The Bard’s Tale (Tales of the Unknown: Volume I), one of the grand-daddies of CRPGs, is a surprisingly satisfying and sophisticated CRPG in the vein of D&D without explicitly using the D&D license. More importantly, it was the first CRPG to feature a bard as a main character. In the early stages of the game, he almost feels more like a hindrance than a hero. But as you progress through the game his musical powers become integral to the game experience.
In the game, the town of Skara Brae has been cursed by an evil wizard Mangar the Dark who cast a spell of Eternal Winter upon the town. With the power of his dark influence everywhere, all manner of monsters and evil folk are to be found almost everywhere you turn. It is up to you to form a party of adventurers to set things right. But it’s not going to be easy, and you aren’t only going to clear out the town. You have to explore the sewers and several other dungeons to defeat Mangar, and his hordes lie in wait everywhere. You are going to need a ton of patience to train up your party. And character development is no easy task. Many hours of play are required to accomplish the building of your characters’ experience and levels. The key is to gut it out, because once you get beyond the city limits and find yourself in the (very) complex dungeons you’ll be having a really good time.
The character development system of Bard’s Tale is, for the time, rather sophisticated. There are several races to choose from and several character classes as well - each bringing their own pros and cons to the table. If you don’t use the pre-made characters the game comes with, be prepared for a very long evening of re-rolling characters until you get the right stats. If you’re patient, getting good stats could realistically take hours if you’re really picky.
Other “issues” of note:
You must have your party return to the Adventurers Guild (AG) to save the game. Until the party gains levels, wandering too far away from the AG can be fatal! And I’m talking about more than a single block away.
And frankly, even following this advice will require a bit of luck to survive in the beginning.
There is really no NPC (non-player character) interaction in the game. You might stumble across a few people with scripted lines, but there is no concept of dialog choices (a la Monkey Island) and really no role-playing. Your characters are who they are, as is the world around them.
The game world seems rather oblivious to your progress and achievements in the game. No matter how successfully you may be in the game, monsters will still roam about (even if you defeat the evil wizard).
Regardless of some of these shortcomings, the rest of the game is quite well balanced and thought out, especially when it comes to gold (which you need a LOT of to get healing). And it looks really quite nice and sounds good, too. It becomes painfully difficult at times, but that seems to be OK if you don’t get easily frustrated.
In Dragon magazine #120 (April, 1987), they recommended a party that included “one hunter or paladin, two monks, one bard, and two spell-casters. Michael prefers the hunter character to other fighter types, as this individual has a number of special weapons available to him that can be found during the game. The paladin is certainly a wise choice; she starts out as an excellent fighter with a lot of hit points. The monks, after they reach the sixth level, become incredibly effective in combat when you throw away their weapons and armor. And dont fret if you dont have a rogue. Mike says that the Trap Zap spell disarms any odious snares better than the rogue could disarm them in the first place.”
“The music played by the bard [compared to other platforms] is now dictated by the kind of instrument he or she selects. If the flute is the instrument of choice, then you hear a flute when the bard’s song has been selected, not a computer-generated instrument that almost sounds like a flute, but an actual flute! This [Amiga] version has to be seen and played to be believed. We highly recommend this offering to those of you gamers who have access to the Amiga computer.”
The Game is definitely a nice upgrade from the very good C64 version. The small window into the world in the upper left corner boasts a lot more detail and animation than on the 8-bit version, which really adds to the mood. Quite a bit of real estate is wasted for character stats, but to keep the game miraculously compacted onto one disk (and another for character saves) it’s pretty fantastic.
The game itself will force you to become an expert in mapping. Bust out that graph paper, you’re going to need it (and you’ll make mistakes - so use pencil!). Two things about that which take getting used to. 1) You can only see about a block or two ahead of you, so “pre-mapping” isn’t really an option. You also don’t have a compass, so it can be very easy to lose your bearings in the beginning, especially when you exit a building. On top of that what you see in front you to the left and right is actually right beside you (which can really be confusing) until you get used to the perspective.
But, once the minor quibbles are accepted as how things are and you adjust to them, you can really sink your teeth into this fabulous game.
This is the kind of game you could burn a few weeks playing as it does require quite a bit of attention and focus, not to mention time. You can’t simply pick up a joystick and gobble some ghosts. Bard’s Tale is a bit of pleasurable work, if that makes sense.
For a good D&D solo experience, this one is really pretty good. It doesn’t have a lot of story, but has most everything else. Just bring plenty of patience, and time.