Thursday, October 02, 2008

Thus strikes the Thief of Fate!

After 20 years I have realised one my greatest goals in life - I have finally finished Bard's Tale III.

Let me paint the picture for you - it's 1988, a couple of days after Christmas in the Warrnambool Super K-Mart. I have a fistful of money, the princely sum of $30 - to my 10-year-old brain it's a fortune. My face is pressed up against the glass in the computer department, salivating over the various RPGs on offer. Pool of Radiance is beckoning me with it's AD&D-ish goodness (and it didn't hurt that I had recently enjoyed the novel in my youthful folly). But looking over I see another pack, with Bard's Tale I, Bard's Tale II, and Bard's Tale III inside. I'd never heard of them, but my rudimentary grasp of value-for-money informed me that I would be getting three games instead of one. And the graphics on the back looked awesome! (I was soon to discover they were for the Amiga 500 and not the Commodore 64 - a common ploy).

So I got these games home, read the highly amusing manuals, and booted up Bard's Tale I: Tales of the Unknown. Hmmm. The graphics were disappointing, and my painstakingly crafted party was decimated by Nomads before I could even make it to the Shoppe to buy equipment. Somewhat disheartened, I cranked up Bard's Tale II: The Destiny Knight. Killer intro sequence! But again the game was very difficult. I managed a foray into the starter dungeon this time, only to fall foul of sundry assorted monsters in short order.

I was desperate not to have spent my money incorrectly, and so I loaded up Bard's Tale III: The Thief of Fate. Again, awesome intro. And the graphics! Yes, it's the standard 80s RPG layout - characterstats in one window, messages in another, and what your characters see in another. The general scenery was nothing to write home about, but where the graphics of BTIII excel are the monster portraits. They have so much character, grinning and snarling and waving their swords about. From the moment that I put a posse of Black Hobbits to the sword, I was hooked.

Here's the plot: in Bard's Tale I you saved the town of Skara Brae from the evil wizard Mangar. Some time later, his boss the Mad God Tarjan has come back for revenge and blasted Skara Brae to ruins. So it's up to you to travel the dimensions until you finally get your vengeance on the Big Guy.

I spent a lot of time playing this game during Primary and High School - probably more than any other. It took me forever to get anywhere. I probably spent a good three years tooling around in the starter dungeon before piecing together the clues that allowed me access to the real starter dungeon. It was another year or so before I beat that dungeon and travelled to the first of the alternate worlds, and by the end of uni I was in the third world. It was a slow progress, and I was beginning to believe that beating Bard's Tale III would be one of the great unfulfilled dreams of my life.

In the meantime I had returned to the previous two games in the series and completed those - my initial thoughts of them had been a touch dismissive, and now I'm a huge fan.

But back to Bard's Tale III, I decided a month or so ago to really knuckle down and crack this baby. And, rather disappointingly, it only took me about two weeks. I'd built this game up in my mind sa the king of unbeatable RPGs, but in truth it's not that difficult - it's actually a significant step down from Bard's Tale II. But despite the slight disappointment there are some great moments in the game.

One of the ways that the Bard's Tale series emulates D&D really well is that, at its heart, Bard's Tale is a game of dungeon survival. You enter the dungeons, and you need to keep track of your resources - not just hit points, but spell points, light sources, bard songs, and so on. And you absolutely must make a map, or you'll be hopelessly lost. This game is responsible for reams of missing graph paper from my school's mathematics department, I can tell you.

There are some really fun and interesting worlds to explore in BTIII. Kinestia, with it's dwarven tunnels taken over by robots and the mysterious Urmech, was an unexpected change of pace. The Nazi Soldiers encountered in Tenebrosia were an awesome addition, and a neat bit of foreshadowing for the greatest part of the game - Tarmitia. Tarmitia is a realm of war, and it involves a lot of travelling through time to famous warzones - Hiroshima, Troy, Rome, etc. One minute your fighting Cossacks, then its Nazis, then its Mongols, and the list goes on. It's pretty wild stuff, with a puzzle that will have you going back and forth for a few hours.

The final world, Malefia, was a slight disappointment. I was expecting something balls-hard, but it barely scratched the surface of some of the irritating dungeons from Bard's Tale II. That game had dungeons packed full of teleporters and spinners and darkness zones and antimagic zones and many other things designed to make you rip your hair out. The hardest thing about the Malefia dungeon was mapping it, as there were a lot of portals up and down to navigate.

The final series of fights was quite a challenge, though. Too bad Tarjan himself was a bit weak - my rogue backstabbed him to death before he even got a shot in. I never even got to see his picture! And I objected slightly to the end sequence as well. I'm sure I was supposed to be pleased by the fate of my characters, but what IO really wanted was for them to continue their adventures!

Nevertheless, this is a bona fide classic, and now that I've finished it I feel a little empty. I don't think I'll find another game that I'll want to finish as desperately as I did this one, and a part of me wishes I'd never completed it.

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