Bard's Tale Trilogy: Bard's Tale 1: Tales of theUnknown (2018)

Bard's Tale 1: Tales of the Unknown, developed by Krome Studios, published by inXile, original Bard's Tale 1 (1985) was developed by Interplay and published by Electronic Arts

Before the remastered version of Bard's Tale 1: Tales of the Unknown was released I had tried to play various version of the original, it came out on several 8-bit computers after all, but had always quit it because it was just far too punishing for me. At the same time, I wanted to play it, as the original is considered to be a classic in the genre of blobbers, in other words, RPG games where you in first person perspective control an entire party of adventurers on their journey through perilous places.

It wasn't the need to manually map the game that turned me off, it was the sheer nature of the combat system, where you as a novice group was whisked on the streets of Skara Brae only to find every crook and cranny filled with one enemy more lethal than the other. Slowly, but surely you gain more experience to level up, but as you level up, so do the danger increases in the new dungeons you locate and the combat on the streets of the city doesn't relent either, it just turn into a tedious chore with your better skilled and equipped band. But I never did get very far, in truth, I never even got to the first dungeon, as I just couldn't locate the fun of the game.



Back in the day Bard's Tale 1 was a well-received game,  being both critical and financial success, selling over 400 000 copies. It quickly became one of the better-known RPG titles among the likes of Wizardry and Ultima and ended up having two other sequels, one action RPG re-imagining and now, decades later, finally a 4th instalment that was successfully Kickstarted and should come out sometime during the last half of 2018.

So, how does the remaster, or rather a remake, fare in contrast to the original?  To tackle the most obvious first, it is a complete overhaul with a new engine and new graphics. Instead of a pseudo-3D world, the movement is now done in a real 3D environment, where you can even limitedly look around, not that you get anything from that. The graphics have been upped to a higher resolution, there are music and sound effects as well. And you don't have to map anymore, as the game is doing that for you as well. If you are a purist, unlike me, the developers have also promised a legacy mode released later, which will bring back more genuine experience, graph paper mapping and all.

Under the hood, there are tweaks on how the levelling works, as you don't need as much XP anymore, the inventory is now party shared as is the money, so it simplifies item handling and you can even save the game where ever you want, whereas on the original you could only save during exiting the game. Imagine playing the game for an hour only to notice that you are in a hurry and your only option is to leave the game running, hoping that there won't be a power shortage.

Really, the oddest thing about the remake is how it uses the screen estate. The way the game is presented now brings a lot of empty space on the screen as the layout mirrors of what the original games had on a much smaller resolution. The remake in its higher resolution is a good example on how the old UI design doesn't necessarily translate as is to the new technology and as such, it could have been advisable to allow some amount of screen layout customization in order to minimize the empty space. But, as the two other games of the original trilogy are still under development, we might see something done to this issue, as the developers have promised to follow on what people think and bring up alterations and fixes if needed.

All the modernizations do make Bard's Tale 1 far more playable than the original ever was. I know there are some old schoolers, who will furiously disagree with me about that, but the way I see it, the original just wasn't easily approachable, no matter how much I wanted to approach it.

With full enhancements, I was finally able to create my own team and venture worth to Skara Brae. The first thing I did, like I assume most other as well, was to go through the city itself, looking in every house on every street, trying to find clues on what to do. The solution to where to next, after gaining a couple of levels and some better gear, was to go to the only tavern around selling wine, as that was the way to get to the cellars, from where I could ascend to sewers.

Some wandering, killing, looting and levelling later, I found a stone mouth, that gave me the name of the Mad God causing the havoc all around the city proper. With the name in mind, I could enter the catacombs, guarded by the disciples of the Mad God.

And so on and so on.

As you might imagine, The Bard's Tale isn't a very story heavy game, far from it. While it has some narrative, the main beef of the game is to explore the dungeons beneath the city itself and battle against the endless hordes of monsters. The name of the game is, in many ways, resources hunting, in this case, money, as it is important for not only healing, as the healing is expensive but to level up your magic users as well. While you can level up for free, you do have to buy new spell levels if you want to get access to better spells.

After you've amassed a good amount of money, you'll notice that the game becomes much simpler, as you have the luxury of dying, healing and loading up your spell points all the time. So, be sure to sell all the items you don't need and loot every chest the battles drop.

The magic users are actually a pretty interesting group, as you can change their class during the game, allowing them to learn spells from all the disciples. This way they can become archmages, who know all the possible spells, which is nice. That also means, they can level up in 4 different classes, which is a great way to fill their, at first meagre, spell point arsenal.

The titular class of the game, the bard, is interesting as well. Bard's can sing songs that help the party, but they do need to wet their whistle in order to be able to perform. This means, that from time to time, you do need to spend some time in taverns drinking alcoholic beverages of all kinds in order to load up bards songs.

Despite the game maps are relatively big, especially for the time the game was originally published, the game has relatively few persons of interest scattered around. The taverns are almost identical and the barkeeps tell you the same stuff, having no personality at all. The guild master at the adventurers guild is there just to give you a quick rundown of things, the storekeeper just waits there for you to waltz in to sell, buy or identify and Roscoe greedily awaits your spell-users to come in and top off their reserves. Most of the story snippets you find are scattered around the maps and in the original game, you had to check them from a manual. Here, you can see them immediately and they even appear in your in-game journal.

Bard's Tale really is more about the combat and exploration than anything else. The story is only there to give you a reason to rummage the nooks, the crannies and the deeps of the city in turmoil. If you approach it as such and not as some sort of a grand scale, epic adventure, you might like it. If you feel that constant combat with very little to show for it as far the effects on the environment go isn't your cup of tea, then there's very little change you'll like Bard's Tale either.

If you are keen to give Bard's Tale a go, I reckon the remaster really is the best way to go. While it offers some ease of life improvements, it does, as far I know, stay relatively true to the original. Yes, even this modernization feels at times a grind fest of levelling up, but on right dosages, it is fun enough. You probably won't fall in love with it, I know I didn't, but all said and done, this remaster is most likely the best version of the game around.

You can get the Trilogy now from Steam and GOG. It only has the first game for now, but the rest should be released within this year and are added to the Trilogy purchase as they come out.


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