Developer/Publisher: Pixel Lantern Games
# of Players: 1
ESRB Rating: N/A
Score: A- (95%)
In this not so new age of retro-gaming you’ll find plenty of developers claiming to have made the “hardest game ever” or something else that gets the eyebrow raised among those who crave that sort of challenge. “Hard” is in fact a relative term. Gamers with skill and a lot more patience can easily detect hit boxes, decipher enemy patterns and more or less make speed run mincemeat of some of these games within the space of a few hours or days. Bard’s Gold, created in Gamemaker by Erdem and Jennifer Sem, doesn’t care if and when you figure that stuff out, though. The game is designed to bump off your little pixel adventurer as often as possible as it teaches you all of its old school tricks.
The game is indeed quite difficult, but not at all unbeatable once you’ve put some time into it. In fact, the game greatly rewards players for figuring out early how to make the best of whatever it throws their way. Death comes quickly and often at first. And second, third and fiftieth plus. But as you discover how things work and the game becomes less frustrating and more challenging, its true beauty shines forth as an exercise in solid game design.
There’s no tutorial or pop-up hint system here – the game just starts right on the title screen after that nasty little goblin swipes your sack of gold and hops down a well. You’re a bard, it’s your gold and you need to get it. Oh, you’ll get it all right… from everything in the levels out to get YOU. In other words, it’s going to take a hell of a lot of platforming, puzzle solving and bumping off of critters great and small before that goblin is tracked down. The game is made up of a few worlds made up of different rooms, each with a door that needs to be unlocked with the key you’ll find on each stage. It’s a seemingly easy enough goal, but getting there is the fun (and hard) part. This isn’t a blazing fast Mega Man, Sonic, or Castle Metroid*-like game at all. The deceptively languid pace disguises the difficulty until you see that a single hit from an enemy or weapon can kill the poor Bard. Fortunately, (at least in Normal mode) the game isn’t 100% faithful to the rogue-like genre, as this would mean a total restart from that title screen.
One thing you may not discover until you accidentally discover it (or poke around online) is the game is packed with many hidden secrets in the form of invisible platforms, gems, extra maps and more. The key to finding these secrets is playing the game with headphones or some really good speakers. Not only do you get to listen to one of the best (and mellow as a snoozing cat) soundtracks in a game this year, you’ll also hear a telltale sound effect when you toss a knife at an invisible platform. While you can complete the game without discovering every secret, completion freaks will have a field day trying to nab everything and get through a map unscathed.
While you can play the game using the keyboard, a compatible gamepad is the best way to fully enjoy the experience. The jumping here is pinpoint and some of the best I’ve ever played. This lessens the annoyance factor considerably because when your little bard buys it, it’s usually via something you didn’t see coming. Many deaths will come from projectiles that zing your way from one side of the screen you didn’t expect, objects that zip your way mid-jump, and all sorts of crafty enemies that will get you by many means on that first run. There’s also a timer in play that actually doesn’t kill you if it runs out. Nope, you just get fireballs slowly raining down from the sky if the clock hits zero, which is bad news if you’re in a hurry to get to that exit door and there are still enemies scooting about. The game says it’s a “2D Retro slow-paced platformer with light RPG elements” and for the most part that’s true. That timer fools you into rushing things until you realize that the game is still playable (but more than a bit tougher) should you pace yourself too slowly.
The light RPG elements come from upgrades and items you can buy in the shops you’ll come across. When you lose all your lives, the game forces you to spend as many gems as possible in the shop, as they don’t carry over into the next play through. You do get to keep whatever you buy, though. You’ll definitely want to get your throwing knives maxed out as most bosses aren’t as fearsome as they seem against powered-up throwing daggers. Well, “fearsome” is a harsh word to use here as the game packs in some quite lovely pixel art and animation that look like more than the work of two people. The Sems clearly have not only the talent to make a great 2D game, but it’s their first professional venture into the field and is noteworthy for looking as if were made twenty or more years ago yet being about as good as it gets for platform game fans of all ages. The main concessions to modern standards are the use of dynamic lighting and normal mapped pixels, but the game’s excellent tile sets, animation, simple controls and overall design of its levels all make for a fine thing to show off to like-minded friends.
For the truly hardcore, there’s a “Retro” mode that slaps you with a single life and has you trying to survive stronger monsters. Good Luck with that if you hate getting bounced back to the beginning of a game. I actually didn’t know or read anything about this mode until I made it to the third map and got laid low by a projectile I leaped into by accident when jumping over an enemy I was trying to avoid. I ended up putting the game aside until I had more time and patience to try the more painfully nostalgic mode again. That said, I did get a grin going because the Sems stayed true to what they wanted to create despite a few players griping that the game isn’t very helpful in spelling everything out for them.
So, yes. You need a copy of Bard’s Gold, period. My only real complaint? There’s no Bard’s Gold on any console at this point. The game is screaming for a PSN, Xbox Live and eShop port and its super low system requirements mean it’s probably an easy enough port for some studio experienced in such things to tackle. Someone get the Sems on the horn and throw money at them or whatever it takes. They’re a talent to watch and hope they keep at this game making thing for as long as they’re able. Okay, enough stalling from me – off to attempt Retro mode again. I may need a new controller, though. This one’s about worn out from completing the game once on Normal.