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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
Dragon Quest Builders 2 4.5/5
Journey to the Savage P... 4.5/5
Wasteland 3 4.5/5
Daemon X Machina 3.5/5
Earthlock 2.5/5
Override: Mech City Bra... 3/5
SolSeraph 3/5
ActRaiser 4.5/5
ActRaiser Renaissance 4/5
The Outer Worlds 3.5/5
Cris Tales 3/5
Warframe 3.5/5
Immortals: Fenyx Rising 4.5/5
Boot Hill Bounties 4/5
Pathfinder: Kingmaker 2/5
Borderlands 3 4/5
Horizon: Zero Dawn 3.5/5
World of Final Fantasy 4/5
ReCore 3/5
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

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The Bard's Tale Trilogy   PC (Steam) 

Let Me Get a Few Things Off My Chest…    1.5/5 stars

“Bard’s Tale Trilogy” (“BTT”) is a remastered compilation of ancient cRPGs released in 2018. The games in question are “The Bard’s Tale: Tales of the Unknown” from 1985, “The Bard’s Tale 2: The Destiny Knight” from 1988, and “The Bard’s Tale 3: Thief of Fate” from 1990. My full impressions of each individual game can be found by following the respective links to the discrete reviews. However, there are a handful of overarching things I’d like to cover that affect the trilogy as a whole.

“BTT” is the result of Brian Fargo, who was the head of InterPlay – the first great Western PC game developer – re-acquiring the rights to the IP from Electronic Arts, which got ‘The Bard’s Tale’ during InterPlay’s self-destruction firesale, yet never did anything with it. Brian Fargo’s name is memorable primarily because it was slapped all over the first two ‘Fallout’ games, which were also developed by InterPlay before its immolation. Fargo is currently the head of inXile games, the publisher for “BTT” (and now subsidiary of Microsoft’s Xbox Division), which he founded in 2002, with the name of the new Indie game development startup being a pun on the fact that he was operating as CEO ‘in exile’ from InterPlay. Of course, inXile had no rights to the IPs that really put InterPlay on the map, so Fargo started slumming it with also-rans, like dredging up the carcass of the ‘Wasteland’ IP to substitute for ‘Fallout’ and creating a new “The Bard’s Tale” (no subtitle) in 2004 by tiptoeing around the corpse of the original IP in EA’s dragon hoard as carefully as possible.

At some point, inXile managed to get the true ‘Bard’s Tale’ IP rights back from EA, and began developing a sequel, “The Bard’s Tale 4: Barrows Deep.” However, in order to drum-up excitement for a new game in this IP after the mixed reception of “The Bard’s Tale” (2004), and to fuel Kickstarter crowdfunding contributions, inXile not only started bundling official DOSbox emulations of the original trilogy with “The Bard’s Tale” (2004), but dug up some of the old gang from the ‘80s and put together a complete remaster of the original trilogy for modern PCs and Xbox. Naturally, you can’t sell a sequel if nobody remembers or cares about the previous entries!

I immediately became excited about “The Bard’s Tale 4” – Hey, a new RPG! – but knew nothing of the originals aside from the basic title and an overwhelming feeling of false nostalgia. Word-of-mouth praise from a few online randos who had played them made them seem promising, and while I didn’t love inXile’s soft-reboot of the series in 2004, I didn’t outright hate it. After playing the original “BTT,” even in remastered form, now I do hate it. I hate it so, so much!

About the only nice thing I can say about “BTT” is that, as a compilation of old-ass games, it’s a really slick package. All three games have a uniform UI, and the menu chrome for selecting a game from the ‘new game’ menu has simulated boxes, with the original art, for each episode. “BTT” also reuses plenty of original non-digital-at-the-time art assets from the boxes and manuals for title and credits screens, which look as glorious and cheesy as any ‘80s Fantasy art ever did.

But that in-game art? Yikes! It certainly does evoke the very early tabletop RPG manuals with questionable art drawn by folks with questionable talent. While there were definitely some incredibly skilled Fantasy artists working in the ‘80s – people like Larry Elmore, who did illustrations for TSR, and even Boris Vallejo, who did Fantasy softcore porn – nobody like that did in-game art for “BTT.” I suppose some of the ‘humor’ the trilogy is alleged to have comes in the monster portraits, with their sometimes-gross animations – such as a giant with a lazy eye that rolls independently of the other one, or a variety of goblinoids and little-people who have snot or earwax dribbling out of the appropriate orifices – possibly appealing to the particularly juvenile.

