The third, and what would ultimately turn out to be the final game in the series, ended the epic journey begun in the first with an post-apocalyptic finish. This was what it all came down to – a duel against a Mad God with the fate of the world at stake. A fate that can only be stolen back by a clever Thief.
Take everything from the first two games – the graphics, gameplay, and animated monster portraits – stack more stuff on top, you’ll get the Bard’s Tale III. As soon as I started up the game and everything loaded from that floppy disk, the screen and the onboard speakers came alive with a huge intro screen accompanied by…music! It was awed. This is a game that went all out to roll the red carpet down those dungeon steps for the big finish.
Taking my character disk from The Bard’s Tale II, I took my party out for a final spin. I watched as the boil covered body of Brilhasti ap Tarj in the introductory dungeon mocked me in the monster portrait screen. Or as a dragon stared me down right before flattening my Paladin with its breath. All that while spreading monster encounters and riddles liberally across multiple worlds with different environments whether it was high fantasy amidst a frozen waste or deep within the bowels of an underground dungeon cloaked in darkness.
The gameplay was exactly the same as it was in the first two games only with a lot more added in like two new mage classes, the Chronomancer and the Geomancer. The Chronomancer was absolutely necessary for getting around the game because of how the dungeons were spread out. Each dungeon took place in a different world that could only be reached by jumping over using a Chronomancer’s magic. The downside is that when a mage becomes a Chronomancer, they also give up all of the spells they learn previously to focus their abilities into that class.
The world hopping also served as a form of copy protection. The game came with a code wheel and when you tried to travel to another world, you’d need to use it. The album sleeve that the game came in also folded out revealing different riddles describing each world to add more flavor to atmosphere of the game as well as provide clues on what to expect.
The story was also much larger and featured a number of text clues that led players along a chain of worlds within which were the weapons and tools needed to eventually confront Tarjan, the Mad God, who had returned to Skara Brae to cast the city into ruin on the day celebrating Mangar’s demise. Fortunately, there was plenty to fight through to boost up your chosen party of adventurers to prepare them for the final battle. And there were no Death Snares.
Just the idea of traveling to other worlds and chasing down potential allies and weapons to fight Tarjan pulled me into an incredible dungeon crawl that spanned the multiverse, or at least it felt that way. Interplay also pulled out the stops with some of the craziest foes to grace a CRPG like this one. Playing off of the whole multi-dimensional thing and making it so that players felt as I did that they were being bounced everywhere and anywhere, the monsters were also as varied.
You could be fighting traditional dragons in one world, and then lay into Nazis with heavy spellpower and swords in another that embraced war in all of its forms throughout history. Another took place in a frozen world with deadly beasts living it up in the cold, while a trip to Kinestia brought me face to face with machines intent on using my party as spares.
The game also featured, for the first time in the series and as one of the genre’s earliest examples of its use, an automap feature which was a huge help. Saving anywhere was also added in so players wouldn’t have to travel all the way back to a safe area to do so. It was almost needed considering how vast the dungeons were in this game. And since Skara Brae is in ruins, a number of places that were taken for granted in the last game are gone such as Roscoe’s Energy Emporium which recharged mage’s spell points.
The Review Bard was also still around to advance characters with enough experience, though most of them are dead leaving only one old man to judge applicants worthy. The whole post-apocalyptic feel was delivered in the first few minutes of gameplay which could be a shock to longtime veterans, but added immensely to the game’s feel as a high-stakes adventure.
Thieves were also made the stars of the game, though the Bard continued to be an integral part of the party with his repertoire of song. Thieves felt a lot more useful, especially when they could hide in shadows and advance in range to strike enemies hiding in the last row of a group of enemies. Though the game aimed at you using the Thief as the key component in your final battle with Tarjan, I found that you didn’t have to finish things off that way if you didn’t want to by grinding through the final battle with raw firepower.
The hard part were getting past all of those one-hit kill mobs…hundreds of them…but by the time my party reached there in subsequent playthroughs, I head enough armor and luck on my side to avoid all of their blows and grind them down with good old fashioned magic and melee. My thief could take a breather.
A wash of grey, textured stone plastered the backdrop of this ad along with screenshots that boasted the improvements made to the engine. A small dose of text starting things off with a grim opening to the quest to follow and a shot of the cover for the album sleeve that everything came in laughed at players with the visage of Tarjan over the ruins of Skara Brae. The heroes of the past were there, looking on in grim sadness.
Ending the quest brought a well-deserved close to the “trilogy” as my party graduated into godhood, earning their stars in the night sky and “retiring” from adventure. Like in the previous games, it didn’t talk your ear off with too much detail but left enough to keep its story alive and deliver a fine finish that only served to make me regret having finished it.
It was over…until the next time I wanted to play through it again.