Review: The Bard’s Tale II – The Destiny Knight

Recently, I shared a review for the legendary CRPG The Bard’s Tale. In that review, I discussed how the game took the classic grid-based dungeon crawler formula and continued to evolve the genre by introducing colorful graphics and sound. Since that review was posted, I’ve spent the last month playing through the sequel and now, having finally completed the game, I’m ready to share my thoughts on The Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight.

Like the original game before it, The Bard’s Tale II was initially released on a number of classic home PC systems (Apple II, Commodore 64, PC and Amiga). While largely similar, each version of the game differed slightly in one way or the other. These differences usually came in the way of graphics or interface. Occasionally, there were a few odd differences in the gameplay itself. But for the most part, this was kept to a minimum. These days, the best way to enjoy the game is through the recently released remaster The Bard’s Tale Trilogy. This collection features all three of the original games with remastered graphics and a uniform UI – all while being true to the original artwork and gameplay. When playing this new version, players are able to choose between a newly revamped experience (which includes a number of enhancements like auto-mapping), or they can elect to play in Legacy Mode (which mostly stays true to the original experience). Personally, regardless of your experience level with games like these, I fully recommend playing with the fully remastered settings. Most of the changes to the game included in the new mode of play are simple quality-of -life improvements and do little to skew the original experience. My review is based on The Bard’s Tale Trilogy version of the game.

Being a sequel, it is highly recommended that you first play and complete the original game before diving in to this one. Yes, it is entirely possible to start this chapter with new characters. But be warned! This game was designed assuming that the player is an expert at the original Bard’s Tale. Having a full understanding of the previous game’s quirks and gameplay is crucial if the player is to have any chance at success with this title. In fact, after completing the original game, you will prompted the import your existing characters to Bard’s Tale II.

The story for this game begins shortly after the events of the original Bard’s Tale. It seems that the deeds of our heroes have reached the ears of a powerful wizard named Saradon who hails from a nearby kingdom. In a desperate written plea, he informs the heroes that an evil Archmage has invaded the kingdom and has stolen a powerful artifact known as The Destiny Wand and broken it into seven fragments. These pieces of the wand have been hidden throughout the land to prevent anyone from reassembling it. It was through the power of this wand that the forces of evil were kept out of the kingdom. Now, in its absence, all manner of foul men and creatures run amok. The game begins when our heroes enter the city of Tangramayne in search of Saradon, eager to start their quest.

For the most part, this game plays and works just like the previous entry in the series. To avoid sounding repetitive, I won’t rehash everything I covered in the previous review. So if you haven’t read it, you may want to give my review for the original game a look before continuing.

So with that in mind, what’s new this time around? Well, a lot actually! First of all, this game is much bigger than the first Bard’s Tale. The original game featured one city and five dungeons for players to explore. This time around there are six different towns and a total of eight unique dungeons. Plus, players are also able to go outside and explore the wilderness that lies between the cities as well. That’s right! The original Bard’s Tale took dungeon crawlers out of the dungeon and into the city. This entry takes them out of the city and into the open world. Now, that being said, everything is still grid-based. But the artwork does a fine job of creating the illusion of exploring an open environment. Other changes to the game include the introduction of new spells, new bard songs, and ranged weapons. Cities have also been upgraded with banks and casinos for players who want to either stash or gamble their riches away.

Also important to note is the ability to now have up to seven characters in your party at once. In original Bard’s Tale, parties were limited to six characters with the seventh slot being reserved for summoned/wandering NPCs. This time around, players can fill that slot with a seventh character if they so choose. (Actually, the remastered version of the first Bard’s Tale also allowed players to use the seventh slot, but it wasn’t originally introduced until Bard’s Tale II).

Finally, this game also adds a new “super class”, The ArchMage. This class is available to spellcasters who have mastered every spell from the four other magic classes. The ArchMage class has access to a number of new powerful spells. And trust me, if you’re going to see this game through to the end, you’ll need them.

That brings me to a point that I have to discuss about this game. The difficulty. Bard’s Tale II is no walk in the park. It you want to have any chance of finishing the game, you are going to have to be incredibly patient and persistent. On top of that, you’ll need to the know the nuances of the original game in and out. Actually, I’ll even go a step further and say that you really need to be a hardcore fan of other similar games as well. Every dungeon crawler trick you can imagine is packed into this title.

What do I mean by that? Well, the dungeons in the last half of this game are beyond brutal. Aside from being packed to the gills with monsters that can take out even the strongest party (trust me, I had my characters leveled into the 90’s and could still have my party wiped in a single encounter), the dungeons are filled with dark areas, spinner traps, magic-free zones, etc. And I don’t mean that these tricks are just sprinkled around the game here and there… most of the dungeons in the last half of the game are nearly entirely dark. And no spells, torches, or bard songs can light the way. That means you can’t see the walls in order to easily map your steps. On top of that, spinner traps that twirl your characters around in random directions are plentiful. Now, combine these spinners and completely dark areas with the fact that you can’t use any spells in some of these dungeons and you’re left with an extremely frustrating experience. Mapping areas like these with graph paper are near-impossible. If we are being honest, even with the automapping system included in the remaster it is still an act of extreme frustration.

