I think we are at the point where retro-inspired video games are being released faster than the thousands of opinion pieces commenting about the abundance of retro-inspired video games. In all honesty, they are all starting to blend together with the exception of a handful of real gems (Shovel Knight, Undertale). Does Bard’s Gold cross the threshold and become one of those memorable retroesqe games that somehow finds a way to give gamers that old-school feel? Does it blend just the right amount of difficulty and much needed charm? Well, yes and no.
Bard’s Gold’s story is as simple as it gets: The Bard, who the player controls, is minding his own business trying to catch some z’s under a tree when some creepy little goblin runs by and swipes his gold. The Bard awakes just in time to see the goblin jump into a nearby well and hastily decides to jump in after him to get his precious loot back. When it comes to retro game-like stories, this fits in the mold quite seamlessly. No unnecessary text or copious amounts of dialogue to skip through; just jump in the well after the enemy and go.
Beneath the well is a damp, dark labyrinth of sorts full of plenty of doors with one being unlocked and beckoning for you to enter. Inside this door is where you will begin your quest to find the goblin and ultimately your gold, but in between you and your final goal are relentless enemies and numerous traps. The stages are broken up into smaller areas with plenty of platforms and secrets to uncover. Every playthrough will be a bit different as the stages are set at random, but all seem very similar so many players may not even notice. Each area has a key and a door that said key will open so the bard can progress, but actually getting to the key will not be an easy task.
Grinding is key in Bard’s Gold, so get used to searching every nook and cranny of each area in search for treasure. Enemies killed, chests, and hidden secrets will reward the bard with gold that can be spent on power-ups at the numerous shops that are spread about. Purchasing a power-up at a shop will grant the bard much needed abilities such as faster speed and shields but those power-ups will be lost upon death. Any gold that the bard had at the time of death can be used to buy permanent power-up’s but cost a significant amount more. It becomes a balancing act and its up to the player to decide to buy a power up from the in game shop or wait until the game over screen. Grinding your way to death makes the game a smidgen easier if spending points on permanent power-up’s, but it’s the difficulty at the beginning of the game that may turn some players away.
The Bard controls extremely well, with precise controls and fluid movement which is key considering the amount of enemies you will encounter on particularly small platforms. Double jump is available from the start of the game, as well as his trusty dagger that frustratingly can’t be thrown very far at all, but the bard has an infinite number of them, so you can sling them to your hearts content. The areas are all laid out very well and double jumping to a higher level to unleash a swarm of daggers into an enemy felt rewarding. It never seemed as though the bard didn’t do exactly what I intended him to do and that’s extremely important in a game like this.
Just because the controls are on point doesn’t make Bard’s Gold an excellent platformer though. It’s the ample cheap traps and blind jumps that brought my enjoyment of the game to a screeching halt. It’s not that the traps are difficult to avoid, but the fact that the game’s semi-translucent HUD takes up the bottom third of the screen, making them nearly impossible to see. If your’re jumping down to get to a platform, there is a 50/50 chance you will either jump onto a trap or enemy and due to the fact we’re playing with one-hit-kill rules, you’re in for a disheartening experience. The bottom HUD is the one “modern” feature in the game, and it’s the biggest reason the game is as frustrating as it is.
Graphically speaking, Bard’s Gold is pleasing to the eye, especially if you’re a fan of games of the 16-bit era. Big, chunky pixels are accompanied by smooth backgrounds and make for a crisp visual experience. Enemies are creative but are limited to just a few different sprites, which can make the game feel repetitive considering the grinding required to accumulate gold.
The music in the game is forgettable and boring. When playing a retro game, especially a grind-fest, I like to have some catchy tunes to accompany my button mashing. I was excited to hear some new tunes with each unlocked room but the music didn’t change at all and had me just turning the volume down and listening to my own music to get me motivated to get my gold back.
Chuck this game on top of the pile of the several forgettable retro games that seem to get released weekly. There just isn’t enough ambition in Bard’s Gold to have me come back to it. With the difficulty cranked up to 11 from the start of the game and an overall grind-heavy experience, Bard’s Gold just had me wishing I was playing my Super Nintendo.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: Xbox One (Reviewed), PS4, PSVita, PC ; Publisher: Pixel Lantern ; Developer: Pixel Lantern; Players: 1 ; Released: June 6, 2016 ; ESRB: E for Everyone; MSRP: $4.99
Full Disclosure: This review is based on a review copy provided to us by the publisher.