There's not much doubt that The Bard's Tale is the most successful attempt yet to recreate the excitement of a fantasy role-playing game. Already a big success in 16-bit formats, the game has now made it onto the Spectrum and Amstrad with practically all the playing characteristics intact, though with an inevitable loss in the areas of graphics and sound.
The Bard's Tale offers just about everything you could want from an FRPG; huge playing area, complex character definitions, endless variations and sophisticated use of objects and magical spells. It's set in Skara Brae, a huge city featuring the obligatory castles, dungeons and catacombs.
You start off with an adventuring party of six characters. On the left of the screen appears either the view around you, or the characters you meet; on the right is a text display telling you what's happening; and at the bottom are the traditional counters showing your character name, and such attributes as strength, hit points taken, experience points, gold carried and so on.
The great thing about The Bard's Tale is that you don't have to have any real aim as you explore the city of Skara Brae. However, if you want to actually complete the game, the idea is to gain experience points (from surviving battles), qualify for a higher rank in the Adventurers' Guild, and fight your way through the castle until you defeat the tyrant Mangar.
The battle routines are pretty good. On each round, you can choose the order in which your characters will advance, and if you opt for them to attack, defend, hide, use an object or, if appropriate, use magic or sing a song.
Magical spells, the availability of which depends on the experience off your magic-user, can make all the difference in a battle; simply type in the four-letter abbreviation for the appropriate spell (given in the handbook) and you can bring light where there's darkness, blast your enemies asunder, render your party invulnerable, reveal magic doors, and so on.
Singing character (bards) can do a bit of good by breaking into song at the right moment; some songs stimulate warriors to greater feats of battle, others frighten the enemy, some heal wounds.
You can break out of most combats if your party begins to take too much damage, but if you win you will usually gain experience points and treasure. Since you can face up to 99 opponents in each battle (usually small ones such as rats, you'll be relieved to hear), the greatest skill in the game consists of knowing when discretion is the better part of valour.
Though something of the charm has been lost along with the excellent graphics and music of the 16-bit versions, The Bard's Tale remains the best attempt at computer FRPGs.