It’s easy to get swept up in hype that tends to accompany certain titles. No matter how low you keep your ear to the ground, there’s always a bigger train rattling the earth stronger and louder than those trying to hoof it from shop to shop on foot. Luckily, when the bigger titles ruin their hype with massive flaws on a larger scale and bigger budgets those little games that could are able to step up to the plate and give it their best swing.
I know. I’m mixing train metaphors and baseball metaphors. But sometimes two metaphors just complement each other perfectly, like peanut butter and jelly. Or peanut butter and just about anything. Peanut butter is awesome. Also awesome is Bard’s Gold, a good game that successfully combines two of my favorite games in their respective genres in a very entertaining way.
Bard’s Gold is a rogue-lite retro platformer with some unique ideas while at the same time maintaining the spirit of the classics that inspired it. You’re an adventurer going from level to level, world by world, killing one boss at a time. It’s a simple premise that never needs you to think of it past that. Your main priority is just staying alive and mastering the traps.
In my opinion, the two definitive games in the genre are Spelunky and Rogue Legacy. Spelunky was masterful in its traps meshed with its procedural design. In order to get far in Spelunky you had to be methodical and pace yourself with a unique sense of precision that is rarely seen in games like it. Rogue Legacy was a bit more “run-and-gun” but still gave players an incredible upgrading system that always felt like you were moving forward with your progress. Death was a means of inching toward the endgame but never felt disheartening.
So you’ll imagine my delight discovering that Bard’s Gold blends the two, with a dash of its own identity, to make something special. It’s also worth mentioning the added passion that developer Pixel Lantern proudly displays from its real-life husband and wife duo. It shows they really want to make something unique, while at the same time incorporating things they also love from the genre that make them great. It’s hard to argue with that.
Bard’s Gold features simple, time-tested mechanics that work just like you want them to. Your character never feels slippery or stiff and platforming is precise. Your only means of attack is to throw weapons like daggers, chakrams, and axes with the ability to upgrade them in shops you’ll find along the way. Experimenting with what works is important as it further enhances your chances of surviving. For me, I grew attached to the chakrams as they offered a wider spread and better damage than daggers.
There are a handful of great ways to improve your character with upgraded health, increased damage, increased weapon range, etc. It’s all stuff we’ve seen before but it’s still very satisfying when your well-earned improvements show real benefits in play. You can also purchase items that can help you along, such as the shields that prevent you from losing anything you when hit by an enemy. It’s an important item to carry as getting hit means you’re pushed back to the beginning of that level without any of the goodies you picked up.
The most important item seems to be the magical glasses that allow you to see hidden objects in the level – which I love doing. Little glimmers of light sparkle around each stage and you need to hit them to drop the gems hidden behind it. You can do this without the glasses as they typically show up in harder to reach spots, but they make it infinitely easier to find with the glasses. You’ll also find maps that lead to other secrets like bonus rooms, doors and hidden platforms.
Each time I found a new tier to those mysteries past the gems, I was excited to see them. I wish there were more options regarding the amount of purchasable items, but the amount currently available in the game is enough to give players a choice and freedom to experiment with what works.
The traps are very similar to Spelunky with that added timer looming above you; take too long and see what kind of mayhem ensues. You have enemies galore, falling spikes, spikes on floors, hidden spikes on floors, and so forth. But with all those traps, it always feels like you’re a true adventurer as you have to be slow and pace yourself enough to avoid all the obstacles that may obliterate you into a billion pixels (the animation for death is, and always will be, startling). Make sure to take the few extra seconds to ensure the rickety spikes above will fall in front of you by carefully inching your way forward underneath them.
There are some heavily suspect placements of the spikes that will trigger when you’re on top of them. There were a few times where I let out a massive groan upon suddenly dying, but these moments never felt unfair or malicious, leading me to realize my (frequent) death was entirely my own fault for not paying attention.
What I found most refreshing about Bard’s Gold is the learning curve. While death is always imminent, but I always feel like I’m learning. This might be a personal inability to learn process like some speedrunners or masters do, but often in other titles I found myself just doing the thing and never quite adapting; relying a lot on luck of the draw in terms of layouts or weapon. Here, I’ve found myself learning and adapting to what’s presented and it always felt good. There were chunks of the game where I struggled, but it took me taking a step back and looking at what they’ve set up and just taking my time with it. I felt like I was actually getting better. It’s a feeling I don’t feel often.
Bard’s Gold is a very humbling experience. It knows what it wants to be and nails it spot-on while also keeping its focused nature. Everything from the great pixel sprite artwork and nuanced mechanics are honed to near-perfection and show real care from its husband and wife development team. Those who count themselves fans of the genres it lovingly plucks from should really take a chance with this and, and considering it’s a game that’s under $10, it’s a chance that won’t break the bank. Factor in the ability to take it anywhere on the Switch and you’ll find yourself addicted to going run after run.