Review by Victar

Reviewed: 08/27/12

This old-school CRPG would be superlative if you could recover magic more easily, but the magic-regeneration problem may be limited to the PC version.

Like its predecessors Tales of the Unknown: The Bard's Tale and The Bard's Tale II: The Destiny Knight, The Bard's Tale III: Thief of Fate is a classic, old-school computer role-playing game. It's all about exploring and mapping gigantic, trap-filled mazes in first-person perspective, solving head-scratching riddles or puzzles, and battling endless hordes of enemies in turn-based, menu-driven combat. Although BT3 is the epic conclusion of the trilogy, playing the previous two games is not needed to enjoy or follow the story. BT3 can most easily be obtained as part of various Interplay RPG collections.

The Bard's Tale trilogy ("Tales of the Unknown: The Bard's Tale", "The Bard's Tale II: The Destiny Knight", and "The Bard's Tale III: Thief of Fate") should not be confused with a much later PC/PS2/Xbox action-RPG, simply called "The Bard's Tale" (no subtitles). "The Bard's Tale" action-RPG puts the player in control of a snarky, wisecracking bard, and has no connection whatsoever to the trilogy - nor does it have any similarities in gameplay.

Even though BT3 tones down the near-unsolvable puzzles of BT2, it has at least one weakness that is more frustrating than being forced to consult GameFAQs (at least on the PC version): there is no easy way to regenerate your magic-users' spell points for the first half of the game. Not without using some kind of cheat, anyway. Having your characters stand around and do nothing to slooooowly regenerate their magic can get extremely annoying.

Gameplay: 5/10

I want to rate the gameplay higher than "Playable, nothing special about it". I really, really do. But if anything, I'm probably being generous... and all because of one, fatal flaw.

Magic spells are extremely important in BT3. They are your primary way of healing, your only way of traveling dimensions, and one of the most effective ways to combat hordes of monsters (this is an old-school CRPG, so you might run into literally dozens of enemies in a single encounter). But when your spell points run out, there is no quick and unlimited way to refresh them. You do NOT get your magic back by spending the night at the Adventurer's Guild, and you can't pay gold at "Roscoe's Energy Emporium" to recharge like in the previous games.

So what can a down-and-out mage do? Well, spell points will regenerate in sunlight, in certain dungeon special squares, or from equipping a mage staff. But even with the stacking benefits of sunlight/mage staff/a certain Bard song, spell points still regenerate FAR TOO SLOWLY. You can park your characters somewhere and do something else on your computer while you wait... but waiting to fully recharge your mages can literally take up to an hour, or more! This is not what I call fun.

This might be a problem specific to the PC version. There are "Harmonic Gems" in the game that can be consumed to instantly refresh a spellcaster's power. These are EXTREMELY hard to find in the PC version during the first half of the game; I have heard rumors that they are more common in other versions, but cannot speak from personal experience. On the PC version, you'll have a very long slog until micromanaging your magic is no longer a tremendous headache.

So, how did I get through the game? I cheated. I stumbled across an in-game trick to duplicate items, and used it to create unlimited Harmonic Gems. Now I wish I could remember and explain how to do this cheat; all I recall is that it involved transferring items from one character to another.

The difference was phenomenal. With unlimited magic, the game went from being a frustrating, obnoxious grind to a fun yet challenging blast. If not for the magic-regeneration problem, BT3's gameplay score would be a worthy 9/10.

The modified 9/10 assessment assumes that you like old-school RPG gameplay, of course. BT3 is the only game of the trilogy to provide an automap, but it's a flawed automap that will leave you squinting at the screen - I strongly recommend drawing your own maps on graph paper (or printing out maps from online) to complement it. And you will need maps to navigate labyrinths worthy of the original Minotaur. There are also riddles and puzzles (most are verbal in nature) that will tease your brain, although they are not as soul-crushingly difficult as those of BT2.

And the combat... well, unlike the previous installments, BT3 won't have enemies attack you while you are standing still. But they will still hound you persistently, every several steps. An easy way around this is to play the Bard's Song "Sir Robin's Tune", which greatly eases running away, and may be essential to more impatient gamers.

You'll still have to grind levels to a degree. It can be especially painful in the beginning, if you choose to start with a weak party of newly created adventurers rather than import a more powerful team from BT2. After the starter dungeon, you should get a sizeable experience boost (unless you encounter a certain bug) and then grinding should not be a severe problem, unless you're running from almost every fight.

