Nowadays, retro style games that are tough as nails are a dime a dozen on the indie game marketplace. Let’s face it, the graphics don’t have to be overly complicated, they don’t require expensive budgets and most developers in their 30s and 40s grew up playing these types of games. It takes something special to make a retro style game stand out among the crowd. To me, Bard’s Gold by developer Pixel Lantern, stands out. Despite growing up in the N.E.S. heyday, I tend to get quickly frustrated with games that try and recapture the 8-bit magic; in my opinion they are too punishingly difficult for their own good. Bard’s Gold strikes a nice balance of challenge and leniency that kept me coming back, death after death. Whenever Bard met his demise, it was always my fault…I was rushing, I didn’t peek before traversing down or I simply dropped my guard. With a great currency and upgrade system, all those deaths were never completely in vain.
The tale of Bard’s Gold is quite simple, an evil goblin stole Bard’s money and he won’t stop until he gets every last gem back. Bard must make his way through dozens of levels filled with dangerous enemies and traps. On top of all that there is a countdown timer for each level, if you go too slow it will expire and fireballs will begin to fall from the sky. I forgot to mention that every time you get hit by an enemy, it’s instant death. The combination of needing to be careful but quick, meant many…many deaths for this reviewer. Every enemy killed will drop gems in addition to treasure chest scattered across the levels. These gems can be used in the item shop or saved until game over. When you finally meet your permanent demise, you can in the gems you have collected towards permanent upgrades. Whether it be increased health, range or other attributes, I always felt motivated to retry because it wasn’t all for naught.
A typical level has plentiful enemies and hidden secrets, which are usually more gems, equipment or map fragments. Bard’s Gold is a platformer at it’s core, meaning lots of precise jumping in all directions. Each stage is not very big and the goal is usually the same, collect a key placed somewhere in the level, unlock a door, and move to the next level. It sounds easy, but doing this while avoiding hazards and enemies that kill you in one hit is very difficult. To help you along your way there are item shops placed every few levels, which unfortunately are handled poorly. Inside the shop there are many helpful items: extra hearts, a shield bubble even better weapons and power upgrades for them. How could this have been screwed up? The fact that all these fancy items will only last you for a single life. This means I can buy a nice new weapon and magic glasses, stumble into a trap and lose it all in seconds. Because the items never lasted long I never felt compelled to shop, opting to use my money for permanent upgrades after death. I would have really preferred these items to last the entirety of my character’s lifespan. Sure it would have made things easier, but they could be priced appropriately to keep me from becoming overpowered. Nevertheless, I tended to shop at the store as I got closer to the boss, so it was not completely useless.
Bard’s arsenal consists of projectile weapons such as knives or throwing axes. He can double jump which makes it easy to reach distant platforms along with ascending and descending. Overall the controls are mostly tight and felt great, I prefer to use the directional pad rather than the analog stick for movement because I always find it to be more precise in these types of games. Some of the enemies you face are bats, flying books, and blobs of various colors and movement types. Some will charge you when you attack while others bounce up and down as they move. The flying books in particular are very annoying since they blend in so well with the level background, I often didn’t see them until it was too late. In addition to these, spikes can fall from the ceiling or arrows fire horizontally across the screen. A handy enemy life bar lets you know how close to death your foes are, an inclusion I was grateful for.
Graphically the game holds true to the retro pixel style, albeit much prettier than in the old days. I liked the chiptune music as well, but it did get repetitive. I wasn’t kept waiting very long with loading times in Bard’s Gold, adding to the overall solid presentation. As far as replay value goes it really depends on your skill level with challenging games. I’ve put in a handful of hours and am still not over 25% complete with the game. The game offers “rogue-lite” level design, meaning the full level layout will rarely look exactly the same for each play through. After completing the game on normal difficulty there are two harder difficulties, further increasing the replay value. With a regular price tag of $4.99, fans of action platformers will definitely get their money’s worth.
I keep coming back to the thought that Bard’s Gold keeps me coming back. I play a lot of games and retro inspired ones can be the most frustrating; more often than not I just give up and move on to something else. Bard’s Gold is different from those, I’m rewarded for my efforts in success and failure…every death is a learning experience. When it comes to graphical style, controls and replay value, Bard’s Gold gets incredibly high remarks. I would have preferred the shop items to last until a game over, especially on normal difficulty. For $4.99 (or less if you find a sale), you are getting a solid platformer game that holds true to its retro inspiration.