'The Bard's Tale'- a tale worth telling, if you're a cartographer. (Guest Review)

The Bard’s Tale’ is a critically successful dungeon crawler trilogy with its first installment; Tales of the Unknown: Version 1 having been released in 1985. This game is your classic RPG that also bares an extremely close resemblance to ‘Wizardry’ though with upgraded graphics and some additional, innovative game play elements. The game features your standard turn based combat, first person dungeon crawling that will leave you painstakingly mapping out the maze-like dungeons and also riddle based puzzles that will have you trekking back to another dungeon just to find the answer. 'The Bard’s Tale' is a classic case of what 1985 contributed to the world of RPG gaming; lots of hard work, punishingly difficult battles, and a great sense of accomplishment when you finally kill the bad guy.   If you enjoy a good old RPG that’s not so much focused on the story but rather on the game play then you should definitely try out this game.

Gameplay and plot

There’s not a great deal of storyline with this game and generally the plot can be described quite simple as ‘kill the bad guy’ who in this case is an evil wizard called Mangar. Mangar has seized control of the city of Skara Brae and has employed a vast number of monsters to help keep him in power whilst Skara Brae has been cut off from the rest of the world by his evil spells. You need to overthrow this evil mage and free the city by guiding a party of six adventurers through dungeons, mazes, the very city itself and all the way up to the towers where Mangar lurks. 

'The Bard’s Tale' is your classic dungeon crawler with a large focus on grinding for experience, upgrading your party’s skills and acquiring better equipment. At the very start of the game you can create up to six characters and there’s a huge variety of races and classes for you to pick from. Some classes are only available after you've gained more experience which is great if you’re a mage as two out of the four mage classes two can be transitioned into at a later stage, adding in a greater sense of achievement.  Something which really made this game stand out from the crowd was its introduction of the Bard class where you can weaponize music but alongside that there’s a vast selection of spells and skills that allows you to fine tune your combat strategies.

There’s also a great deal of flexibility when designing your party as even when you have a full party of six characters you can always make new ones and replace your old ones at any point during the game. There are seven different races including Hobbit, Half-Elf, Gnome, Half-Orc and of course, your regular Human race.  Depending on your race, when you roll out your character to determine their stats, some attributes are likely to be higher or lower than other races, for example an Elf has a higher chance of having a higher Intelligence attribute. As well as this some classes are not available for certain races such as a Gnome cannot be a Paladin or Bard whereas a Dwarf cannot be a Conjurer or Magician so some care needs  to be taken to ensure you have a well-balanced party whilst keeping race, attributes and classes in mind. A poor balance of skills and classes can, in some games, be counteracted by lots of leveling and equipment, but in ‘The Bard’s Tale’ it can be truly fatal and poor choices at the start may haunt you throughout the entire 80 hours of gameplay this game entails. 

Combat is initiated through random encounters and there’s no telling when an enemy is going to get the jump on you because they’re not visible on the screen. Some enemies are in scripted locations and these ones tend to be mini-bosses who serve a grander purpose than just providing a source of experience and coins. You can try and run away from battles but it’s not always successful and you’re left with no choice but to fight back. The combat itself is turn based, like the majority of dungeon crawlers, and you’ll pick each and every one of your character’s action before it will allow the enemy to attack you back. I found the combat a little confusing to start with as at the start of a battle it would describe to you in text how many enemies you’re facing so, say, 7 maddogs, 5 barbarians and 4 magicians. You then choose to attack which of these three rather than individual opponents. All combat is described to you in text and when you fell an enemy there’s no visual indicator of this, it will simply say that you managed to kill them after it says how much you hit them for. I found this confusing because there is no gauge of your enemy’s health so you’re basically attacking blindly, with no idea which of the 7 dogs you keep hitting whilst just kind of hoping that they’re all low on health. Once they’re all dead though you get experience and treasure, typically involving money and the odd item here and there. 

The game is unashamedly harsh about how it treats death and unless you’re willing to pay the enormous fees to bring a dead character back again then that’s it, game over, they’re dead. There’s no way to reload a previous save and there’s no alternative ways of bringing a party member back. As a new player, when almost all of your party is dead and you don’t have enough money to bring them back, what do you do? Sod all really. You can’t raise the coin with your remaining members because, well they’ll die trying and you can’t just stand pathetically at the temple wondering what to do next. You really do have no choice but to start a new game or, as the manual suggests, back up your character files or just turn your pc off before they die. In all fairness, this genre of game has always been like this. Dungeons and Dragons type inspired games have always come with permadeath, ridiculous resurrection procedures and in-explicitly punishing battles that will leave a new player confused, frustrated and upset. I was all three, and it took me several restarts just to get through the first areas but thankfully by the time you've raised a few levels and acquired a good stack of money things become easier, but my God those first few hours are nightmarish.  

Graphics and audio

Visually the game is quite advanced for its time; it was one of the first RPG games to have 3D graphics and animated monsters but it’s certainly a game of strong learning curves. This was a time when previous dungeon crawl games, and there weren't many of them, were crude attempts at putting table top games like Dungeons and Dragons onto a PC but they were never very successful. 'The Bard’s Tale' is mostly grey menus with the details of your party on and the area in which you’ll look out at the world is very small indeed. The environments are maze-like due to their physical repetitiveness so unless you’re very carefully following a map or making your own you’ll probably get lost several times over.  Graphically, it’s a fairly attractive game aside from the plainness of some locations and the characters are all very detailed. Unfortunately your race doesn't affect the appearance of your character, so orcs will just look like humans, but you can clearly see the difference between the classes.


'The Bard’s Tale' is an incredibly long game that will take you roughly 80 hours to complete the entire thing. There’s not a great deal of storyline and it’s fairly archetypical of a D&D inspired dungeon crawler; kill the bad guy, ask no questions, but the dialogue is witty and interesting. The movement is very smooth and though the graphics are under-informative they’re still partially animated, colourful and detailed enough for you to get the general picture. A huge aspect of this game used to be the painstaking art of mapping out square by square the areas you visited but nowadays you can find that all on the internet, ruining the fun a little but if you don’t feel like papering your living room with graph paper it’s probably your best bet. Although this makes you feel more like a cartographer than an adventurer there’s a great deal of fun and achievement to be had in ‘The Bard’s Tale’. There’s also something strangely relaxing about this steady paced, strategic game that will leave you fiddling about with spells, equipment and items for hours and all in all I’m glad that I gave this a good hunk of my time, even if I did keep dying. 

Score – 8/10

I hope you enjoyed reading this review of 'The Bard's Tale', if you'd like to read more of my video game reviews then feel free to check out Rambling Fox Reviews.

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