I have a love/hate relationship with ‘rogue’ games. Developers sometimes make them stupidly difficult just so you can only progress a few minutes at a time, whereas others are very generous with their implementation of the mechanics. Over the last year, I’ve played games such as The Persistence, Dead Cells, Devious Dungeon, and Genesis Alpha One, all with their strengths and weaknesses. Today I’m taking a look at a fairly old game which recently came to the Nintendo Switch, Bard’s Gold.
Bard’s Gold is one of those games where I didn’t like it at first, as I was getting nowhere and the game seemed too brutal for its own good – then I started to get better as I played it every night in between watching TV and playing other games on my PS4. As such, I actually completed the game yesterday by conquering all four worlds and retrieving the Bard’s Gold!
Let’s take a look at why fans of the genre should grab this hidden gem today…
The story within Bard’s Gold is very short – whilst out adventuring, our protagonist has his saddle stolen by a goblin. This saddle isn’t merely a device to stop his butt from hurting on his horse, it also contains the Bard’s Gold, a treasure which has been in his family for generations. Without thinking twice, you jump into the well in order to retrieve it from this little thief, only to fall into a portal which sends you into an unknown land. You must now work your way through four distinct worlds as you face numerous creatures and four giant bosses in your adventure to reclaim that which was stolen.
Now, a lot of that story isn’t present within the game itself, you have a short animation of our guy jumping into the well in order to pursue the thief, but the rest of the exposition was obtained via the website and storefronts. My first wish would have been for more of this exposition to be within the game. I don’t mind ‘rogue’ games and I like being able to get into the action asap, but telling the story within the game would have given me a reason for venturing forward and a secondary goal, other than simply ‘kill anything that moves’.
However, only part of the enjoyment of a game comes from its story and narrative, the main reason you play a game like this is for its gameplay, so how does that hold up?
The premise of the game is simple, each stage has a key and a locked door. All you need to do is find the key, open the door and progress through six stages and then take down a boss in the seventh stage so that you may move onto the new area.
I absolutely love Bard’s Gold as it’s a simple pixel-art roguelite, yet it controls perfectly and offers a lot of satisfying platform and combat segments. You essentially have two commands within the game, jump and attack – that’s it. However, these have been mapped onto various buttons so that you can easily manoeuvre without failing to pull off a reflex-inspired jump or attack. For example, the jump isn’t only a face button, it’s also one of the shoulder buttons, as is the attack command. This is essential as the game is full of moments where you have to think fast and move even faster!
The game is a bastard though, there are spikes hidden in the floor which shoot up if you step on them, spikes fall from the ceiling if you’re not looking, there are pressure plates that send a projectile hurling at you from one of the sides, ghosts will hide with only their eyes showing, creatures will turn and charge you if they see you, etc… Literally, everything is out to kill you within Bard’s Gold and although the concept stays the same throughout the stages, the visuals and enemy designs alternate.
With a little help?
You won’t get far in Bard’s Gold if you decide to take on the creatures without any enhancements or upgrades – that’s the whole point of a roguelike/lite game. From simple items like magical glasses which lets you see hidden treasure points within the real world, to having the ability to throw three knives at a time, all the enhancements you’ll need can be bought from a friendly seller. Obviously, each enhancement costs gems, these are obtained by slaughtering creatures within the level and also finding hidden stashes by throwing your knife into certain areas (which is where the glasses come in handy).
As well as offensive options like upgrading your damage, new weapon types, and the aforementioned three-knives, you can also get things such as one-hit barriers, a shield which keeps all your bought items upon death, and the ability to buy more time if you wish to explore more. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that – each stage has a set time and if you take too long, it will begin to rain fire from above!
Once you’ve gathered enough gems, there is a certain weapon set you can combine which practically makes you a God – I figured this out when I was on stage three and I can now play through the game from stage one all the way to the end of the game with no issues! However, that’s down to you to discover as I wouldn’t want to make it too easy for you!
One of the main tropes of being roguelike/lite is the ability to get better with each run so that you can learn from your mistakes and take something you’ve unlocked/obtained into the next run with you in order to make it easier. Genesis Alpha One lets you take in a few obtained items, Dead Cells lets you upgrade certain aspects, The Persistence allows you to upgrade your base stats, and Devious Dungeon let you buy new weapons. Bard’s Gold lets you invest whatever gold you have left upon death/completion of the game into unlocking new upgrades (as long as you’ve discovered their books). This means you’ll need to be reserved with your gold if you wish to make your next run easier.
