Developed by Pixel Lantern, a talented husband and wife duo based in Germany, it’s clear that Bard’s Gold is a labour of love. A well realised and unashamedly retro take on the Metroidvania genre, Pixel Lantern’s latest effort might not be the flashiest or most innovative entry in the genre, but it is certainly one of the most engaging available right now. Oh and the fact that it supports Cross-Buy on PS4 and PS Vita? Yeah, that doesn’t exactly hurt either.
No Instructions Included
The narrative which underpins the classic platforming action in Bard’s Gold is as non-existent as it gets. Essentially, it looks like some little goblin has stolen your treasure and hopped down a well with it, forcing you to give chase across the game’s quartet of worlds in order to get it back. I say “it looks like” because it’s never really explained just what the fudge is going on and the only thing you have to go on is a super-brief animation on the title screen.
It’s not just the story that isn’t properly explained either; this almost complete lack of exposition spills over into the game itself too. Case in point; throughout the game you can buy numerous upgrades and new equipment from shop vendors, using gems dropped from fallen enemies as currency to do so, but the problem is that outside of the obvious weapon upgrades, you have no clue what any of it does since there are no accompanying descriptors to go along with the various wares on offer. Now while the website confidently proclaims this is a good thing under the guise of making it feel much more like a retro experience, the actual result falls wide of the mark and incites frustration rather than encouraging a natural sense of discovery.
The Roguelike Legacy
Once you get over the lack of explanation for many of its aspects, Bard’s Gold is actually a far more satisfying take on the Metroidvania than the distinctly budgeted veneer might suggest. Able to be played in standard, retro, and roguelike modes (the latter ditching checkpoints and swapping out one-hit lives for a health bar tied to a single life), Bard’s Gold sets you off on a two-dimensional platforming odyssey across more than thirty stages spread across four differently themed worlds.
As rigidly as Bard’s Gold sticks to that classic Metroidvania formula, it can often be forgotten what that actually means in gameplay terms. As with any entry in the genre worth its salt, Bard’s Gold uses death as a means to teach the player lessons from its curriculum, with the first to being to properly gauge your surroundings. From murderous books that fly out of bookcases and pressure pads that fire death-dealing, wall-ignoring knives in your general direction, Bard’s Gold wastes no time in making the player pay for overzealousness, a lesson that it invariably teaches over and over again.
Adding a neat little wrinkle to the proceedings is the timer that accompanies your foray into each stage, which, when exhausted, triggers an increasingly intense cascade of fire the longer you spend faffing about in the level after the time limit has expired. By placing a time limit on each level, Bard’s Gold is afforded a sense of immediacy that other like-minded titles simply don’t have and it calls upon the aforementioned lesson of taking your time and analysing the traps and enemies around you frequently, with the ability to tilt the right stick to get a glimpse at the level ahead proving useful for avoiding blind jumps into potential danger.
Beyond the traps which are built to stymie your progress and stick your happy-go-lucky Bard six-feet under, a varied cast of different monsters must also be contended with, each having their own attack patterns, strengths, weaknesses and abilities that must in turn be countered. Unfortunately while the various beasties each encourage a different approach, they leave a lot to be desired cosmetically speaking with more than a few merely being palette swaps or just larger, more pixelated versions of their apparently weaker brethren.
Speaking of enemies, when it comes to combat side of things Bard’s Gold feels palpably slower than its other genre kin. Deliberate in execution, the much more sedate and slower pace that Bard’s Gold employs might put off those used to Rogue Legacy’s murderously swift platforming shenanigans and while it is jarringly different at first, the pace fortunately detracts little from the game’s overall focus on considered strategy, even if the act of disposing of enemies lacks the oomph seen in similar efforts elsewhere.
Despite having a bespoken Roguelike game mode, many elements of that genre bleed through into the core design DNA of Bard’s Gold and perhaps nowhere is this more prominent than in how the game allows the player to upgrade their character. In addition to the shops dotted around each of the four worlds, players can elect to save their gems and instead spend them on permanent upgrades (once the corresponding skill book has been found) after they die, such as extra health or better drop rates.
By having your character become a little bit stronger each time you play in this fashion, Bard’s Gold ticks that great big box for roguelikes that keeps the player engaged and while it isn’t quite as expansive or elegant as Rogue Legacy in this regard, it nonetheless succeeds in fostering that whole ‘one more go’ feeling that is synonymous with all the best entries in the genre.
It’s just as well that Bard’s Gold empowers the player in this way too, since the game is really quite challenging. From randomised level layouts to one-hit death enemies, traps, secret areas and screen-filling bosses, Bard’s Gold proves to be a substantial challenge for even the most battle-worn veterans of the Metroidvania genre. Despite the robustness of such challenge though, the game never feels unfair. Instead, the well-judged difficulty curve ensures that players pick up the basics easily and without undue punishment early on before mastering its intricacies after extended play.
If there is one significant knock to Bard’s Gold though, it’s that it simply isn’t long enough. Once the four worlds have been conquered there really isn’t anything to keep you playing which is s shame; because while it lasts, Bard’s Gold provides some top-tier Metroidvania beats that should satiate the appetites of even the most ravenous fans of the genre.
Amiga Is The New Retro
From the familiar-to-Amiga-fans Workbench style loading disc that occasionally pops in the bottom right hand corner of the screen to the lo-fi 16-bit aesthetic that permeates throughout, Bard’s Gold embraces a visual style that very much recalls the bygone era of Amiga home computer from the early 1990’s with aplomb.
Undeniably, there is a certain charm to that visual style but it’s difficult to deny that it just doesn’t look as polished when compared to the likes of Rogue Legacy; the animations and general art direction of the various character models lacking both the character and fluidity of the Cellar Door Games developed effort.
By veering so closely to the looming shadow cast by the superlative Rogue Legacy, Bard’s Gold invites comparisons that it can’t possibly survive. Look away from such comparisons though and it’s clear that developer Pixel Lantern has come through with an accomplished take on an established concept that should prove more than sufficient for fans looking for their next fix.