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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (416)

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I Am Setsuna 2.5/5
Assassin's Creed Origins 4/5
Boot Hill Heroes 3.5/5
The Bard's Tale IV: Bar... 4.5/5
The Bard's Tale Trilogy 1.5/5
The Bard's Tale III: Th... 1.5/5
The Bard's Tale II: The... 0.5/5
The Bard's Tale: Tales ... 0.5/5
The Technomancer 2.5/5
Tyranny 3.5/5
Pine 2/5
Victor Vran 3/5
Front Mission Evolved 2/5
Greedfall 4.5/5
The Deep Paths: Labyrin... 3/5
The Vagrant 4/5
Avadon: The Black Fortr... 2/5
Mass Effect 3 3.5/5
Mass Effect 2 3.5/5
Mass Effect 2.5/5
Knightin'+ 3.5/5
Indivisible 3/5
Final Fantasy XIV Onlin... 2/5
A Total War Saga: Troy 3/5
Stardew Valley 3/5

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The Bard's Tale II: The Destiny Knight   PC 

Tard’s Fail    0.5/5 stars

A scant year after the release of the first part of what was, apparently, a planned trilogy of episodic games waaaay before such concepts had jargon, “The Bard’s Tale 2: The Destiny Knight” (“BT2”) was released on the Commodore 64 and Apple II platforms. It would be another two years before the PC-DOS release in 1988. I was still a child at this point, and though I had actually been exposed to computers via a day trip to the University of Nebraska – Lincoln campus, where my father – in one of his rare moments of having a good idea and not going absolutely overboard with it – signed me up for a super-introductory computer class where I got to fiddle with an Apple II and play “Word Muncher” for an hour or so, I was not, in any sense of the word, computer literate. It would still be another year before I would experience console gaming via the NES, and another three years before the SNES would cement gaming as a core facet of my life.

“BT2” wasn’t making any waves or rocking any boats. It was just bringing more ‘Bard’s Tale’ to an audience that, for unknown reasons, enjoyed the first one. As such an early cRPG franchise, I couldn’t help but hold onto some expectations for the series as it progressed. Early 8-bit console game series, for instance, regularly saw massive improvement from sequel-to-sequel, from more detailed visuals to a shinier color pallet to tightened-up controls/physics to the major upheavals we refer to today as ‘Quality of Life’ features. It was a common occurrence for videogame sequels in the ‘80s and ‘90s to so thoroughly one-up their predecessors that the older games were rendered completely obsolete and redundant. Nope! Not Interplay and EA. They were playing it safe.

Unfortunately, that should mean that “BT2” is just as cumbersome and frustrating as its predecessor. It’s not, however… It’s worse.

Presentation
“BT2” uses the same basic engine as its predecessor. Visually, the main difference is that there are more environments, including an outdoor environment with trees, and more monsters. Of course, all the old environmental assets are there, and heavily re-used, including monster portraits, which don’t even go to the effort of pallet swapping the colors to represent a more dangerous variant, a la every ‘Dragon Quest’ and ‘Final Fantasy’ game from the same time period. Animation is still highly minimalistic, rocking a groundbreaking 2-4 frames of animation – not per second, though.

In the remastered version, which I played, the outdoor visuals show an attention to detail that far outstrips the samey city and indoor environs, with sloping hills, grass, animated butterflies, and a level of differentiation sorely lacking from the rest of the game. Of course, very little of the action takes place in this wilderness environment, so the loving care put into the visuals is ultimately pointless. And why even bother with visuals at all when each and every dungeon is going to be full of Continual Darkness zones that don’t let the player see anything except a black square?

Audio is likewise basically identical to the preceding game in the series. There are a few more songs for the party’s bard to learn – provided the player can track down the elusive Scarlet Bard who teaches them – but for the most part the player will stick with playing the same two or three while traveling, depending on the circumstances. Also as in the preceding game, combat only has accompanying music when the bard plays a song as his action during his turn… and the sound only lasts for that one turn, even though the magical effects of the bard’s songs linger indefinitely. Once again, in the original 1988 version of the game, these bard songs are limited to the horrendous beeps and boops produced by pre-Soundblaster computer hardware, making me long for the layered 8-bit synth of NES chiptunes. Likewise, the remaster still uses MIDI, which sounds okay, but I noticed some weird audio artifacting in certain songs that, like a dog whistle, got on my nerves.