While I primarily have praise for “BTT” based on the Quality of Life features it adds to all three games, when originally only “The Bard’s Tale 3: Thief of Fate” had any of them, the trilogy package also bends-over backwards to accommodate old-school hard-heads who want to be tortured and punished. So there are options to turn off the auto-maps, options to enable single-slot/single-location saving, options to prevent or allow the use of non-equipped items by characters, enable or disable double experience-point gain, plus a few others. Essentially, the trilogy package is like playing the originals in a supped-up emulator.

And let’s not forget that native controller support! While the games do have some weird movement, in that the party can’t strafe or backpedal – actually, hitting down on the d-pad/stick causes them to do a 180-degree turn – it’s really, really nice to be able to play with correctly labeled Xbox button prompts. It only removes one small annoyance from an otherwise overwhelming mountain of them, but, still, it’s nice to have.

Lastly, the way the three games in the trilogy are fitted-together seamlessly is a very nice touch. After defeating the final challenge in the first two games, simply going to the Adventurer’s Guild and selecting the option to start the next game… does exactly that, even providing options to keep full party power, strip them of a few levels to be less-OP for the earlier parts of subsequent games, or starting everyone again from scratch (that last one must be for real self-abusing masochists).

As mentioned in the individual reviews for each game, storytelling – that is, plot, narrative, world-building, and character development – is not this series’ strong suit. Somewhere along the line, I got the mistaken impression that ‘The Bard’s Tale’ as an IP was supposed to be funny. It must have been “The Bard’s Tale” (2004) that did it, with its snarky, tongue-in-cheek sendup of “Chosen One” narratives in… well basically everything, from games to novels to movies.

“BTT,” however, is emphatically NOT funny. I’ve been wracking my short-term memory, trying to come up with anything that would make a 1980’s troglodyte crack a grin, and have only come up with two possibilities: The first is the afore mentioned crude monster art. But that really can’t be it, can it? The other vaguely ‘comical’ thing in “BTT” is the battle cries the player’s party shouts out (text only) upon engaging enemies, ranging from the nonsensical and unnecessarily gung-ho “GIVE ME BLOOD!” early on, to the oh-so-painfully-true “NOT AGAIN!” from the last game in the trilogy.

So, I’ve already established that the ‘plots,’ such as they are in the first two games are basically non-existent, and the third game is kind of a rough novella with all the good parts cut out and replaced with random combat encounters. What does that leave us as an overarching experience?

Surprisingly, “BTT” does actually fit together like a set of rusty gears with most of the teeth broken-off. The party of characters gains a reputation, travels abroad, and returns home to find it destroyed. Does that sound like, say, “The Scouring of the Shire” in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ novels, upon which so much of High Fantasy is (unfortunately) beholden? Even though the final game in the series does some heavy retconning to add characterization where there originally was none, I think the fact that the trilogy does actually feel ‘complete,’ even with its bizarre deification ending, deserves an extra half-a-star for the final rating.

Sure, the story completely sucks, but at least it’s properly structured whilst sucking!

In my discrete reviews I referred to “Gygax-ism” and “Gygaxian” design quite frequently, and I realize some readers might not know what that means, so it’s time to elaborate on why “BTT” has such awful gameplay, even though it’s a very basic turn-based cRPG based on very basic tabletop RPG concepts and mechanics.

Gary Gygax was one of the co-creators of the Original Dungeons & Dragons tabletop roleplaying game, alongside Dave Arneson. While this dynamic duo of geekdom and nerdery were wildly creative outsiders in their own right, they didn’t just pull D&D – fully-formed like the goddess Athena – out of their asses: They had to start somewhere, and that somewhere was a truly ancient set of mathematical rules for tabletop wargaming – that is, simulated combats between large numbers of expendable soldiers organized into units and deployed on a tabletop via representational miniatures – in a game called “Chainmail.”

Yet, for the most part, OD&D didn’t use miniatures, and, in general, went about stripping mass combat rules down to something more intimate, revolving around a handful of individual characters with personalities, goals, and individual characteristics – but, more accurately, simple proxy avatars for their players’ power fantasies.

These unique individual characters would then assemble into adventuring parties – typically at fictional taverns or other imaginary public meeting places – before their players would guide them through a cooperative scenario filled with exploration, intrigue, and danger, refereed by a player without characters, the Dungeon Master, whose characters were, instead, all of the people and monsters the other players’ characters would meet.

So, there, we have the foundations of RPGs.

