This was a victory 30 years in the making. I finally finished Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight.
The Bard’s Tale was, of course, a series that is dear to my heart and one I never shut up about. Back when I was kid on our trusty Apple IIe we had Bard’s Tale 1 (or more accurately: “Tales of the Unknown Vol 1: The Bard’s Tale“) and its sequel, The Destiny Knight. They were fantastic games that engaged by imagination and drew many hours from me.
And I never finished either of them.
Because these were the days when games where bloody hard. I was, of course, a kid and I just didn’t have the skills to finish either game, much as I liked them. In 2007 I came back to Bard’s Tale 1 and finished it, and in 2018 I gave Bard’s Tale 2 the same treatment.
So does it hold up? Yes. Bard’s Tale II is better than Wizardry 8.
Do I recommend it? Yes, provided you have a high threshold for failure, and like mapping by hand.
But first, let’s talk about the game a bit more generally.
Bard’s Tale II is a lazy sequel. It’s identical to Bard’s Tale 1 in almost every way, which isn’t surprising considering it came out only a year later.
In Bard’s Tale 1 you create a party of 6 characters with a range of races/classes, then move through the town of Skara Brae in a first-person perspective, spending most of the time dungeon-crawling in its sewers, towers, etc and fighting monsters.
Combat is entirely menu-driven, with only the first three characters able to “(A)ttack”. The only complication to combat is the magic system; your magic-users have a wide range of spells available (although you’ll only use a handful) and a limited number of spell points that can be recharged (for a fee) in town.
The plot of Bard’s Tale 1 is to save Skara Brae from the evil wizard Mangar, who has frozen the city in a spell of eternal winter. Your characters go through a series of dungeons until final they reach Mangar and slay him.
A few important things to note about the mechanics:
- It’s a straight rip-off from Wizardry. If you’ve played any RPGs from the era (such as Final Fantasy) you’ll be in very familiar ground. Bard’s Tale made some important advancements, but they were graphical and world-building.
- It has a inverse difficulty curve; it starts almost impossible and then gets easier as your characters gain experience. This works better than you’d expect, because if you make it through the hard beginning you really feel like you’ve earned the right to enjoy the rest of the game. You also get the feeling of achievement as you watch your mid-level characters manage to avoid being spattered over the dungeon walls.
(A side note on the difficulty – this is the type of game that Darkest Dungeon is copying difficulty-wise).
- It has a number of riddles and puzzles; you get given clues from “magic mouths” and have to figure out the answers to proceed.
- Exploration is key. Often you can’t finish a dungeon unless you’ve got all of the hints, and the hints could be anywhere across the entire dungeon. The only way to be sure that you’ve got all the necessary hint is to ensure that you visit every square of the dungeon.
- Mapping is key. The dungeons are mazes, and I do not use the word lightly. The graphics are very basic so there are no landmarks, the only way to find your way through the dungeons is to map each level by hand. Yep, by hand.
Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight made very few changes to the Bard’s Tale formula. So few, in fact, that you could directly transfer your characters from Bard’s Tale 1. This sounds like a good idea but in practice it made game balance impossible. The designer, Michael Cranford, tried to balance this out by adding a “starter dungeon” for new characters, but it’s not enough. If you transfer BT1 characters (like I did) the combat will be a breeze for a long time.
The changes that were introduced to Bard’s Tale II were:
- A new spellcaster class – the Archmage. So there’s a bunch of new spells, but they’re mostly variants on the old ones.
- Distance in combat. Monsters can be between 10′ and 90′ away from you, and standard melee attacks only work against monsters who are in the 10′ range. You can advance 10′ each round, but only until at least one group of monsters reaches the 10′ range. Practically this was not a good development. Sometimes the combat would go for ages because a group of spellcasters would perpetually be summoning monsters in front of them. They introduced bows and arrows to combat that, but practically you can’t use them because they didn’t increase the total inventory space.
