Tales of the Unknown: The Bard's Tale
for PC (DOS)

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Company: Interplay / Electronic Arts
Year: 1987
Genre: RPG
Theme: Sword & Sorcery
Language: English
Licence: Commercial
Views: 33356
Review by NetDanzr (2006-07-04)

Tales of the Unknown: The Bard's Tale, as this game was originally called, is one of the most important games in the history of computer gaming. In addition to bringing role-playing to the masses with its flashy graphics, simplified character development and relatively good story, never before and never again did a game development team include so many great talents. In fact, this game has launched the careers of several biggest names in the gaming industry, including Lawrence Holland, Joe Ybarra and Brian Fargo.

About Skara Brae

Skara Brae, one of the most famous RPG towns, featured both in Bard's Tale and the Ultima series, is a real town. It's original name, Skerrabra, which mutated into Skara Brae sometimes in the 1950s, means “Cormorant Mounds” in the Orkorand dialest (language spoken on the Orkney Islands north of the British Isles).

Skara Brae is a neolitic village 4000 years old, which was perfectly preserved under a layer of sand until 1850, when a storm has exposed it. Archeological digs started at the site in 1927. The town consists of several interconnected dwellings, and looks more like the Skara Brae in Ultima IV than the bustling town in Bard's Tale.

Bard's Tale I brings you into the town of Skara Brae. The city is under the rule of an evil wizard, called Mangar, who sealed the town by a spell of eternal winter. The city itself is quite unsafe; at night it is overrun by monsters, and the only safe place is inside in the adventure inn. Your party is given the task to defeat the evil wizard and free the city.

The game is being played in a first person perspective, with the screen being divided in a similar fashion as in Wizardry: the bottom half lists your characters and their condition, the right side of the top half lists the available commands and the top left part shows your view. Unlike Wizardry, however, the game offers better graphics, a much larger area to explore and an overal feel of realism that has been missing in the single dungeon of Wizardry.

In the graphical front, the game features several groundbreaking improvements. The most visible improvement is that monsters are animated, for the first time in a role-playing computer game. While they still appear in front of you instead of watching them approach, their animation sparked the imagination of players at the time the game was released. The other important feature was the real-time approach, where day and night changed, each being important to the story. This change of day and night was picked up only years later by Might and Magic II.

There were other original aspects of the game, which later became almost a norm. One of these aspects was the possibility to create multiple characters and change your party composition in the adventurers' inn. In addition, the game featured a world where you could interact with plenty of objects in search of clues, such as statues, inscriptions at walls and more. Finally, the game was perfectly balanced. Its design did not allow you to enter certain areas when you were too weak, yet even powerful enough characters have found these areas challenging.

The dungeon design was probably the weakest spot of the game. The dungeon engine was built on a 16x16 square map, which, just like in Wizardry, allowed you to go from one edge to the other in one continuous move. Combined with the multitude of teleporter traps you'd encounter and large dark areas, mapping these dungeons was a little too frustrating. In addition, the game featured one of the steepest learning curves known to RPGs. The basic premise was that you could afford losing characters at lower levels, as you could always create and train new ones. However, this premise went into extremes: before you reached level 4, which made traveling through the city relatively safe, you went through a dozen characters or so, as a single skeleton could kill a Level 1 character.

Overall, however, Bard's Tale I is one of the true gems of computer role-playing. It his highly addictive even today, thanks to the delicate balance, good story and surprisingly good graphics.

About the authors
Michael Cranford. By the time Mr. Cranford designed Bard's Tale, he was already a veteran of the gaming industry. His first assignment was to port Donkey Kong to Apple II in 1993, which was followed by two C64 games, Maze Master and Super Zaxxon. Actually, Maze Master, his first original game, bears a strong resemblance with Bard's Tale. After designing the first two Bard's Tale games, he left EA for Broderbund, where he designed Centauri Alliance. This game is closely based on Bard's Tale, but he was lacking the license to publish another BT game. His last game was the underrated Darkseed for Amiga, after which he left for designing Web sites.

Brian Fargo. Credited with level design, Mr. Fargo is a well-known game in the game industry. He was first credited at Borrowed Time in 1985. He collaborated on Bard's Tale I and II, later on Wasteland, after which he left Electronic Arts for Interplay. At Interplay, he produced a multitude of titles, including Castles, Battle Chess, Stonekeep, Blood and Magic and more. He often credits himself for discovering small developers, such as Blizzard BioWare, Grey Matter and more. He left Interplay as a CEO in January 2002, after a disagreement about styles of management between him and the new owner of Interplay, Titus Entertainment. Upon leaving, Interplay has sued him for soliciting talent for his own company.

Lawrence Holland. One of the best known names in gaming industry, Mr. Holland was credited with music in this game. While many think Bard's Tale I was the first game he participated on, the truth is that he has been porting games (such as Super Zaxxon) long before. In fact, by the time Bard's Tale came into production, he already released his first original game: Project: Space Station (1984), and was credited on a few more, such as P.H.M. Pegasus and Strike Fleet. In 1987 he left Electronic Arts for Lucas Games, where he designed several flight simulators, such as Secret Weapons of Luftwaffe. In early nineties, he left Lucas Games and created his own company, Totally Games, which is famous for its X-Wing series and most recently, the highly acclaimed Star Trek: Bridge Commander.

Joe Ybarra. Probably nobody in the gaming industry has held so many high-position jobs as the producer of Bard's Tale, Mr. Ybarra. He started out as a product manager at Apple Computer, only to leave for Electronic Arts, where he produced M.U.L.E., Dr. J and Larry Bird Go One on One and the first two Bard's Tale games. In 1988, he was named the President of Infocom, where he lasted two years. In 1990, he created his own company, Ybarra Productions. This relatively short-lived project released only one notable game, Alien Legacy (1993, published by Sierra). Later, he was hired by Microprose to lead its Austin Studio, only to be later hired by Ensemble Studios, where he produced the expansion for Age of Empires II.

William “Bing” Gordon. Mr. Gordon, credited with package design, is one of the eleven founding members of Electronic Arts. From the beginning he was responsible for marketing. While he is credited on a large number of games, he is more a manager than a participant in game design. Since March 1998, Mr. Gordon is the Executive Vice President and Chief Creative Officer at Electronic Arts.

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