But Gary Gygax, as a former wargamer, was a very simulation-minded player. He didn’t get terribly excited about what his character thought about, or how his character’s life tied into a greater overarching narrative. He cared about annoying minutia, like getting lost, how many things in your backpack break when you fall down a hill, how many units of food and water you can carry and how long before it spoils, what are the various minimum/maximum physical and mental capabilities of non-human people, how many individuals exist in a given monster pack, and the like. As a result, both Original and Advanced D&D contained painstaking, detailed, and irritating rules to deal with all of that, and more.

Every single entry in the game’s various bestiary books – two Monster Manuals and a Fiend Folio – carried a line which read ‘number appearing,’ and the Dungeon Master was expected to roll a few dice, consult a series of arcane and opaque tables at the back of the Dungeon Master’s Guide to see which monsters the players’ party randomly encountered, then roll more dice for the ‘number appearing’ on the appropriate bestiary pages, before informing the other players that, while lost in the wilderness and camping for 8 hours to properly rest, they were assaulted in the middle of the night by 36 bugbears, 12 mastodons, 2 talking lynxes, and 1 plesiosaur. The AD&D 1st Edition Monster Manual I’m looking at as I type this even has an entry for Berserkers, who are, of course, encountered in groups of 10-100.

The problem, of course, is that few, if any, of Gary’s tables took character level or party size into account. Modern versions of D&D have painstaking processes and equations for the Dungeon Master to follow in creating hand-crafted combat encounters that are both challenging and do-able for the other players’ characters, as they currently stand. In Gygaxian encounter generation, everything was random, so a group of level one newbies on their way to GoblinTown to crack some heads and murder-hobo their way to some low-level loot just might encounter an Ancient Great Wyrm Red Dragon that turns them into briquettes and leaves without even bothering to eat them. It was very much about simulating a world that didn’t care about the players’ characters.

And that’s just the core issue with Gygaxian encounter design. Gygaxian dungeon design had a very Player vs. Player feel to it, with the Dungeon Master not necessarily creating a dungeon as a real place that may have been used for something by someone before it became a monster-infested pit, but instead using every trick in the book to kill the players. Imagine taking the unnavigable Labyrinth from Greek mythology, then filling it with so many invisible traps that anyone sticking a toe inside without casting a litany of warding spells would die instantly. That’s Gygaxian dungeon design, and it is absolutely exemplified in “BTT” in the cRPG space just as much as it’s exemplified in Gary’s own “Tomb of Horrors” tabletop module.

Then there are the riddles. “BTT” is full of text-based guessing games where a short blob of text somewhere in a dungeon contains a keyword that a door or invisible staircase or talking wall will require in order to go away and let the player’s party pass. These are generally terrible ideas in RPGs like this because in an RPG, it is supposed to be the characters whose skills are put to the test. So if my party’s magic user, with such a massively-high Intelligence score that his temples pulsate with every thought, can’t just tell me what color rose represents the vague concept of “Valor,” I don’t know how the mere mortal on the other side of the screen is supposed to figure it out. On the other hand, some of the clues in “BTT” are stupidly easy to figure out, while others are just devious enough to make the player feel clever. Of course, the worst type of riddle is the kind that requires some knowledge external to the entire game. I think the reason Dungeon Crawlers evolved in the direction they did, moving to spatial, physical logic puzzles instead of vague wordgames is that “BTT” gave an object lesson in just how big of a crapshoot these literary puzzles can be.

Really, the only praiseworthy things I can come up with regarding “BTT’s” gameplay design are a couple of things it could have, but doesn’t. Specifically, I’m sure glad “BTT” doesn’t have hunger/thirst meters, and I’m flippin’ ecstatic that, with all the random, unidentified magical items that drop from enemies after combat, none of them are cursed.

All-in-all, “The Bard’s Tale Trilogy” is definitely a product of its time. It’s a set of episodic, interlocking quests, with a decidedly Gygaxian bent to them. These are unevolved, unenlightened adventures from the earliest primordial soup of Fantasy Role-Playing, before it became a codified duty on the part of the Dungeon Master to ensure that everyone at the table is having fun. These games are NOT fun. They are, in fact, very tedious, repetitive affairs filled to the gills with bullshit. I really hope inXile managed to come up with something better for “The Bard’s Tale 4: Barrows Deep.” They have, after all, had 30 years of progress to consider.

Presentation: 4/5
Story: 1/5
Gameplay: 2/5
Overall (not an average): 1.5/5



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