Although the option to summon monsters or even recruit a certain temporary NPC into your party is there, it's no longer required to progress like it was during certain parts of BT2. You can fill all seven character slots with heroes you create/transfer and do just fine. BT3 is also the first game of the series to let you play female adventurers.

The combat itself is quite involved, and can potentially require careful thought. Range matters a great deal; for example, sometimes enemies will stand far away and constantly summon monsters in your face. There is an immense variety of spells to carefully consider, and thieves are no longer useless (having one is required to beat the game), since they can hide in the shadows, sneak ahead to faraway enemies, and then unleash a murderous backstab. New spellcasting classes like Geomancer (ex-melee fighters turned mages - not exactly required, but very strongly recommended late in the game) and Chronomancer (required to travel dimensions) help keep things interesting.

BT3 does have a few minor convenient features, such as the new ability to save the game in dungeons as well as at the Adventurer's Guild (just don't save on a boss battle square after beating a boss, or you'll be hit with the boss battle again when you reload)! Recovering from a total party wipeout can be trying, and generally requires either a big pile of cash or an extra party member in the Adventurer's Guild who knows a resurrection spell. It will often be easier to just reload.

Graphics: 6/10

There's not a whole lot of improvement over the previous games in the series. You see first-person perspective mazes, and the occasional animated picture of some monster out to toast you. It's worth noting that there are a number of original, bizarre, and unusual monsters invented just for this game.

Sound/Music: N/A

BT3 has no voice acting and not much in the way of sound effects... its main sound is the Bard's music, which can get repetitive. I played BT2 on the Commodore 64 and can fondly remember its music, but I played BT3 on the PC, and lacked whatever sound card/system is needed. The only way I could listen to the music was on the PC's default speakers, and it was the most hideous screeching imaginable. I had to turn the game's sound off. Gamers with better sound systems might hopefully be able to enjoy the music the way it was intended, but I simply can't give a rating here.

Story: 8/10

As in many old-school CRPGs, your team of adventurers has no personal story other than what you imagination gives them.

With that caveat in mind, BT3 has by far the best story of the trilogy. The stories of the first two games were essentially, "There's a bad guy. Go get him." In BT3, the Mad God Tarjan, patron of the bad guys, has taken revenge. He reduced Skara Brae to ruins and threatens to overwhelm the land. But what of the other gods? Your saga takes you to each god's plane of existence, where you learn the horrible truth of what Tarjan's depredations have wrought, and try to fight back any way you can.

The story starts out dark, and only gets bleaker. Part of what makes the game engrossing is how hard your heroes, and other heroes, struggle to preserve the smallest shred of hope. When even the gods are in dire straits, your quest to save the world takes on new meaning.

While not on the superlative level of Dragon Wars (which was originally supposed to be Bard's Tale 4 - licensing issues forced Interplay to change the name), BT3's story is a satisfying reward for all your mapping and monster-fighting.

Bugs, Glitches, & Copy Protection

BT3 had old-school copy protection - a "code wheel" required to travel dimensions. Nowadays, it's not hard to go online and get the necessary codes to enjoy the game.

BT3 did have some notorious bugs. I stumbled across a beneficial one on the PC version, allowing me to duplicate items. A much worse bug can prevent a new party from getting the massive level boost for completing the starter dungeon if they have a summoned monster in their ranks when they turn the quest in. Another beneficial bug (that I heard of) involved summoning different monsters in the party and reporting the same quest completed over and over. I don't remember any bugs that made the game unplayable.

Summary:

Is BT3 worth your time to play?

On the PC, maybe not, unless you find a way to cheat and get your spell points back quickly. You may have more success with the Apple II, Commodore 64, or Amiga versions, if any of those have a higher Harmonic Gem drop rate. If you don't mind ignoring the game to do other things for possibly hours at a time while your magic naturally regenerates, then the spell point problem might not bother you at all.

If you can figure out a way to cope with the early game's abysmal magic regeneration, and you enjoy classic CRPGs with old-school mapping and puzzles, then BT3 is well worth it. Otherwise you're better off playing games where all you have to do is sleep at an inn.

Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Product Release: The Bard's Tale 3: The Thief of Fate (US, 12/31/90)

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