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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (437)

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Door Kickers: Action Sq... 4.5/5
Biomutant 4/5
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Boot Hill Bounties 4/5
Pathfinder: Kingmaker 2/5
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Horizon: Zero Dawn 3.5/5
World of Final Fantasy 4/5
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Assassin's Creed Origins 4/5
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The Bard's Tale IV: Bar... 4.5/5

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The Bard's Tale: Tales of the Unknown   PC 

Tard’s Bale    0.5/5 stars

Way back in 1985, while I was still watching “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and getting ready to start Kindergarten, older Gen X nerds were consorting with the Devil, playing Dungeons & Dragons, and those with the technical exposure were turning such experiences into the first cRPGs – Computerized Role-Playing Games. By the time “The Bard’s Tale: Tales of the Unknown” (“BT1”) was developed by Interplay and published by the embryonic Electronic Arts, cRPGs had been happening in the PC space for over 5 years already, beginning with the efforts of Origin founder, Richard Garriott, and his “Akalabeth: World of Doom” and ‘Ultima’ franchise. CRPGs in the console space were not far behind, with the original “Dragon Quest” shifting paradigms to be more compatible with the console experience, with “BT1” even receiving a NES port in 1991.

Over the years, I’ve heard numerous RPG fans praise the ‘Bard’s Tale’ series up one side and down the other, but with emulation being such a crap shoot for so long – especially with regard to older PC operating systems –I figured I’d just have to take their nostalgic words for it. Even when inXile bundled emulations of the original three ‘Bard’s Tale’ games with the 2004 reboot of the IP, I never seriously considered playing them. It was only when “The Bard’s Tale 4” was announced, alongside a completely remastered and updated version of the series dubbed “The Bard’s Tale Trilogy,” that I decided to give one of the allegedly foundational “W” RPGs (which is not a thing) a chance.

Presentation
For a game released in 1985, “BT1” definitely has presentation in spades. Up to this point, most cRPGs were vague, basic, or maybe even vector-based affairs where the player really had to use their imagination to fill in the gaps – almost as much as a pen ‘n paper RPG! In “BT1,” though, the world is vivid, detailed (for 8-bit sprites) and *gasp* minimally animated! While traveling as a party, the player is presented with a first-person view of their immediate surroundings, with a large UI chrome taking up the rest of the space. When in combat, however, instead of showing all the enemies and/or party members arrayed against each other, or even doing the ‘Dragon Quest’ thing of showing groups of enemies and hiding the party, the worldview portion of the screen simply switches to a general portrait of the top enemy in the combat list. As each character or enemy takes their turn, this portrait will switch to whomever is relevant (typically whomever is being attacked) as each turn cycles through the list of combatants. These portraits are not static, but, as mentioned, have about 2-4 frames of minimal animation that was mindblowing in 1985, but can be outdone easily by any crappy Flash game today.

The remaster, on the other hand, does NOT look impressive in the slightest. While it has an all-new graphics engine and 3D polygonal environments, these tend to look painfully samey and basic, like the type of thing a kid would buy in the Unity Store to use in a ‘babby’s furst gaem’ project. The character and enemy portraits were redone for the remaster in high-resolution, but the same low-level of animation remains out of faithfulness to the original ‘vision’ – and by ‘vision’ anyone with a rational mind should understand the meaning as ‘technical restrictions.’

Therefore, getting excited about “BT1” simply for its visual progress is foolish. When you’re dealing with ‘new media’ and something ‘looks good or impressive for its time,’ you’re going to run into problems in the long run. We can say that Classical sculpture looks amazing. Period. Because it does. Looking back at the tools and level of overall knowledge possessed by craftsmen in the Classical era, it’s not only remarkable that they could create such detailed, accurate sculptures, but the sculptures themselves are realistic enough to be mistaken for real people, outside of the uniform marble/bronze finish. Contrast that to medieval Christian art where things like perspective and the fine details of the human body were lost, and you run into the same problem with praising the visuals in a game like “BT1.” The art simply isn’t good, and is only interesting inside a limited historical context.

Audio is greatly overstated in “BT1.” Much ado is made of the titular bard songs. However, by default, the game is 100% silent. Having a bard in the player’s party and telling that bard to perform while traveling will grant the player one of several fairly blah background tracks, depending on which song (and its accompanying magical effects) the player chooses. Of course, in the original, these bard songs are limited to the horrendous beeps and boops produced by pre-Soundblaster computer hardware. By comparison, NES chiptunes are luxurious.