To make matters worse, the dungeons that contain the wand segments needed to finish the game also feature areas known as “death snares”. These snares disable the ability to save the game in combination with many of the tricks mentioned above. These snares often require the player to solve a series of cryptic puzzles which must be navigated flawlessly or the players may be faced with instant death.

A part of me can appreciate the extreme challenge this game provides. Bard’s Tale II takes everything vet CRPG gamers have learned and put it to the test in a way no other game has ever done. But at the same time, it comes off as overly punishing. For example, one dungeon in particular is completely unsolvable if you venture in with more than four characters in your party. Nowhere in the game (that I could find) was this restriction mentioned or hinted at. It forces the player to endure an hour or longer trek into the depths of a maze, only to find out they have to backtrack for another hour, then come back with half of their manpower missing and do it all over again. Now hopefully, I just missed a vital clue somewhere along the way. If not, it could easily seem like this mechanic was put in place by some sadistic developer as nothing more than a private joke. Not cool.

Difficulty gripes aside, there’s a lot to like about Bard’s Tale II. It’s an excellent sequel that provides hours and hours of entertainment. But it does take a certain caliber of gamer in order to see the game all the way through.

 

Version Reviewed: PC

Difficulty: Extreme –  Of all of the games I’ve ever reviewed, this is only the second title to earn an “Extreme” difficulty rating (the first being Super Mario: The Lost Levels). Yes, this game really is that hard. Even if you’re an old school CRPG veteran. Be prepared to be extremely frustrated at times. Hours of work will often be lost as you undertake the Death Snares. This is a game best approached with patience and the understanding that you’re going to have to work if you want to complete the quest. My advice to anyone playing: grind grind grind. Level your characters as much as possible. Also, lean on your items. There’s a large portion of this game that renders your spell casters almost completely useless. During these times you’ll have to rely on magic items to cure status ailments, etc. Finally, search out clues and take notes. These things are a must if you want any chance at reaching the end.

Multiplayer:  None.

Story: The story presented here is fairly typical for RPGs of the era. Evil wizard, mystical artifact split into multiple parts… we’ve seen it all before. But the presentation is very well done.

Originality: The Bard’s Tale II takes the foundation created by the original game and adds a few new twists and turns. It’s meant more as a scenario for master players and not so much as a showcase for new concepts. But even with that in mind, it does a pretty decent job of standing on its own.

Soundtrack: The music in this game is on par with what is found in the original Bard’s Tale. The sound effects of the game itself are pretty basic, but appropriate. There is actually very little in terms of music. There’s the intro theme, but that’s mostly it unless you have a bard in your party. When activating bard songs in the game, you can actually hear that tune that the bard is performing. These songs are nothing fancy, but each of them is catchy and fitting. The tunes play until cancelled by the player. This means that these bard songs  actually end up becoming the soundtrack for the game, as you will most likely usually have one active. This game adds additional songs not heard in the first Bard’s Tale.

Fun: I suppose that a certain number of CRPG fans are likely to go absolutely bonkers for this game. But for most casual players, and even for myself, the extreme level of difficulty in this game really dampens the amount of fun you might have. Things are great until you reach the halfway point, after that the game starts to feel more like a chore than a way to relax.

Graphics: The quality of the graphics vary greatly depending on platform. Of the original ports the Amiga, and MS-DOS versions are the best looking. Of course, the modern Trilogy remaster is the best looking version of all. The graphics in that release are colorful and very much improved – all while still staying true to the original art.

Playcontrol: The game is largely controlled using either the keyboard or mouse. Personally, the keyboard is my preference, but the controls are very old-school. Thankfully, the game is not fast-paced so even if the controls take a little getting used to, the scheme doesn’t affect your gameplay at all. It’s also important to note that the Trilogy remaster is also available on the Xbox One. I haven’t personally tried that release, so I can’t speak to the playcontrol on that version.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Fantasy violence.

Value: The Bard’s Tale Trilogy is available on Steam and GoG for around $15.00. You get three legendary CRPGs for this price, which is more than worth it. If you’re trying to get your hands on an original copy of the game, you’ll be paying collector’s prices.

Overall score (1-100): 55 – This is an example of how a good game can be ruined by bad design. There’s so many great aspects to this title that are simply overshadowed by repetitive and brutal mechanics. Keep in mind, I’m an old grognard who played and enjoyed Wizardry IV, an rpg often cited as one of the hardest games of all time. But this was almost too much for me. That being said, the feeling of accomplishment you receive from finally conquering a game like this is unmatched.

Original System: Apple II, PC

Available today on:  PC, Xbox One   –  (List updated as of  Fall 2020)

Best Modern Experience: PC   –   (As of Fall 2020)

 

Other Reviews In This Series:

The Bard’s Tale: Tales of the Unknown    –    Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight    –    Bard’s Tale III: Thief of Fate    –    Bard’s Tale IV: Barrow’s Deep

The Bard’s Tale (2004)