There are those of us who play the Souls series and those of us who don’t willingly choose to torture ourselves. I am a member of the former group. All kidding aside, the Souls games have inspired a new way to create games. Many games have been created in response to this franchise and you will probably see even more titles done in the same style pop up since Dark Souls III is supposedly the last game in the franchise. The upcoming Nioh by Koei Tecmo is a good example of a copycat Souls game. But what’s sad about the Souls games is that they are really only recognized for their difficulty. There’s much more to the games than that, but the difficulty and repetitive nature of the enemies is usually the focal point of most discussions on the franchise. The same can be said about how developers choose to emulate the Souls experience.
A Bastard’s Tale by Pest Productions, which I have reason to believe is a one man development team, is the super low budget indie recreation of Demon’s Souls. It is a game based on the concept of unlimited deaths and progress through trial and error. If you took Demon’s Souls and stripped it down to the bare minimum of the combat mechanics and made it 2D, you would have this game. Even the playable knight on the game’s main menu looks very similar to the one on the cover of Demon’s Souls. Sadly though, this game, like many other Souls emulations, focuses too much on difficulty at the sacrifice of fun.
Visually, A Bastard’s Tale is low budget, but not that bad for what it chooses to be. All the art is 2D and quite pixelated on the edges, but it is in no way lacking in detail. As soon as you see the main menu, you are made aware that Pest Productions has talent when it comes to graphics, but limited resources. It’s the little things that really express this. The number of folds in the armor plating. The fact that trees in the backgrounds have countless individual leaves. The cows eating grass in the background. I found all these small details very impressive even while I was aware that the overall game is nowhere near the current development standard as far as appearance.
The game takes place in a series of 2D levels with partially moving, but not really changing backgrounds. There are certain key visual aspects that give the appearance of movement such as birds flying in the wind and buildings changing between a number of pre-set objects with each death. The gameplay area consists of a straight path that you can walk left or right on. The backgrounds change the setting of the level, but the paths are always straight. While the entire game is set in a medieval world, there are separate stages. There are only five levels, each with its own setting. The first level is a village, the second is farmland, and so on. Enemies look semi-related to their settings. You and most human enemies can’t turn around. When you walk left, you walk backwards. Your sword is always raised and after you attack you return to the default position of holding your sword with both hands, resting it on your left shoulder.
The game runs pretty smoothly. The move set is simple and the graphics aren’t too taxing on whatever platform you are playing it on so you don’t have to worry about any lag, except with your own performance speed. The HUD is very simple. It’s just a sword in the top left corner filled with green to indicate how much life you have left. If you are carrying a potion, that appears as a red bottle under the sword. Only armored enemies have a life bar floating above their heads. Otherwise it’s one hit kills. This is even true for the bulls which sometimes have to be killed. The only true problem with the graphics is that the left side of the screen cuts off slightly. It doesn’t affect the gameplay at all but you notice it in the save select menu and on the controls screen. The text used in the game is a very traditional block text with pixel edges. It’s usually white, but can be pink, gray, or red depending on certain things like which text you’re hovering over in the menu. Overall, it’s a simple looking game, but visuals aren’t really where it falls short as a game.
The gameplay is easy to understand, but extremely difficult to execute well, much less master. The controls can’t be changed, nor do they need to be. You can walk left and right with the left stick. Levels have a beginning and an end, but you can walk forward and back within those edges as much as you want. You can roll backward by pressing X and back on the joy stick, but you can’t roll forward. You can attack left, up, or right with square, triangle, circle in that order. You can block in those same three directions with the same buttons plus R2. Moves cannot be chained, as in you can’t press the button(s) for a move while another move is already being executed. You can hold down the button for an attack and it will keep doing that attack though. Attacks are slow. You are swinging a big sword. Though, in all honesty your sword has a very short reach in comparison to the weapons of most of the enemies. The first boss’ sword is almost double the length of yours. There are two gameplay modes, but it’s pretty much the same experience when it boils down to it. Story mode is a struggle through five stages with respawn at the beginning of every stage. Endless Fighter mode is the same struggle with no breaks in between and a removal of bosses.
