Welcome back to the RPG Lounge, an occasional retrospective/review series about the RPGs I play through, most of which will be livestreamed.
In the 80s, especially in the early part of the decade, there were two computer RPG series vying for supremacy with one another. At first, Sir-Tech’s Wizardry, one of the earliest dungeon-crawlers, was king. As the decade went on, though, and the Wizardry series started showing its age, Origin Systems’s Ultima series took the crown.
The “why”s of the Wizardry series’s rise and fall are fascinating, and beyond the scope of the RPG Lounge today–I recommend this Digital Antiquarian post for a bit more about that. But suffice to say that, as the time between Wizardry III and IV grew longer and longer, other people took it upon themselves to design a “next-generation Wizardry” in all but name. Enter The Bard’s Tale.
First released in 1985 by Interplay (Developer) and Electronic Arts (Publisher), The Bard’s Tale is the story of a town called Skara Brae. In this town, an evil wizard named Mangar has cast a spell of eternal winter, trapping the citizens inside the city. Mangar is holed up in his tower on the corner of the city, and it’s the job of your party to “persuade” him to undo his spell.
To do so, you create a party of six characters, similar to Wizardry. The Armor Class system, the 8-item-per-character limit, the seven levels of spells, it’s all very Wizardry-esque. In fact, the systems are similar enough that you can import Wizardry 1-3 characters from the same PC architecture into The Bard’s Tale. As a tribute to its immense popularity at the time, The Bard’s Tale also allows imports of characters from Ultima III, despite its character advancement being almost nothing like Wizardry or The Bard’s Tale.
Once you’ve assembled your roster, or selected the pre-existing party, you’ll exit the Adventurer’s Guild and find yourself on the streets of Skara Brae. Yes, that’s right, instead of a single dungeon, there’s a whole city to wander about, filled with temples, taverns, and towers. Of course, figuring out how to get into those towers is a lot of the challenge.
Another good portion of the challenge is simply getting started. The city is not a safe place, as monsters wander the streets and take up residence inside of buildings. Plus, while battles themselves are turn-based, the game proceeds in real-time. You’ll be minding your own business in the streets, possibly looking at your map, and suddenly find yourself in battle with a pack of mad dogs. Double battles are more common than they should be. The game does offer a pause function to prevent this, which you’ll need.
More than that, though, recovering damage is expensive in the early game, recovering from death even more so, and you have no way around paying for those services until you gain a couple levels. Indeed, going in blind, this may be the hardest start I ever had in an RPG. The manual for the game, besides offering a tip or two on where to begin your search of the city, also instructs you, basically, “Just delete a dead Level 1 character and create another rather than paying for resurrection. Also, go ahead and quit the game without saving if things go really badly; just be aware that you’ll lose any progress since your last save.” Suffice to say I did both of those, particularly the first…and made sure to poach the character’s equipment and gold before deleting them too.
Get past that beginning, though, and The Bard’s Tale becomes a good deal more forgiving than Wizardry (Disregarding the fact that, according to comments on this Digital Antiquarian post, almost no one even back in the day played Wizardry “honestly”). For one, instead of level-based spell charges, your spellcasters are given a Final Fantasy-like pool of MP to do as they will with (Yes, several years before Final Fantasy was a thing). For another, if you’re unfortunate enough to fall victim to a total party wipe, your bodies are transported back to the Adventurer’s Guild, making resurrecting them a good deal easier than in Wizardry–you’ll still need to make additional characters (Or use a pre-made one) to get your characters to a Temple to revive them, but the trek is much less harrowing than in Wizardry, and revival will always succeed provided you have the cash for it. For a third, enemies themselves have fairly low HP for most of the game, meaning you can use spells to easily take them out. Once you get a few levels in your characters–which will probably involve deleting and recreating them several times–the game feels much more “fair” than Wizardry. My perception of this, of course, may be aided by the instruction manual all but encouraging you to manipulate things to be more favorable for you at the start, as I mentioned earlier.
I played the Apple ][ GS version included as a bonus in the 2004 Bard’s Tale. From what I can find, though, even the original Apple ][ version is a step forward graphically from Wizardry, at least in terms of the Wizardries that were out at the time. It’s also a step forward musically from the early Wizardries, in so much as the game has any music at all. The Bard’s Tale, in this way, integrates its biggest innovation (The Bard class wasn’t something seen in computer RPGs to this point) into its presentation, as the Bard can sing or play various songs that have beneficial effects on the party.
Overall, The Bard’s Tale does an admirable job advancing the “Wizardry formula”, moreso than Wizardry itself did for the longest time. This paid off handsomely for Interplay and Electronic Arts, as the game would go on to become one of the biggest selling titles of the 80s. With its multiple dungeons, and overall more forgiving difficulty curve once you get past the sadistic beginning, it’s definitely worth a try if you like dungeons crawlers at all.