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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 III: The Thief of Fate   PC 

Tard’s Wail    1.5/5 stars

In 1988, the same year the PC-DOS version of its predecessor was released, the first versions of the third – and final – game in the planned ‘Bard’s Tale’ trilogy was released on Commodore 64 and Apple II platforms. It would, once again, be a couple of years before the most popular and widespread PC operating system of the time would receive an official release of “The Bard’s Tale 3: Thief of Fate” (“BT3”) in 1990. At this point in time, I was an 11-year-old ‘Tween, finally beginning to develop some personality and interests of my own. I was obsessed with the Milton-Bradley board game, “HeroQuest,” which had just released, acting as a gateway drug for young nerds without older siblings or cousins to indoctrinate them properly into the ways of tabletop RPG-ing. I had also just started reading the DragonLance ‘Meetings Sextet’ of TSR-published novels in the unguided reading classes we had at my middle-school in lieu of English literature. These adjacent activities still did nothing to alert me to the presence of the ‘Bard’s Tale’ IP as a thing that existed, and I happily went along, snowballing up a collection of RPG, tabletop, and nerd experiences – katamari-style – that would gift me with hundreds of hours of fun and camaraderie over the course of my life, up to this very day.

CRPGs were just completely off my radar, as, unless a videogame was covered in the pages of Nintendo Power Magazine, it may as well not have existed. Indeed, the one time I ever read an early issue of Computer Gaming World, I was so shocked and disgusted by the low quality, low production values, and lack of interesting content (read: color screenshots), I never opened another issue.

How lucky I was to have been spared the experience of having one of my parents spend way too much money on this game, or either of its preceding episodes, and then trying to play it on an uncooperative Tandy. Unlike the first two episodes, at least, “BT3” does show some effort at improving the videogame medium. However, it still can’t shake the Gygax-isms of contemporary tabletop gaming.

Presentation
“BT3,” once again, uses the same basic visuals as its predecessors. While a rabid fanboy would probably try to sell it as ‘consistency of experience,’ in reality, it’s just churning out multiple products using a single set of tools. With the development of said tools paid for by the profits of the original “The Bard’s Tale: Tales of the Unknown,” getting two more games out of them was just pure gravy. Visuals are largely identical to the preceding game, but, again, with a few new environments thrown into the mix. It’s also noteworthy that the recycled enemy portraits are a thing of the past, with “BT3” having 95% new enemies, with the only recurring enemies/portraits being things that are summoned by legacy spells (which are obsolete as heck, but enemies still cast them sometimes). Again, we’re still talking about minimally-animated still images with 2-4 frames of animation and highly-questionable art skills behind them.

Audio is likewise identical to the preceding games in the series. There are, once again, a few more songs for the party’s bard to learn, and one of them is the “Tune of Sir Robin,” from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” so obviously the game gets a 10/10 for referential humor, since the song in question does, in fact, make it easier to run away from enemies… but, no that’s not how the review process works.

Technically, “BT3” actually added an auto-map (apparently the first game ever to do so) and enhanced saving features, putting the original much closer to the remastered version from 2018. However, the original version of “BT3” had a lot more bugs and mistakes that made it through to the release version than either previous episode; things like bosses appearing in the wrong location, and completely unguessable passwords because the hints had the wrong (probably first draft) text. The remaster helpfully fixes these.

Story
I really was not expecting anything out of “BT3’s” narrative after the complete non-entities of the first two games’ stories. However, I was shocked to find a game that attempts to weave a complex narrative and build relationships between the player’s party of characters and the NPCs who populate the game world. The people working on the script and plot were clearly inspired by contemporary Science-Fiction and Fantasy (which had a terrible tendency to bleed into each other at the time), such as the novels of Michael Moorcock and the ‘Back to the Future’ movie trilogy.

Yes, “BT3” is about parallel universes and time travel: Tricky subjects that are difficult to handle at the best of times, but the young-and-upcoming novelist, Mike Stackpole, at Interplay took to them like ham to a fist.