In the remaster, the audio quality has been improved dramatically, though it is still MIDI quality. InXile even went to the effort of changing the MIDI instrumentation of a bard’s song’s depending on what type of instrument he’s playing (ranging from flute to lute to horn to lyre), which I thought was a nice touch.

Technically is where the original game loses nearly all of its points, while the remaster can only go so far into improving things. First, as a PC game from 1985, of course there’s no controller support. However, as a game that debuted nearly simultaneously on DOS, Apple II, Amiga, and Commodore 64 systems, it does have mouse support. The remaster, however, shocked and pleased me by including native Xinput support with no SteamInput or Controller Companion fiddling. The remaster also provides a bunch of Quality of Life improvements that were largely left out of old games due to technical limitations, but have since become some sort of rite of passage for gatekeeping hardheads in the gaming community. In the original version of “BT1,” the player can only save at a single building in the game’s main town, and only in a single slot on-disk. No saving in dungeons is allowed at all. In the remaster, there’s a modern ‘save anywhere’ system, and the player can use as many slots as they want. Moreover, the original game has no map or journal system at all to keep track of things the player has discovered. This was due to a mix of Gygax-isms carried over from Original Dungeons & Dragons to the cRPG space and the simple fact that there was not enough RAM or disk space to keep all of that stuff, so the player was expected to write down EVERY bit of text they encounter in game (which is, admittedly, shockingly minimal) and to use reams of graph paper to draw their own maps. After all, in OD&D, one player was expected to be the mapper at all times. Fortunately, the remastered version has an auto-map, which conveniently keeps track of discovered text as well. Personally, I think the original version of the game is completely unplayable due to the lack of an auto-map, which we’ll get into more in the Gameplay section below.

Story
I’ve heard many times that the ‘Bard’s Tale’ trilogy has a good story. The 2004 reboot of the IP actually primed me for a rollicking comedy filled with dungeon delving and monster slaying.

There is no story in “BT1.” There’s an excuse narrative: The evil wizard, Mangar, has cast a spell of eternal Winter on the remote city of Skara Brae, trapping the inhabitants as he conjures an army of monstrous minions, who gradually leak out of his tower into the city proper.

That’s it. That’s the ‘great’ story of “BT1.” There are only a handful of NPCs in the game to talk to, and none of them say anything particularly interesting. There’s no great worldbuilding, lore, or backstory to uncover. There’s no gripping plot. Hell, there’s not even any character development, since the entire party consists of player-created mooks. It’s even entirely possible to play the game without a bard in the party, making the title feel somewhat misleading.

I spent about 25 hours with the remastered version. I imagine it would take 2x, 3x, 4x, or however-many-x times longer to get through this game without the remaster’s modernized features. It felt way too long and ambiguous, and I was bored long before I was done.

Gameplay
“BT1” is ostensibly a Dungeon Crawler RPG. It features first-person navigation, grid-based full party movement, and a number of dungeons through which to crawl… yet it manages to feel very unlike the true classics of the genre, like “Dungeon Master,” because these incredibly-early cRPGs hadn’t really figured out a way to stand-out from the crowd, so they were all just aping Original Dungeons & Dragons or, at best, Advanced Dungeons & Dragon’s 1st Edition, both of which were filled with arbitrary, strange Gygaxian idiosyncrasies. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for Gary Gygax and his overflowing creativity… but a lot of the systems he built into the earliest iterations of tabletop RPGs were cumbersome, confusing, and outright bad when compared side-by-side with 21st Century editions of the same game. Chris and I were huge AD&D 2nd Edition players in the ‘90s, and even then there were annoying game mechanics that we actively ignored or circumvented with House Rules.

So, “BT1” is just like Dungeons & Dragons? No. It’s not ‘just like,’ but it shares about 90% of the tabletop game’s DNA. You’ve got very similar classes, races, ability scores with weird racial modifications, magical spells, and negative armor class being ‘better.’ But “BT1” does a lot of other things that OD&D and AD&D 1E didn’t, like increasing ability scores on level-up, class-changing among magic users to allow them to learn ALL the spells, and a pool of spell points instead of an archaic Vancian spell system. This pool of spell points even REGENERATES over time – a mechanic that took far too long to spread to modern tabletop and computerized RPGs – however, said regeneration only works when the party is outdoors during the day.

