Review: Bard’s Gold Is Frustratingly Mundane
Bard's Gold ventures into a niche of brutally difficult 90s platforming, but can it find a place amongst the great games of the era, or will it fall into the unrendered abyss below?
- Worth The Time?No
- Things LovedExcellent pixel art style and soundtrack which channels the era the game was going for. Responsive controls. Innovative persistent trait system across playthroughs.
- Things HatedIntentionally obtrusive design starts the game off on a bad note. The game is too simple for its own good, which shows in the level design - which often uses cheap hits instead of constructive design to introduce difficulty, to frustrating effect.
- RecommendationIf you're really set on playing a 90s-style platformer, Bard's Gold may be of some interest to you. Otherwise, it's neither worth your time nor your money, as it feels more like a slog than a pleasure to play through.
- Name: Bard's Gold
- Genre: Generic Cynicism
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: No
- Platforms: PC (Steam)
- Developer: Pixel Lantern
- Publisher: Pixel Lantern
- Price: $7.99
- Reviewed On: PC
The tough as nails side-scroller is not a new concept. In fact, much of the genre’s re-emergence in the modern indie scene is down to nostalgia, bringing back a style of game last prevalent when Nintendo was the world’s premier console manufacturer, and the PlayStation was still a grey block. Bard’s Gold is another of these games, and despite being well-made, is just that — another in a long line of side-scrollers.
You, as a Bard, are on a quest to retrieve the gold that was stolen from you by a particularly cheeky goblin; the gold in question is the Bard’s Gold, which holds an evil spirit or some such loose inspiration to urge you into the game narratively. It’s not exactly a narrative masterclass, but it does the job of setting up an adventure through a fantasy world.
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Bard’s Gold is not an especially complex game: only six buttons are mapped for use in the game — four movement arrows, a jump key and an attack key. Despite its simplicity, the game is bitingly difficult — partially due to the fact that one hit will kill the player, and somewhat due to attack patterns, which I’ll discuss in a moment. There are some bits that add an ounce of complexity to the game — power-ups can be bought from an in-game store which uses gems you pick up as you’re playing, and once you die, you can use leftover gems to upgrade your character permanently. The latter expansion is actually quite a nice mechanic, as it encourages repeat attempts for progression.
One of the core features mentioned in the game’s description is its “Old-school platforming experience”; this means that the game does not greet the player with any tutorials or helpful prompts. Everything from basic mechanics to enemy movements is up to the player to figure out.
What this means is that even the options menus are scant on informations about button mappings and the like. I’m not a fan of this type of design, though I understand that it is endemic to the 90s games that Bard’s Gold is emulating. However, it’s especially frustrating to try and battle with a stupid, limiting system, specifically in how it restricts how useful the menus are to someone picking the game up for the first time.
And it’s not the only place the game’s design seems unintuitive or needlessly frustrating. The attack patterns I mentioned are what caused the majority of my deaths, but it’s the design around them that really frustrated me. For example, occasionally, a knife will be thrown at you from off-screen, which you’ll have to dodge; however, a knife spawned while I was trapped in an area I couldn’t possibly escape from before I was hit — it was too confined to jump to dodge, and too long to run out of before the knife hit.
This wasn’t just once or twice, either, this was every couple of levels — which means that this is intentional design. In situations like these I couldn’t help feel that the need to make what they perceived as a difficult retro game, the developers missed out on making a game that was both fun and challenging.
With situations like the one described above, the game feels like it’s introducing artificial difficulty to make up for shallow mechanics — because it is: knives are easy to dodge if you have the space to, but putting players in a situation the can’t possibly escape unless they have the correct power-up isn’t going to solve that issue, it’s just going to frustrate the very players you want to stick around in your game.
It’s a shame, since everything else about the game is so perfectly designed. The pixelated graphics are really nicely animated, and the environments and levels are varied enough to keep them interesting. The sound is also fantastic, and the game has a charming-if-slightly-irritating soundtrack which accompanies the game throughout.
It’s just the frustratingly built level design as a result of the shallow mechanics which takes away from what is otherwise a really solid indie game. It’s by no means a bad game, but I certainly wouldn’t actively go looking for it over the mountain of other indie games populating Steam, especially when so many of them are just better than anything that Bard’s Gold has to offer.