"I'm fortunate enough to have enjoyed Bard's Tale III (BT3) twice and in different ways. As a teen fanboy, I reaped the benefits of destroying far too many Dream Mages in BT2. "
I'm fortunate enough to have enjoyed Bard's Tale III (BT3) twice and in different ways. As a teen fanboy, I reaped the benefits of destroying far too many Dream Mages in BT2. My overpowered party walked through BT3's entertaining story. I figured I'd avoided the starting grind where you had to create and delete side characters for gold to resurrect your main party. I was wrong. They'd fixed that too. But then, I wasn't big on strategy back then. I just liked winning big and having a cool story and seeing new gimmicks.
BT3 certainly had that--better graphics, more monsters, new spells, new character classes, bigger areas, and even cool copy protection. BT2 had dungeons; BT3 had WORLDS. BT2's attributes went up to eighteen; BT3, thirty. Armor classes, formerly only down to negative twenty, went to negative fifty and below. You could even save anywhere, not just at the guild, and the auto-map saved serious frustration.
But perhaps the greatest ego boost was trashing the starter dungeon in one night. Skara Brae, which you saved from Mangar in BT1, is trashed by Tarjan. No more Roscoe's Spell Emporium, armor shop, bank, or casino. Temples and bars exist in the mazy wilderness. A lone old man at the review board can help the party--he improves levels. He even allows you access to the seven other worlds that hold arms and armor of heroes of local heroes. Getting there is an awesome gambit; an archmage in your party must surrender all his spells to start at level 1.
And here's where the copy protection kicks in. BT3 uses a code wheel--like Monkey Island--but with three circles to align. Each sequence of words foreshadows items or locations in later worlds, and if you're clever, you can maybe figure what matches with what ahead of time, though the game itself is not stingy when you need them. I loaned my code wheel out to my friend who once taunted me about not having BT2, and he lost it (or did he?) He referred me to a friend, who lost HIS code wheel then referred me to another friend after I'd completed the sixth world. If BT3 had had fourteen worlds, I'd have wound up calling Kevin Bacon. This made BT3 even more of an adventure and maybe made me focus on the world puzzles and not leveling up.
The second friend also showed me the most wonderful game bug ever. If a party visits the old man after killing Brilhasti Ap Tarj in the starter dungeon, they get 600000 experience. Summon an Instant Wolf, and the old man "sees" a new party. More bonus! Remove and summon the wolf, and...well, my friend's younger brother was commissioned to do this until the party's hit points read "++++." And on replaying from scratch, I even found a bug where dead people got survivors' experience after a fight. Even the bad stuff worked out!
All this cheating didn't make mapping trivial, though. One-way doors and spinning squares made even five-by-five towers daunting. Other squares drained magic or quieted protective bard songs. The spatial reasoning puzzles from being spun around definitely trumped the riddling magic mouths from BT2. The final dungeon of Malefia is an awesomely nasty 3-d map with one-way teleports. It's still a favorite today, as it makes sense when it's all laid out. And the variance in dungeon size is a welcome break from Bard's Tale II. Towers and crypts feel like it. Towns are bigger than huts. The puzzles work better than BT2's death-snares, too, as the clues are less oblique and you generally have an idea if you should kill an NPC.
The story itself runs smoothly, and on reflection, hiring Michael Stackpole, who wrote successful Star Wars and Battletech novels, was a great idea. Tenebrosia's Kafkaesque location names and puzzles are an upgrade over BT2, but then the story scatters small jokes with basic technical stuff or wryly remarking you might've killed a good guy. The jokes may never be gut-busters, and they're right where expected, but they show timing can work in RPGs, too. And sometimes there're in-jokes for series veterans or homages to people who helped with the project. Spell names like YMCA for Ybarra's Mystical Coat of Armor or MAMA for Mangar's Mallet are funny and memorable, too. Or there's just NUTS for insane (randomly attacking) characters, or enemies' animated evil grins and raised eyebrows. Your bard can play Sir Robin's Song to help you flee combats. It's useless, but you probably see the reference.
There's still plenty of serious bits, though. Each hero has suffered a different and marginally reversible tragedy. Combat items aren't just sequentially better, either: one may improve armor class, one does damage at a distance. You can mix them up, but you also have to give them up to move on, as well. So this tries into strategy and when to do what. Defeating Brilhasti early vaults a party's spellcasters to Archmage, level 3. Studying spells pays off. Random groups of monsters may be easy experience or present a combination of spells your party can't hack, and figuring how and where to find and horde Harmonic Gems (these recharge all spell points) eventually makes level-churning easy; more spell points to recharge means more spells to hammer enemies with and more chances to get gems. Tiring of this actually makes the fight with Tarjan more fun--without hundred-level characters fully repelling every spell, the fight is a mass of mass-heals and a thief hiding in shadows to backstab him while his bodyguards press the party. It's quick, too, since you can speed up the text reports.
That keeps the focus on the enemy icons, which range from amusing to creepy. Monsters leer as they twirl their weapons, maybe raising an eyebrow. BT2's recycling of basic pictures between dungeons is passe. Now, robots from Kinestia, World War I soldiers time travel pastiche, Tarmitia, and Ice Wolves in Gelidia (you lose HP and freeze outside) complement the dragons, ogres, and mages you'd expect. It's certainly more striking than BT2's changing wall patterns. Even the pleasantly introductory Arboria mixes things well, and the graphical imagination run as wild as two Apple disk sides would let it.
BT3 has no overarchingly wonderful puzzles, but nothing unfair, either. They fit in well with the plot, and it's not terribly hard to figure what to do with Water of Life, a sacred urn, and an acorn. The trickiest area, in Lucencia, requires you to bring five roses and figure which spirit gets which. Trial, error, and restarting should suffice. NPC interaction's limited to an alleged arch-hero called Hawkwind who follows you through the worlds, giving vague hints when he joins. Which spells your fighter-cum-Geomancer must use, and where, are maybe too obvious.
So BT3 never really sings, technically, though the tragic heroes are a welcome break from the next bad guy to beat. I wasted a glorious summer of '89 mixing it and Ultima V, switching between the FPRPG and top-down game with the fascinating stories. If U5 was deeper, BT3 was funnier. U5's graphics were homey and basic, BT3's gothic yet brightly impressive. U5 was the better game, with the fascinating moral dilemmas and chasing around a continent for clues. BT3 presented a story and compact mapping puzzles but made it easy to thrash monsters for a level when a puzzle got frustrating.
With BT3, making it to new worlds wasn't just about winning but finding the new odd monsters, illustrations and weapons there. It was perfect for the period when I really started to learn about mapping and puzzle-solving, but before I looked for serious depth. It wasn't really topped at what it did until Dragon Wars, which went in its own direction.
Community review by aschultz (November 22, 2009)
Andrew Schultz used to write a lot of reviews and game guides but made the transition to writing games a while back. He still comes back, wiser and more forgiving of design errors, to write about games he loved, or appreciates more, now.
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