Our returning heroes, after having saved the city of Skara Brae in the land of Caith from the machinations of Evil Archmage Mangar in “The Bard’s Tale: Tales of the Unknown,” then saving the various cities of the Plains of Lestradae from the machinations of the Evil Archmage Lagoth Zanta in “The Bard’s Tale 2: The Destiny Knight” return home to Caith to find Skara Brae in ruins, with only a handful of survivors lingering around a nearby refugee camp (it has a tavern, so…). It turns out that the Mad God Tarjan, who served as the patron of the Evil Archmage Brothers from the preceding games, is well and truly bent out of shape about the player’s merry band of heroes thwarting his plans, so he decided to use the nuclear option.

The last surviving member of the Review Board (an administrative body which provided level-up promotions and spell training to the player’s party in the preceding games) informs the party that they must gather all of the greatest heroes of the realm in order to fight back against Tarjan… but these heroes are widely separated in both space and time. Thus one among the heroes, who is already well-versed in magic, must take up the craft of Chronomancy in order to seek out these lost heroes… or at least their stuff.

After a long, grindy tutorial dungeon, in which the Gygax-isms start to flow before the game even properly starts, the Review Board Elder sends our party to track down one hero after another by traveling to different parallel universes, where they’re supposed to reside. Of course, Tarjan was more thorough than the Elder expected, and our party, time and again jump through hoops, explore the far-flung corners of the multiverse, only to end up finding a corpse and a couple of magic items.

This wild-goose-McGuffin-chase culminates in the party finding NONE of the old heroes alive, but, at the Elder’s dying behest, taking up the lost heroes’ sacred arms and armor and personally bringing the fight to Tarjan on his home turf.

Ultimately, the narrative in “BT3” is very confusing. The concept of Chronomancy involves time travel, but clearly the game’s locales are separated by more than that. Even the game’s own dialog can’t seem to decide whether the party is traveling to other times or other worlds. There’s also an ongoing relationship between the party and another wannabe hero named Hawkslayer, whom the players first meet as a middle-aged man who speaks about their adventures together – adventures that did not happen in the preceding games in the series – but then shows up later as a young man, when the party technically ‘first’ meets him (and can choose to ignore him instead of recruiting him because he sucks).

Even the nature of the player’s quest feels garbled and unclear, worse than many games that went through a translation process from a Romance language to Japanese to English (*looks at “Drakkhen”*). Who are these heroes the party is seeking? Are they people or are they some sort of demi-gods? There are a number of things that hint that they’re the pantheon of the world’s gods, and that Tarjan wants some megalomaniamonotheism instead, not the least of which is the bizarre ending sequence in which our heroes are themselves deified.

While there are fewer password/keyword hunts and vague, out-of-context poems or riddles, there’s still not a lot of worldbuilding in “BT3.” There’s some, including journal entries that drop proper names like they’re going out of style, but, in all cases, these feel like retcons – that is retroactive continuity fixes – a common writing crutch used in comic book and pulp serial novels when the plot requires something to be established, but didn’t bother to establish it previously, or – even worse – established something contrary to the needed plot-point. And that’s “BT3” in a nutshell: A pile of retcons and mini-lore-dumps that try to paint the image of a narrative structure on past games where there clearly was none.

Since I was only hate-playing this third and final entry in the trilogy, I didn’t even stick to a pretense of doing it legitimately. I followed a guide and skipped as much of the game as possible with teleporting and PhaseDoor spells. I didn’t bother trying to find even the reduced number of password/keyword hints or figure them out on my own, and just looked-up the answers when the text input boxes popped up. Even doing that, I still destroyed 18 hours of my life with “BT3,” so someone earnestly engaging with the game and trying to avoid spoilers could easily get the 25 hours out of it that the previous episodes offered.

Gameplay
Like both its predecessors, “BT3” is a weird and uncomfortable Dungeon Crawler that really only uses the first-person perspective and grid-based map from that subgenre, and fills in the gaping hole where the spatial puzzles and traps should be with some really generic and uninspired tabletop-style combat from Original Dungeons & Dragons – of course, modified enough so as not to be subject to copyright or trademark lawsuits. Once again, the player can expect to import their awesome high-level party from the preceding episode to cut-down on a lot of tedious, repetitive guff in the tutorial dungeon. Of course, after the tutorial dungeon, every automagically gets promoted to level 35. This begs the question: Why can’t the player generate new characters who are higher than first level in the second and third episodes of the trilogy? I mean, if you’re just going to throw level-ups around like that, why not cut out all the odious low-level grinding and tutorializing and get with the program right away?

