Bard’s Gold is a rogue-like-platformer hybrid with some neat ideas, but one that unfortunately misses the mark by quite a wide margin. The idea of a two-dimensional platformer with combat mechanics, a medieval aesthetic, and crafty secrets would seem like a perfect concoction, but sadly it only leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
The aim of the game is for our hero Bard (or is “bard” merely his profession? this is slightly unclear) to recover his stolen bag of gold, snatched by an evil goblin. In order to do so he must make his way through various worlds and levels of predictably increasing complexity and difficulty. A timer runs down in the top right-hand corner of the screen (presumably indicating how much time it will take the goblin thief to get beyond catching), adding further pressure to the levels.
The aim of each level is to obtain a key that opens a door to the next section, but there are also lots of optional extras that can be discovered. Enemies attack you, from bats to goo to skeletons and flying books. One creature is portentously named the Worm of Doom. Killing these enemies yields gems which can be spent in a store, the door to which is often hidden somewhere in the level. The stores house unique items which can help you on your journey. This is where the rogue-like elements start to creep in: there are abilities that transform your attack, turning one thrown dagger into three that spread out like a trident. There is extra life, speedy boots, a shield which allows you to retain any items on your person if you die, and the all-important Magic Glasses which reveal secrets (they appear as little sparkles on the screen). Shoot these sparkles in levels to find hidden gems and sometimes even secret doorways to optional arenas, such as Flamey’s Treasure Hoard or the Tower of Patience. The developers have made a big deal out of the fact that “there are no tutorials, you have to work it all out for yourself”, but unlike games like Kingdom, in which the mystery of the mechanics is profound and enticing, a flame to which moths cleave, Bard’s Gold’s secrets are less enigmatic: gems covered with tarpaulin.
Whilst its design and setup is intriguing in theory, Bard’s Gold is immensely boring in practice. This is partly because of the terrifically dull art style which offers nothing new in the pixel-art aesthetic (rather, it simply looks low quality). Some of the boss enemy designs are derivative to the point of infringement. The music is perhaps some of the worst written in video-game history: there’s only around 40 seconds of original content before it loops, the chord progression is a-tonal and morbid, and it never changes between levels. You have to listen to that 40 seconds for the whole game. After an hour I had to turn the soundtrack off in the Options menu and put on something else.
The combination of projectile combat in the vein of The Binding of Isaac and platforming does not work. The enemies have far too much health, meaning you end up spending minutes jumping and shooting, chipping away at their health to kill them from a distance before awkwardly leaping onto the platform. The developers describe the game as a slow-platformer, which sounds intriguing, but really the game has no pace at all. In Normal and Retro mode (there are three gameplay modes) all enemies can kill you in 1 hit. You then have to start the whole level again minus any items or bonuses you’ve picked up, although any enemies you killed will remain dead, and if you picked up the level-key, will still have it in your inventory.
You start the game with four lives, which is not nearly enough to get through a world, although when you lose your last life and “die” truly, you can spend remaining gems into upgrading “skills” to give you an advantage (such as additional lives or additional time). Fundamentally, the length of the game is artificially extended by its difficulty, but the difficulty is not satisfying, such as in Dark Souls, but rather manufactured, which creates frustration. What should take you two hours takes you eight because the game is weighed against you and forces you to die and upgrade to get farther in the future. Though there are small elements of procedural generation to mix up the levels, they remain essentially the same each time, so you quickly become tired of the familiar set ups.
Rogue-like mode is a little better in terms of gameplay. In Rogue-like mode, instead of the “lives” system you have a kind of health bar (which is simply a number, determining how many hits you can take). There are no checkpoints between levels in this mode, which makes it more like a traditional rogue-like, and there is no “death upgrade” mechanic. Sadly, this robs the Rogue-like playthrough of any point other than challenging yourself, and considering the game is not that enjoyable to play in the first place, I can’t see why anyone would want to explore this.
By far the best element of this game on a personal level was the Tower of Patience secret, and the reason it stood out was because it took on the elements of a traditional platformer whilst throwing into the mix subversive tricks (such as platforms which are off-screen – you have to work out where they are) and other creative challenges. This was the only point in the game in which I actually became invested in completing something. I had to conquer the tower for the sake of achievement, to best the cruel developers. If they had just focused on developing more content like the Tower of Patience, Bard’s Gold might have had something in it, especially for diehard platformer fans. As it stands, there is little to motivate you to complete it.
I hate to be discouraging to any developer, new or old: these are people who work very hard for our joy. But, undeniably, Bard’s Gold is a misfire. We all misjudge creative endeavors sometimes. Even a master of his craft like Stephen King confesses to one or two duff novels. There are elements of Bard’s Gold which are worth hanging on to for future projects – the interest in secrets (such an important aspect of gameplay, and in need of revival too), the willingness to challenge players. The rest can be put to one side in the “trial and error” pile.