Technically, “BT2” is just as big a dumpster-fire as its predecessor, with the non-remastered version lacking in far too many Quality of Life features, and shackled to an odious user interface designed around typewriters. The remaster, once again, addresses these failings, but the fact that the game still isn’t ‘fun’ even with an auto-map and journal keeping track of secretarial work on the player’s behalf is a sign of a deeply-flawed underlying design methodology for the entire game. My guess: There was no design methodology, and nobody playtested it.

Story
After the minimalist excuse narrative the first ‘Bard’s Tale’ game had in lieu of a story, I was hoping to see a bit more in the sequel. A ‘bit’ is literally all I got.

After the player’s party defeated the evil archmage Mangar and foiled his plans to do stereotypically Evil things to the city of Skara Brae, our heroes suddenly find themselves the recipients of a letter from a sage named Saradon, who lives in the land of Lestradae, a neighboring kingdom to… wherever Skara Brae is located. It turns out that Mangar has a brother named Lagoth Zanta, who is also an evil archmage, who is threatening to overwhelm the various cities of Lestradae with an army of mercenaries and monsters. Lagoth Zanta has also shattered the Destiny Staff into seven pieces and hidden them in nefarious mazes known as ‘Death Snares,’ guarded by his loyal underlings. Our heroes must gather the scattered pieces of the staff, reforge it, and one among them must use its power to assume the mantle of the titular Destiny Knight in order to have the power to take down Lagoth Zanta and end his reign of terror.

Okay, that’s a bit better than the previous game, if not still a bit stereotypical and cheesy. Gotta keep the family business of Evil Archmagery going, eh?

Our party of heroes, who can be imported, intact, from the first ‘Bard’s Tale’ game, start off in the town of Tangramayne, where they can – apropos of nothing – rescue a princess. Because that’s what princesses are for, and that’s what non-imported low-level RPG parties do, I guess. Upon doing that, in what amounts to a tutorial dungeon, our party of intrepid heroes sets out into the countryside and comes across a number of other cities, all named after locations in Classical Greece… what? How are the Scottish city of Skara Brae and the generic fantasy city of Tangramayne near Greece? Is anything in the game Greek-themed? No, and no. It turns out that one of the main designers/programmers working on the game was an Evangelical nut-job who dummied-in placeholder city names he recognized from the New Testament… and nobody at Interplay or EA asked for them to be changed before the game shipped. Oops!

To be fair, though, “BT2” does actually employ a basic narrative structure in order to shuffle the player from location to location in roughly linear fashion. This is accomplished through a much more robust series of text clues and hints hidden in the game’s various dungeons, which frequently include important passwords that are required to access the next areas in the sequence. Likewise, there is a sage character who lives in a hut in a corner of the, I hesitate to say, overworld map, who can be asked about the various keywords the player stumbles upon, providing a bit more insight in exchange for gold.

Unfortunately, none of these keyword/password hunts do much to flesh out the world and its lore. Everything about the game world feels really rickety and bare-bones – and clearly the New Testament cities debacle shows that there was, indeed, very little effort put into this part of the game. As in the previous game, there’s no character development amongst the party, nor even among the evil minions the player must outwit. While some of these baddies are given names and some semblance of personality based on the signs hung in their domains, it’s possible to avoid fighting some of them altogether, and none of them ever evolve beyond the kind of rushed non-character that Tiny Tina parodied in “Borderlands 2: Assault on Dragon Keep” with her hasty introduction of ‘Mr. Boney-Pants Guy.’

“BT2” took me, in spite of its overall larger number of dungeons, the same amount of time as its predecessor: Roughly 25 hours. That’s twenty-five tedious, frustrating, WTF?-filled hours. Do I really want to play the third one? I guess I have to hate-play it at this point, just to see how bad things can get.