As in its predecessor, “BT3” primarily shakes-up character creation by adding a couple of new classes. Of course, they’re both magic users! One, the Chronomancer, must be an archmage already (an onerous task for a new character, but easy with the auto-35 boost for clearing the tutorial), however, unlike how the archmage dumped more power on already over-powered caster classes, the Chronomancer must give-up their existing spells! Oh no! But to make up for it, they gradually gain a ridiculously powerful set of their own unique spells. The other new class is the Geomancer, which can only be created from an existing warrior, paladin, hunter, bard, or rogue – Yes! Melee classes finally have a multi-classing AND spellcasting option… except it neutralizes all of the base class’s skills in the conversion process… and always has an abysmally small spell point pool to use for spellcasting… and the entire class mainly exists as a plot McGuffin… meh.

Other aspects of the game have been removed entirely. While the player still earns ludicrous amounts of gold from every random or fixed battle, there’s next to nothing to spend it on. Roscoe’s Magic Emporium, where players paid to identify magic items’ abilities and recharge their mages, is gone. Garth’s equipment, where players could buy starting gear and sell their obsolete loot for huge profits, is gone. The only place to spend gold is the temple, for healing… and that’s wholly unnecessary, as Chronomancy takes care of the remaining debuffs that couldn’t be fixed by the party’s own magic.

The biggest improvement, from a gameplay perspective, in “BT3” over its predecessors, though, is the fact that dungeon design actually seems to have some sense and methodology behind it. Dungeons are now different sizes instead of universally 22x22 square hate-mazes filled with nonsensical dead-ends and horror vacui. Indeed, some of these dungeon layouts could have been designed by real people, with a real purpose behind them… that is, besides ‘distracting nerds who paid money for the privilege of scribbling all over reams of graph paper.’ There are far fewer ‘chase the password’ or ‘what’s in my pockets’ moments in “BT3” than in the previous episodes as well.

Unfortunately, we have to end on a sour note: Enemy random encounter tables and loot tables are still certifiably insane… though, to be fair, some of the dungeons do seem to have caps on the sizes of enemy groups the player can encounter. I never once ran into 99 of any monster, with most terrible encounters capping out at around 20-30 monsters in a single grouping. Of course, this is high-level tabletop game design we’re running into, which was NEVER good, not even in AD&D 2nd Edition, simply due to the stats involved. Sure, the player’s armor class is -50 and their luck stat (for saving throws and spell resistance) is probably close to the maximum of 30… but enemies have these stats too… and they have up to 10x the hit points the player’s characters do. So every battle devolves into both sides failing to land melee blows most of the time and spamming area-of-effect spells and breath weapons until someone wins.

Perhaps the single biggest *facepalm*-worthy thing about this out-of-whack player::enemy stat and encounter balancing is that in every case – EVEN THE FINAL BOSS, whose gimmick is that he can only be killed by a rogue who hides in shadows for 9 friggin’ turns – boss battles are much easier than the mountainous piles of random encounters leading up to them. It’s ridiculous to fight through a dungeon filled with big groups of dragons and demons and undead horrors, only to reach the terrible mastermind at the end of it, and it’s just a guy with a handful of minions!


Overall
In finishing “The Bard’s Tale 3: Thief of Fate,” I feel nothing less than a profound sense of relief: That I’m done and will never have to think about these three terrible games ever again! While it does show some small modicum of improvement in basic things like storytelling and gameplay systems design, “BT3” ultimately falls victim to the momentum built-up by its predecessors. It must be more unbalanced and tedious than its predecessors, otherwise the people who imported high-level parties of characters from those games would complain that it was ‘too easy,’ even if it was perfectly balanced and curved for a new party of characters starting from scratch. Yet, ironically, in spite of its sputtering efforts to advance itself within the medium, contemporary reviewers rated the final game in the trilogy the lowest. Makes you wonder how much money changed hands in those halcyon days of games journalism…

Presentation: 3/5 (3.5/5 for the remastered version)
Story: 2/5
Gameplay: 1.5/5 (2.5/5 for the remastered version)
Overall (not an average): 1.5/5 (2/5 for the remastered version)

 

 


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