And with that, one childhood dream completed – I have finished the entire original Bard’s Tale Trilogy! What an achievement! What a pinnacle of Retrogaming! What a testament to human endurance!
And now that I have finished all 3 of the original games, would I recommend this quest, this undertaking, this odyssey of RPGs to other fans of the genre?
Not in quick succession anyway.
Each of the Bard’s Tale games is, taken on their own terms, great. But they are very similar. I finished Bard’s Tale 1 in 2007 and Bard’s Tale 2 in 2018. I loved them both. But leaping straight from Bard’s Tale 2 to Bard’s Tale 3 in 2018…eh…a bit of absence would not have gone astray.
Let’s talk about Bard’s Tale 3 though.
Bard’s Tale III: Thief of Fate came out in 1988, two years after Bard’s Tale 2. It made some significant updates to the original Bard’s Tale formula, far more significant than those between Bard’s Tale 1 and 2. But it had a lot of similarities – and by now the basic concept was wearing thin. By comparison, 1988 is the same year that Wasteland, Pool of Radiance and Ultima V came out. Talk about stiff competition!
I’ve already spoken about the mechanics of both of the previous games, so let’s just talk about how things changed.
Bard’s Tale 3, which creatively speaking was mostly created by Becky Heinemen, applied some much needed re-balancing and streamlining that quite frankly Michael Cranford should have done in BT2. Specifically she:
- Gave rogues new powers (backstabbing and identifying items), which slightly changed the combat and also made rogues useful for the first time in the series
- Removed the equipment shop. At first I didn’t like this, but then I realised that it had been largely pointless since 1/3 of the way through Bard’s Tale 1 anyway
- Most impressively, fixed the power-creep issues by increasing the maximum stats from 18 to 30. This was really clever because if you imported characters from BT2, they had some great advantages (better gear, higher levels) but their stats would be LOWER than if you made new characters from scratch. She also fixed the drop rate of limited-use magic items, which was far too high in BT2.
- You couldn’t pay to re-energise spells anymore, you either had to use an item (which drop fairly rarely), wait until you finished a realm (when you get all spell points restored) or just stand and wait.
This last one was quite controversial, and I thought I’d hate it. But I can see why they did it; it’s that emphasis on balance. By the end of Bard’s Tale 1 (and, if you import characters, for the entirety of Bard’s Tale 2) your magic users are so powerful you can use them in every battle to mow the enemy down. They needed to be nerfed somehow, and despite what you may read about this game you don’t need to use your mages like this. On balance I think it was a good idea; it’s only annoying if you play BT3 like it’s BT2.
These weren’t the only changes to BT3. Others worthy of mention:
- The plot, setting and characters were much stronger. You travelled between 7 realms that managed to feel unique (ice-world, forest-world, war-world, dwarven mines, etc) and had actual conversations. It wasn’t going to win any writing awards, but it was a big step up from the 7 copy/pasted towns in Bard’s Tale 2.
- There were a few “use the item” puzzles that weren’t either riddles or “use key in lock” type puzzles.
- The game was much, much bigger, with varying map sizes. They could do this because…
- They introduced an automap.
Bard’s Tale III holds, I am told, the honour of being the first game to introduce an automap, and this now-standard feature radically changed the BT3 experiences.
Bard’s Tale I and II were all about geometric exploration with pencil and ruler. The focus was outside the game, on your pad and paper. Bard’s Tale III’s focus was purely inside the game world. Hence, more varied environments, more world-building, more characterisation and more plot. You can also play it a lot faster; Bard’s Tale III may have 84 levels but its play-time was about the same as Bard’s Tale II’s far more modest 25 levels. Also, because the game wasn’t about trying to get you lost, it had far less emphasis on spinners, darkness and teleporters.
Bard’s Tale III is arguably the best of the series, but I think it was held back by four key issues:
- The random encounter rate was too high. I’m so glad I had special boots (“speedboots”) imported from the second game that helped me run away.
- It needed a bigger art budget. The environments are described differently and they often play differently, but they LOOK very similar, especially if you compare it to, say, Pool of Radiance which made each of its locations look distinctive. This might have been due to disk space limitations I suppose, 84 levels is a LOT.
- While the combat was tweaked, it was too similar to the earlier games. This is the best version of the combat mechanic, but an entirely new mechanic would have been nice (To be fair, I may have felt differently if I hadn’t played BT3 right after BT2).
- The last two realms are a touch too long, particularly the second-last one (the “realm of war”). While it makes sense that the “Realm of War” relies on a lot of combat…the BT combat mechanic is too repetitive to hold up by itself for this length of time.
From ancient Rome to modern Berlin. I understand that humans never really change, but at least the scenery should.
Overall, do I recommend it?
Yes, with a caveat.
The high random encounter rate is a problem. Starting the game off with speedboots – hack it if you need to (https://www.bardstaleonline.com/bt3/hacking). Otherwise there’s way too much combat. But with that fixed, yes, I recommend it. I put it on about a par with the original Final Fantasy, although of the two, I personally prefer BT3.
Is it better than Bard’s Tale I or II?
That’s a harder question, and one that I don’t think can be really answered. The focus of the two earlier games on mapping makes them different experiences. Personally I think I prefer the feeling of mapping, although I’d had enough of it when I finished Bard’s Tale II; I would have been disappointed if BT3 had been another lazy sequel.
So the final word?
A strong finish to the original three Bard’s Tale games, with some much-needed updates to story-telling and a significant change to the player-experience brought about by the then-innovative automap.
Release date: 1988
Purchase date: I got an emulated PC version in approx 2015.
Complete date: November 2018
Time spent: Approx 70 hours
Designer: Rebecca Heineman
Other notable staff: Brian Fargo
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Recommended for: Any who want to try the Bard’s Tale series, but either want something a bit more modern, or cannot bring themselves to try drawing maps. AND if you use the hack to start off with speedboots.
Not recommended for: People who hate grinding, cannot get past an older-style UI or who play RPGs for the “role playing” element.
AND NOW SOME TRIVIA…
The reason there was no Bard’s Tale IV until 2018 is that Interplay and Electronic Arts got into an argument. EA had the rights to Bard’s Tale (for some reason) and refused to allow Interplay to publish another game under that title.
Interplay was, at the time, nearly finished creating the “original” Bard’s Tale IV, but as they suddenly lost the right to use the name, quickly re-tooled it to “Dragon Wars”. I have never played Dragon Wars, but maybe I should…
…but FIRST, the real Bard’s Tale IV! Hooray!
AND NOW SOME INTERVIEWS…HOORAY FOR “MATT CHAT”!