Gameplay
“BT2” is the same flavor of Dungeon Crawler as its predecessor. It’s light on the kind of physical spatial puzzles I like to see in the genre – things common in the ‘Dungeon Master,’ ‘Legend of Grimrock,’ and ‘Eye of the Beholder’ titles – and heavy on the random encounters, fixed encounters, and irritating ‘puzzles’ based on typing a word or phrase based on cryptic riddles or poems scattered around. Unfortunately, the Death Snares added to “BT2” bring yet another level of Gygaxian bullshit to the table, with puzzles whose solutions combine existing password-based solutions with moving the party in a pattern – often requiring a ridiculous number of repetitions – all while an invisible timer counts-down to a total party wipe. FUN!

Character-and-party-building is identical to the original game, but part of the reason “BT2” took me less time to slog through is that importing a high-level party cuts down on a LOT of the early-game grinding garbage, and allowed me to briskly run through dungeons, usually in a single trip instead of having to return to town to recharge magic or heal permanent debuffs. The main new addition to “BT2’s” character and leveling system is yet another specialization for the already over-powered magic-users: The Archmage. Archmages not only learn their own set of super-powered spells, but can continue to use all the other spells they learned as Magicians, Conjurers, Sorcerers, and Wizards, making them essential for the player’s team.

However, in knowing just how over-powered magic already was, and how the Archmage didn’t do anything to address the lopsided relationship between melee and caster classes, instead of doing anything to buff melee characters, the “BT2” designers just kept-up with the Gygax-isms and started throwing big EFF-you’s into the later dungeons. Oh, your magic users can walk through walls, nuke multiple groups of 99 Berserkers in one turn, teleport wherever they want, resurrect the dead, and remove all negative debuffs except level-drain and withering? Well how about an entire freakin’ dungeon covered in anti-magic fields?! Oh, your bard is so awesome that he can buff the party’s armor class to -50, making them untouchable by anything? Well how about an entire freakin’ dungeon filled with silence tiles?! Oh, your party of 6 characters and one summoned/captured monster are face-rolling all the challenges we have to throw at you? Well, how about a dungeon where you can only take 4 characters because you have to recruit 3 special creatures to solve the Death Snare… and they all SUCK!?

Indeed, “BT2” even features a recurring variation of the amateur dungeon master cop-out, “Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies.” Except it’s fire, and oftentimes the player is at the mercy of ‘pick a door, any door,’ to avoid it.

All of the above combined with even more prevalent over-usage of Continual Darkness, spinners, and invisible teleporters to prevent the player from seeing anything in a VIDEOgame demonstrates a complete lack of understanding on the developers’ part when it comes to engaging and fair game design. And the dungeon layouts are still horror vacui incarnate, without so much as a single blank space across their multiple floors.

Finally, if the sanity of the previous game’s random encounter tables was questionable, “BT2” is positively certifiable. And with the massive scaling of stats on both sides of the table, it gets to a point where even two Archmages blasting spells every turn won’t end a combat encounter in a reasonable amount of time. Enemies just have TOO MUCH health! Thus, melee characters – specifically the Hunter and Rogue – get some slight chance to shine because they can perform critical hits… and in ‘Bard’s Tale’ rules, a critical hit equals instant death. So for the last roughly third-to-half of the game, running away from all combat is the preferred strategy, but when unable to flee, buffing armor class to the point where the party is untouchable, then spamming critical hits to whittle down a few monsters per turn and saving spell points for more important things (so long as you’re not in an anti-magic field) is the only rational way to win.

Overall
Even remastered and updated for the 21st Century, “The Bard’s Tale 2: The Destiny Knight” shows a stunning lack of improvement over its predecessor. If you’re one of those people who’s really into playing Original or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st or 2nd Edition with a green dungeon master who has no idea what he’s doing but wants to ‘win’ at all costs by killing the players, by all means, pick up either the original or remastered ‘Bard’s Tale’ games from GOG. Of course, if you’re sane, stay far, far, far away.

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

 

 


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