As I said in my last posting, I'm beginning to feel that CRPGs are hitting that "good enough" stage where they are authentically enjoyable and not just historical curios. The graphics, sound, and game play are notably improved in over most of the previous games on this list, and especially the game of which it is a direct descendant: Wizardry.
As in Wizardry, you control a party of six characters representing different classes and races (oddly enough, you cannot specify sexes; all characters, at least judging by their portraits, are male). These characters exist on a list in the lower part of your screen while the upper part is devoted to a first-person view of the game world. Your characters can buy and equip a variety of weapons, armor, and miscellaneous items, some of which must be identified if you find them after a battle. In battle, just as in Wizardry, you specify an action for each character, and then your characters and the enemies go at it all at once. You may face multiple groups of enemies of varying numbers. Only your first three characters can attack. You cast spells by typing in their names, although in the case of The Bard's Tale it's a four-letter code instead of the entire spell name.
So far it sounds so close to Wizardry that I'm surprised the developers weren't sued for copyright violation. But in subtle details, The Bard's Tale is better, and (at least so far) more fun. To name a few:
- The graphics are much better. Character and monster portraits are animated, as are scenes inside various buildings.
- There is an awesome variety of races and classes. Here for the first time are half-orcs, paladins, hunters, monks, and four different mage classes--two of which you have to transition to after you've gained some experience. Hunters do critical hits at higher levels, and monks (as in D&D) are skilled in unarmed and unarmored combat.
- Bards appear for the first time in a CRPG (unless you count the "lark" in Ultima III). And the class isn't just a name: bards can sing helpful bard songs in battles and use certain musical magic items. "The Seeker's Ballard," for instance, produces light in dungeons and makes foes easier to hit; "Falkentyne's Fury" increases the damage you do in combat. In between songs--I love this--bards have to have a glass of wine or ale to refresh their windpipes.
- The town is Skara Brae. At first, I thought the Skara Brae of Ultima IV must be paying homage to The Bard's Tale, but then I discovered that Skara Brae is the name of a neolithic archaeological site in Orkney.
- A variety of locations to visit. There are several taverns, temples, and shops, and a spell-recharging place. A place called "the review board" advances you in levels, but you have to find it (it's not on the game map).
- You can summon or join NPCs to your party. More on this in a second.
- Cute little touches: a street is blocked by a statue of a samurai. Attack it, and it becomes a samurai for real. Kill him, and you can pass. Just beyond him is a tavern where, if you buy a bottle of wine, the bartender lets you into a dungeon.
All of that said, the game is pretty hard, mostly because you start off with no healing spells. I thought maybe I'd get some after my mages advanced to second level, but I didn't. This means that almost all the gold you collect from battle has to go to temples for healing and resurrection.
My party consists of
- Palamdedes, a human paladin (I almost always lead my parties with a paladin)
- Blaargh, a half-orc hunter
- Grimgnaw, a dwarven monk
- Taliesin, a half-elf bard
- Grey Star, an elven magician
- Lailoken, a gnomish conjurer
A rogue seemed unnecessary because conjurers get a spell called "trap zap" at the first level (I wish I'd had that in Wizardry).
I've spent most of the first few hours mapping Skara Brae, fighting various battles, and all-too-often raising and healing my characters at temples. I have most of them up to Level 2. I'm hoping I get the healing spells at Level 3, at which point I'll start exploring the first dungeon.
One thing has made combat exceedingly easier in these opening stages. At the top of your party list is a slot for a summoned creature. While exploring the key commands, I discovered that if you hit the "Z" key, a stone elemental automatically appears in that slot. I have no idea why. It seems too easily-discoverable to be a cheat. Either way, I'm getting a lot of use out of him.
The Ultimate Wizardry Archives arrived while I was away and, as promised, I'm going to go back and try Wizardry II and Wizardry III when I'm done with this game, but it's going to be hard to regress to those games after The Bard's Tale.