Zzap1st October 1988
Published in Zzap #42
Bard's Tale III: Thief Of Fate
In days gone by, parties of computer adventurers were invited to take up their +1 swords and their mandolins and slash and sing their way around the precincts of Skara Brae in search of treasure, experience points and the chance to rescue civilisation as they knew it from destruction. The depressing thing about such computer-confined ultimate quests is, as any seasoned adventurer will know, that as soon as they've saved the world, the software house brings out a sequel to reveal that their efforts were in vain and another evil megalomaniac threatens to take over again.
Skara Brae features once again in Bard's Tale III, which must make it one of the best-known metropoli in computer fantasydom. But, alas, it is not the city it once was. Hours after the end of Bard's Tale II and the defeat of the evil Mangar, his superior the Great God Tarjan turned up to put a stop to the party. If the bard's compositions were anything like the doggerel ballad that opens Bard's Tale III it is hardly surprising that he razed the city to the ground, unleashed foul monsters, and closed down all the businesses. Skara Brae is nothing now but a smoking ruin, echoing with Tarjan's threat to march onward and conquer the other Six Cities of the plain and then to devastate Life Itself.
Four blank disks and about two and a half hours are needed before you can begin to play, to go through the arcane ritual of Copying Ye Master Disks. I've said enough on this subject in the past. I suppose it's necessary, but must it be so infuriatingly slow?
Before setting out to put the world to rights the player must assemble a party of up to seven characters. There is a readymade party already available, equipped with some experience to let you into the game quickly. But character creation is not a particularly complex or time-consuming business, and I found it more interesting to make up my own heroes. Character generation follows traditional D&D lines. There are seven character classes, including hobbits, half-orcs and gnomes, with the usual pluses and minuses on certain characteristics. The attributes are Strength, Intelligence, Dexterity, Constitution and Luck. Strength seems to determine how much damage a fighter does when hitting something. Dexterity decides the character's place on the initiative ranking in combat. Intelligence limits the number of spells that a magic-user can know, Constitution represents hit points. Instant re-rolling is available if you're not happy with the attributes.
Bard's Tale III is particularly rich in character classes. There are thirteen altogether, though only eight are available to starting-level characters. Although there are two types of first-level magic-users - magicians and conjurors - and four types of fighters - warriors, paladins, hunters and monks - character advancement is very much magic-orientated. The five advanced classes add to the character's spell ability, and most require mastery of large numbers of spells. An important character to have is a bard, for he starts off in effective possession of six spells; twice as many as a first-level magician. His ultimate abilities are, however, limited to eight tunes and advancement only means that he can play more of them before having to stop for a drink.
Magicians and sorcerers get a 'level' of spells, three straightforward and not very dangerous pieces of trickery. At first level, the magic-using characters seem weak. As they advance they become very powerful. A seventh-level Archmage can cast Mangar's Mallet and inflict up to 800 points of damage in a single blow.
Level advancement depends on gathering experience points and presenting yourself to the Review Board in Skara Brae. This was once a venerable academic institution and now, though it is one of the few places in the city left standing, is manned by one mysterious, quest-dispensing Old Man. It still performs its original function by granting promotion to characters worthy of it. The number of experience points needed to gain levels is not made clear in the rulebook.
The party begins the adventure not in the old Adventurer's Guild in the city, but in a refuge camp set up in the wilderness outside. The Guild was one of the casualties of the blitz, but the refugee camp is ust as useful for creating and deleting characters and assembling parties; parties can be saved onto the character disk under a collective name. Near the camp is the Scrapwood Tavern, a place to buy the alcoholic take-aways essential to keep the bard oiled and to pick up rather unexciting rumours.
The screen display is very polished and visually attractive. The characters are clearly and permanently listed at the bottom, with their essential attributes and hit points displayed. The upper half of the screen is divided into two panels, one for messages and one for the small three-dimensional visual display that is the player's window into the world. Bard's Tale III is unusual in having no overhead views of wilderness, swamps and forests. After a bit of practice, it is not difficult to judge the proximity of trees and buildings, and to map in the conventional 'one bit of terrain to a square of graph paper' manner. The message window helps by indicaating the facing direction, and there is also a very useful 'automap' facility which tells you how many paces east, west, north or south you are from a central point; the refugee camp in the wilderness and the city gates in Skara Brae. One confusing feature of the wilderness is a wraparound effect - go far enough north and you end up coming back up the map from the south. When this is taken into account the wilderness around Skara Brae turns out only to be 20 x 20 graph paper squares large, and is quite easily mapped by those who have tackled Doomdark's Revenge.
The catacombs of the temple is one of those bedsit dungeons with unpleasant monsters camping out in every room, treasure to be found and magic items to be picked up. The Old Man in the Review Board tells the party to go down the dungeon and kill someone; when that task has been accomplished he will tell them their 'real quest'.
Random encounters occur with the usual monotonous regularity. Combat is fast, efficient and accompanies illustrations of the monsters being fought. At the start of each round, the player can choose whether to stay and fight or run away, and then the individual actions for characters who can attack, defend, or cast a spell or sing a song if appropriate. Only the first four character in the marching order can attack, so it's worth putting your best fighters up front. The results of combat are then scrolled on the message screen.
Bard's Tale III is extremely professional in its presentation; far more so than its overhead view SSI equivalents, which have a scrappy and underprogrammed appearance in comparison. It is clearly a game which demands that the player puts in a lot of work in mapping and noting down clues; character advancement is well-structured and offers a real incentive to move up levels with the juicy, powerful spells available to high-ranking mages. Quite a lot of the interest of the game can be centred on this rather than the plot. And it seems that there's a vast wide world beyond Skara Brae, though gaining access to it will be a long process.
Superior to most RPGs, with an attractive on-screen appearance and an easy to operate keypress order system.
Convincing 3D window effect.
Adequately explains the rules, spells, classes and other mechanics, but is short on inspiration beyond the usual dreadful 'dying message' paragraph.
Entertaining and smooth once you've worked out how to move about in the landscape.
A classy product, of particular interest to mapping fans without the imaginative scope of Wasteland.