This mechanic is interesting as it has me constantly weighing up if I should spend my money on more lives or not bother and just keep it for a better permanent upgrade. Thankfully, some of the upgrades you can get will result in the ability to obtain more gems per run and increasing the drop-rate of the enemies upon being slaughtered. Other such upgrades are an increase in knife-throwing distance, starting off with an extra life, begin with magical glasses, and unlocking new items for sale from the demon salesman.
Some of these upgrades are essential, such as the extra lives and increase your power and throwing distances, but the prices can get quite steep. You’ll exit a game, via death, with around 500-1000 gems if you’ve been saving them up – some of the later upgrades cost 5000 or more per ‘stage’ (as some of them have various stages you can unlock – for example, you can get multiple extra lives, one at a time).
So, the game can get a little monotonous and repetitive, especially when you take a look at an unusual game mode omission the developers made…
There are three ways to play Bard’s Gold – Normal, Retro and Rogue-Like
Normal and Retro are very similar. These consist of you working your way through the four worlds with either four or two hearts (depending on the mode) plus however many you have unlocked in the upgrades. You’ll also start with all of the unlocked upgrades and have the ability to warp to any of the four areas you have previously reached. The main difference between these two is the randomisation of the levels. Basically, if you play on normal then you’ll have the most health and the levels will be almost identical on each run. The traps are in the same place, the same enemies, the same secret locations etc… On Retro, the game does randomise a few things here and there but you have less health within this trade-off.
The ‘Rogue-Like’ mode takes it one step further. You start with two hearts, none of the upgrades you bought are used here as you’ll find them throughout the playthrough, randomisation is at its highest level, and you can’t warp to any level – this is a true roguelike in that once you’re dead, it’s game over. The annoying thing is, whilst playing this mode, any gold you have stashed in your pants upon death is basically lost with you – you can’t re-invest it into upgrades like you can in the other modes.
What I feel the game is missing, and something I hope the developers do if they make a sequel, is a customised experience. Give us the option to not only pick our play style but also manually increase the random factor or the number of hearts we start with. I would have loved to play the standard game but with it on full randomisation mode. Although, I’ve just unlocked the devil’s contract – that basically gives you a thousand gold and it randomises all the traps within the stages. This is essentially what I wish we could have done from the start – not via finding a book and mining for gold to unlock it for over 10 hours.
I’ve been playing Bard’s Gold in handheld mode for about 90% of my time with it over the last few weeks. It’s been my go-to game whilst waiting for food to cook, adverts on the TV, installing a game on my PS4 etc.. Each run initially lasted me around 5-10 minutes, until I got better at the game, so it was perfect for short bursts. On the small screen, the game looks great! Although, when putting it into docked mode, the game still looks very presentable and not too blocky or hard to see. I’ve recently downloaded the game on my PS4 via PSNow as well, both versions look identical although this one is labelled as the ‘Switch edition’, yet I’m not sure if there is actually any differences.
Sound wise, Bard’s Gold has very upbeat and appropriate music. It’s not chiptune, which is a nice change for a pixel-art game, but it’s themed around the area you’re currently in. For example, the desert stages give of an Egyptian-vibe. One of the key sounds you’ll be listening out for though is the clicking of a trap. They are hard to see on the smaller screen, as they are simply raised platforms, but once you hear a ‘click’, get ready to jump over whatever has been thrown at you!
Although it’s not as big as other roguelike/lite games, Bard’s Gold is lots of fun and challenging. The game looks great, with its pixel-based retro-inspired visuals, and it controls just as well as the bigger budget titles out there with it’s pixel-perfect precision and fast-paced action. Bard’s Gold is an addictive title – I’ve picked it up and played it four times whilst writing this review – it calls out for ‘one more try’ every time you die as it dangles the possible upgrades in front of you and promises you’ll do better next time.
If you’re a fan of the ‘roguelike/lite’ genre and are looking for something new to try out which isn’t too brutal yet also offers a decent challenge, Bard’s Gold is on literally every system out there now. Also, if you own a PS Vita, but not a Switch, the game is Cross-buy with the PS4 and PS Vita – so you can get the Switch experience via the PlayStation family of devices as well.
Bard's Gold - Nintendo Switch Edition£7.99
- - Every death makes you stronger with various upgrades you can invest into
- - Very well animated and designed pixel-art design
- - Music which fits the theme of the area you're in
- - Very addictive as it makes you want to give it 'just one more go'
- - Great for new people to the genre as well as those who want a challenging game that isn't too brutal
- - Three modes but no custom mode where you can mix and match your settings
- - Can be a bit too easy once you've unlocked certain upgrades
- - No story or exposition in-game
- - Would have loved a few new areas as this is branded as the 'Switch version', yet I can't see any differences