My opinion on Bard’s Gold changed significantly during my time with it. At first its brutal, no love lost approach to the player left me cold, eventually though I understood the gameplay loop and came to appreciate the finer details that Bard’s Gold gets right.
Bard’s Gold is a rogue like game, the premise is straightforward enough, you have a limited number of lives to clear dungeons and upon each game over you can upgrade your character and start the dungeon again, rinse and repeat. It’s a tried and tested formula, but one thatBard’s Gold tweaks in small ways, with some tweaks working and others that don’t.
The player has a limited arsenal with which to tackle the dungeons, you can double jump (remember that point) and you can throw daggers at enemies to kill them. It’s straightforward and mostly works in the game’s favour. Daggers fire out in a straight line a short distance in front of the player, the problem is the way enemies are lined up in levels. Often you’ll find enemies floating in front of you just above or below the line of fire requiring pain in the ass jumping to line up shots. It’s a minor annoyance but it comes up often enough that it’s worth noting.
The platforming in the game is surprisingly robust, you’ll need to jump between platforms of varying sizes and will sometimes need to follow up with another jump or change in direction and the game is able to keep up with you. I never died once from what I felt were loose platforming controls.
Each level has an end door and a key to open said door. The challenge is locating the key and then making your way to the door. Between you and the next room there are usually several enemies and obstacles such as spikes, as you progress these obstacles get more challenging as you’d expect. The enemy variation picks up and provides new challenges to keep you on your toes – from slime balls that move back and forth to winged mechs that hover above you firing down pellets of pain. This makes up the bulk of your play time, find the key, get to the door, rinse and repeat. After several doors you’ll be taken to the boss of the area, once you beat the boss, you unlock a new upgrade tree and a new set of levels to beat.
There are three modes to play the game: Normal, Retro and Roguelike. Normal and Retro play very similarly in that you have a set number of lives, each time you die you lose a life and return to the start of the level. Roguelike ditches the lives and instead gives you a health bar, instead of dying when you get hit by an enemy you simply take damage and carry on. Lose all your health and it’s game over. There are subtle differences in loot and difficulty for each of the modes and its down to you to find which one suits your play style best.
Bard’s Gold definitely doesn’t care for easing the player in and helping them along, sometimes this feels good, I don’t care much for modern games practically guiding you through the game. Other times though it’s just poor design, I’m a firm believer that players shouldn’t need their hand held through the game but the game really should teach you how to play. Some of it is easy enough to pick up (such as how to upgrade your stats), some things, however, are not – like what the hell the magic glasses actually do are just deliberately obscure! Case in point, and this is a touch embarrassing, I had no idea you could double jump in the game, the control scheme simply labels the button as jump. I couldn’t even get out of the first room simply because the game didn’t teach me how to play at first, that’s not a huge problem right there and is mostly me being an idiot but it’s simple things like this that can give a bad first impression. Difficulty through design is always better than difficulty through obscurity.
Moving past that though the game is still brutal in many ways, early on many of the times you die will feel cheap – like a deadly book appearing from a bookcase that you thought was just background decoration or a set of spikes falling from the ceiling. These can be frustrating at first but eventually it all clicks; these cheap deaths, you learn which spikes fall, which books come out to kill you for not reading more as a kid. This is the core gameplay loop that this game well and truly thrives on.
The best comparison I can make is that Bard’s Gold takes a lot from the Dark Souls series due to the fact that the game encourages you to take your time in levels, yes there are cheap deaths at first but it is all about the learning experience. When you hit the game over screen, you’re able to upgrade your character but the real benefit you gain is the knowledge from the previous run. All the rooms you encounter are pre-made and the contents don’t change, as such you’re able to learn the locations of enemies, the key and the door and optimal paths through each level. This is important as it makes those cheap deaths mean something – yes this blow dart caught me off guard this time, but next time I get to this room I can expect it and plan accordingly!
All of this is probably just as well because the upgrade tree, I feel, is lacklustre. Initially you can only choose from one upgrade, to unlock more you need to beat bosses. As such the options to upgrade in ways that you feel would help you perform better are extremely limited at the start. It’s only once you progress in the game that options open up and you can work towards what you want to upgrade. On the upside, these upgrades are easy enough to obtain and never feel like they’re too much of a grind to get.
Whilst going through the various rooms there are hidden secrets, usually just invisible gems that when attacked will drop for you. Sometimes though there are entire rooms hidden away that hide a good amount of treasure. The game never feels like it hinges on you finding these secrets as all the ones I have come across so far simply offer more gems to buy items in the shop or upgrades when you die.
Overall, Bard’s Gold clearly takes a lot of inspiration from older games in the way it likes to approach gameplay elements and its lack of hand holding. Some design elements are implemented in incredibly clever ways that aren’t always apparent at first though there are still some minor issues present. All in all Bard’s Gold is a different take on the rogue-like formula and, in my opinion, is worth your time and money!