- Lots more maps, including seven towns in place of Skara Brae’s one. This was very effective in the world-building sense, but practically each town has the same four shops and the same four copy/paste buildings, so they were very similar. Also the towns were now all biblical Greek cities, or at least named after them (in this era they could be on the moon for all the graphics will tell you).
- A much greater emphasis on puzzles. In particular, each of the 7 major dungeons finished with a timed puzzle room called a “Death Snare”. In each one you had to undertake a series of actions or use various items in the right places, as dictated by the clues that you’ve found throughout the dungeon. You had to complete the snare within a certain (real time) time limit, or your whole party would die.
- A save slot. Yeah, BT1 didn’t have one of those, you could only save in one save point that was in town. So no saving the game in a dungeon.
Personally, I found the Death Snares a great innovation. They were completely different to anything in Bard’s Tale 1 and they were a real challenge that took no prisoners. I can’t help but wonder if it was inspired by the Tomb of Horrors, that famous D&D adventure that focused on traps over combat. Probably not, the timeline doesn’t match.*
The mechanic that fascinated me though was the mapping.
Mapping by hand is completely alien to modern gaming. It pre-dates even me; I knew it was a thing and I saw my older bother do it, but at the time I was so young that I couldn’t do it. My father helped.
So it was with much trepidation that I went off and bought graph paper to play the game. I was expecting that it would be a frustrating gimmick that I’d soon tire of, and resort to looking up the maps online.
It turned out to be the best part of the game.
Mapping is essential because the scenary isn’t exactly…unique.
My characters, imported from Bard’s Tale 1, were so stupidly overpowered that the combat was not a challenge. Which was a good thing, because the combat was identical to that of Bard’s Tale 1 and besides, no-one ever accused menu-based combat of being interesting.
But the maps were beautiful. I loved making them. After some trial and error I devised a good system for making the maps clean and readable. The maps had a good challenge curve too; pretty soon the dungeons started throwing some unusual tricks my way with combinations of spinners, teleports and darkness squares.
By the time I finished the game I admit I was kind’ve proud of my now (very) high level characters. But I was mostly proud of my beautiful collection of hand drawn maps; each one carefully created and painstakingly corrected to be as error-free as possible. It was an obsession, but an immensely calming one. I sat up late on more than one occasion with a ruler in hand, calmly filling out squares one-at-a-time.
Why was it fun?
I think it was the feeling of personal accomplishment and creation. As stupid as it is, I am proud of my Bard’s Tale II maps in the same way someone might be proud of beating Dark Souls, except I could show my accomplishment off in the physical world (assuming the viewer wouldn’t look calmly at how I spent my free time, then have me committed). And the way my records helped me solved the Death Snares…icing on the cake. It was such a good feeling when I saw a new puzzle, then looked through my old notes to read all the clues I’d gathered to find the answer.
I loved it. I absolutely loved it.
So do I recommend it? Yes. I accept that there are many people who will find this kind of gameplay about as much fun as a hole in the head (and a whole lot less exciting). But if you think you might enjoy this, I encourage you to try it out. You might surprise yourself.
Release date: 1986
Purchase date: Originally, 1987. I got an emulated PC version in approx 2015.
Complete date: September 2018
Platform: Originally, Apple IIe. FInal version, PC.
Time spent: Approx 80 hours (excluding time on the Apple IIe)
Designer: Michael Cranford
Other notable staff: Brian Fargo, Rebecca Heineman
Publisher: Electronic Arts
AND A SPECIAL SHOUT OUT…
To the newly-released Bard’s Tale IV! After a 30 year hiatus, InXile, founded by Brian Fargo, has returned courtesy of the kickstarter craze (I may be a backer).
I’ve played a touch of the game so far and am thoroughly enjoying it! On this occasion it’s worth getting the “Deluxe Edition” (or whatever it’s called) to get the soundtrack, which is simply stunning.
* Tomb of Horrors came out in 1977, and Bard’s Tale II in 1986.