and debuff the enemies. It may seem trivial for RPGs nowadays but this was a novel idea back in the day. Bards can choose to sing a song both in and out of combat, and it is highly recommended to have a song’s effects on at all times. But bards can only sing a certain number of songs, tied to their overall level; in order to be able to sing again, they need to visit the local tavern and revitalise their throat through the power of alcohol.
It must be said that the first volume is easily the weakest one: this has you wandering around a town searching out dungeons to then escape from, before confronting the final boss. There is an overview map to help guide you around the town which comes in very handy because otherwise the streets all look very similar, even with the large amount of work that has gone into this remaster.
The second and third games expand beyond the perimeter walls of Skara Brae and feel a lot more fleshed out, in particular the second one. Whilst they all feature near identical combat, the locations in the later two make them a better overall experience.
Another thing that may put people off is the lack of guidance in regards to where to go next. For example, to access the first dungeon in Volume I, the player needs to seek out the only tavern in the town that sells wine, and then ask for a glass of it. I am not afraid to admit that I resorted to finding this out on the internet. Originally this hint was published in the game manual – though not in the manual for the Commodore 64 version – so for a newcomer to this game, there was no way for me to know this beforehand.
It isn’t all bad news for newcomers though; the game difficulty has been toned down on the default option, but there is also a Legacy Mode option for the full experience. Legacy Mode removes the automapping feature on the overview map – original players were expected to draw the map on grid paper much like a tabletop game. It also doubles the XP required to level up, only allowing saving at the guild hall or camp as opposed to everywhere, and disables items in empty houses, so that only random encounters will occur in them now. But even with the difficulty turned down, the first few hours of the game are still tricky as you wander through the streets as a low-level party.
Another feature to be wary of is the day/night cycle. Night-time enemies are a lot tougher than their daytime counterparts.
In Volumes II and III however, you can transfer the party over, and can tailor what exactly is transferred, providing they have completed the main story of the previous volume. There is a Full Power Transfer which moves everything including experience and items over, Moderate Power Transfer which levels characters down to a suitable level but retains all items and Full Reset that resets to level one and removes all items.
There are 47 achievements across the trilogy for a grand total of 1000G. Some are for completing specific actions on a specific Volume, others can be unlocked across any of them for completing certain criteria. Unlike most other grouped achievement lists, it isn’t pointed out necessarily which are for specific games and which are more general. However, if you complete the first game and do a Full Power Transfer of your characters this achievement list becomes a lot easier.
There is no question as to why The Bard’s Tale games are held in such high esteem; they were pioneers for RPGs that we know and love today. Many of their design choices are such that we take them for granted today, but someone had to ‘invent’ them. As a snapshot of games in the ‘80s The Bard’s Tale Trilogy on Xbox One is a great example, with enough work gone into the remaster to keep them fresh without losing their initial charm. The first Volume is still a slog and Skara Brae isn’t the most exciting to explore, but the second and third Volumes are worth sticking around for.