“BT1” features a day/night system, which causes numerous businesses, such as the Review Board where the party must go to apply level-ups, to close at night, and for random encounters to become more difficult. The party has no ability to camp or rest, however. Instead, visiting the guildhall (the only save point in the original game, and the location to recruit characters) resets the game from night to day, and characters must visit expensive temples for healing and an expensive magic shop for spell point recharges. Of course, ‘expensive’ is relative, since the amount of gold dropped by every enemy encounter is ludicrously large.

The two main gameplay cores in “BT1” are exploration and combat. Combat is based on random encounters, as well as numerous locations on the map that have fixed encounters that respawn when the player leaves a given map and returns. The random encounter tables in “BT1” are one of the most egregious example of insane Gygaxianism and lack of balance. In the original game, it was apparently a common occurrence for players to create a new party of heroes, then die to a random encounter while walking down the street from the guildhall to the weapon store to buy their starting gear. I managed to avoid that in the remaster, but the encounter tables still show a complete disregard for sanity, often placing the party in encounters with vastly overwhelming numbers of foes. However, because these foes tend to ‘group’ together, magic using player characters become drastically more valuable than melee characters, as there are many economical spells that can blast a group of foes, no matter how large. Up against a group of 99 skeletons? Blast them with the Dragon Breath spell, and you will be up against 0 skeletons in a single action. And because OD&D didn’t take miniatures and battlemaps into consideration the way modern tabletop RPGs do, distances in combat are greatly abstracted, with different enemies or groups simply having a distance in feet (always multiples of 10) listed next to their name, requiring the player party to advance toward them (and waste a turn worth of attacks) or use ranged attacks and magic to hit them. Perhaps the silliest thing about these gratuitously-sized enemy encounters is that they are supposed to take place, roughly, within a 10’x10’ room most of the time. Walking into such a room, only to be assaulted by huge groups of giants, dragons, and other large monsters, some of which are 40’+ away had me *facepalming* and *lolling* simultaneously.

So, combat is repetitive, tedious, and unbalanced, requiring the player to burn through spell points, then slog back out of their current dungeon to heal-up and recharge before heading back in to explore some more. However, this exploration is incredibly weak for a Dungeon Crawler, as there are no actual puzzles to be found. I love Dungeon Crawler RPGs with their pressure plates, switches, levers, pits, traps, and all that good stuff. In lieu of these kinds of puzzle elements, “BT1” substitutes nonsensical maze-like layouts and annoying, vague guessing games or riddles. In every dungeon, the designers show a profound sense of horror vacui, since every single space on the 22x22 grid maps is part of the maze in all but one dungeon floor. Even worse, in a Gygaxian move, the dungeon designers are completely in love with areas of Continual Darkness and spinners, the former extinguishing the party’s light sources and forcing them to fumble around with no visual representation of their surroundings whatsoever, the latter randomly pivoting the party’s facing with no indication that anything happened. Both of these eff-you mechanics are tedious with an auto-map… without one, they’re just hateful. These trollish dungeon layouts and traps are complemented by a variety of run-of-the-mill traps that deal damage and/or negative statuses when the party steps on them, but which the party can detect and remove with magic (poor rogues can only attempt to disarm traps on the treasure chests dropped at the end of combat), but when anti-magic fields decide to abruptly dispel all the party’s scrying buffs, it’s still far too easy to stumble into them.

Overall
After slogging through the remastered and updated version of “The Bard’s Tale: Tales of the Unknown,” I’m beginning to question my own sanity when it comes to continuing the series. On one hand, I want to give this trilogy the benefit of the doubt to see if it actually gets better with time and iteration, as so many older game IPs did. On the other hand, the thought of spending another 50 hours slogging through Gygaxian hate-mazes, playing ‘what’s in my pocket’-style guessing-games, and fighting 99 Berserkers, 99 Berserkers, 99 Berserkers, and 99 Berserkers in a 10’x10’ room makes me want to uninstall and never look back.

Presentation: 2.5/5 (3.5/5 for the remastered version)
Story: 0.5/5
Gameplay: 1/5 (2/5 for the remastered version)
Overall (not an average): 0.5/5 (1.5/5 for the remastered version)

 

 


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