With the release of The Bard's Tale IV upcoming on September 18th, InXile has given us a remaster of EA's classic Bard's Tale Trilogy. Although only the first chapter/game is currently available, the other two will follow this autumn and winter, and characters from one game can be carried through to the others.
More mature gamers will no doubt remember the release of the original Bard's Tale in 1985, a landmark dungeon crawler that was remarkably innovative for its day. With animated characters and 3D environments, The Bard's Tale was about as immersive as an adventure game could be, and the mechanic of the Bard singing songs to cast spells was a gameplay hook that has rarely been replicated.
For current gamers not looking through the lens of nostalgia, The Bard's Tale Trilogy is both a history lesson and proof that strong gameplay mechanics and good writing are relatively timeless. While the remaster sharpens the graphics, adds some interface and quality of life conveniences, and broadens character creation options, in most ways it stays true to the 1985 experience. A Legacy mode will be available soon that fully reverts to the game in its original glory.
The Bard's Tale Trilogy was inspired by Dungeons and Dragons and other pen-and-paper and computer adventure games such as Wizardry or Ultima. With relatively little preamble, players create and customize their party of fighters, healers, rogues, mages, and titular bards, and go off adventuring in, around, above, and under the town of Skara Brae, under siege from demonic forces. The game's exploration and action are confined to a small square, while the remainder of the screen is occupied by dialogue text and character stats. Combat is turn-based, with the player selecting the actions for each character during the encounter and the results being described in game text.
Compared to modern, sprawling adventure games, the world of The Bard's Tale is relatively small -- though considered massive at the time -- with a handful of multilevel dungeons and towers to explore, and puzzles that brought together the head-scratching inscrutability of text adventures with skills and powers obtained during the game. Although there is no voice acting, the writing in The Bard's Tale is consistently witty and in retrospect has a compact charm.
Whether as history lesson, exercise in nostalgia, or appetizer to the upcoming fourth entry to the series, The Bard's Tale Trilogy remains engaging. It requires a lot of patience and attention to detail and a special love of character micromanagement and, although the rerelease is more colorful than the original, the graphics and core gameplay are still rooted in the limitations of 1980s technology. Playing The Bard's Tale Trilogy is a reminder that while games have achieved cinematic production values that rival anything from Hollywood, they don't always fire the imagination the way that the less graphically accomplished adventures often did.