The game plays like rock paper scissors. When an enemy attacks you from one of those three directions you have to read it and block in that same direction on time. When you get an opening, you have to seize the opportunity and attack one of their openings. Some enemies attack much faster than others, making reading the attack direction quite difficult at times. Finding an opening is hard and you often aren’t close enough to land the attack. This is the basic combat, but some enemies don’t work this way. There are some that you must hit with a high attack as they charge toward you such as mounted spearmen. These enemies can’t be blocked. You must get the kill by timing the attack right or they will run through you. They will circle around and attack you from the front again and again until they or you are dead. You can take a potion with L2, but they appear very rarely and have a long time delay to consume them. Meaning you need to back up and create some distance between you and the current enemy if you want to drink one during battle. You die in five hits regardless of the enemy, but potions give you a full heal. The level backgrounds change slightly, but enemy types and placement remains the same for each specific level. Every time you die, you start at the beginning of your current stage and the enemies all respawn in the same places. You can pause the game at any time.
The game tracks where you died by putting up little flags on the spot in the background. These don’t actually do anything other than mark a location. There are no items like money or souls to reclaim. When you get to the end of the level after defeating the boss, you move on to the next level after seeing a transition screen that tells you how many times you died in that one level. Each level is noticeably harder than the last one. Enemies get faster, more armor, and trickier to deal with. The game tracks your deaths with a counter that is tied to your save file. You can have up to 3 save files at once. In Endless Fighter mode, you get your life refilled at the beginning of each stage. This mode awards you a crest based on the number of enemies you can kill in one run. That’s really it for this game. It’s very straight forward. A few enemies are hard to figure out, but it really just comes down to learning the patterns, timing, and frustration. As we say in Dark Souls, you will die. It took me less than 10 tries to beat level one. I have yet to complete level two after several tries because the increase in difficulty from level one to level two is so vast.
Ultimately the gameplay in A Bastard’s Tale is not very interesting. It’s repetitive in the way a puzzle game is with a bit less consistency as far as enemy responses. Their behavior doesn’t change, but the direction of their attacks is at random. It’s an extremely challenging game that may take you quite a while to beat. But the experience isn’t really that enjoyable, in my personal opinion.
The sound is pretty solid in this game. Possibly the strongest aspect of the whole thing. For starters, it’s the only thing you have some level of control over. In the pause menu, but not in the main menu, you can control the volume levels of the music and sound effects separately. Both at max is your best option though. The effects are pretty good. There are sounds for walking, swinging your sword, clanging weapons, and dying. Enemy weapons don’t make a sound when they are swung without hitting something though. Enemies, including bulls, will make sounds like grunting in pain. The music is good quality. It’s very clear and each level has its own song. There isn’t a large library of different sounds and songs in this game, but what is there is done well.
There is no writing in A Bastard’s Tale except for it shows the name of each stage the first time you get there, the number of times you died in that stage at the end of it, and you get a special message when you get killed by a boss as if the boss was challenging you to try again. Other than that it’s just the menu text.
The replay value is artificial. There are 10 trophies, seven of which you get for completing the Story mode and new game plus mode. The other three are for killing ridiculous amounts of enemies in the Endless Fighter mode. These challenges will take you a long time if you really feel the need, but I feel like a single play through might be enough for this one. It is extremely difficult and will take you quite some time. But if you’re like me, you won’t enjoy that time because you’ll spend the bulk of it stuck at the same places over and over again. I have no doubt that you’ll get at least five total hours out of it unless you’re a prodigy, making the $5 price tag an acceptable, but inflated one. In a perfect run scenario you could probably beat the whole game in under 30 minutes. Certainly less than an hour.
All in all, A Bastard’s Tale rings hollow. It wants to be Dark Souls on a budget, but skimped out on all the things that make it a good game and put most of the chips into difficult combat. But with the lack of in level checkpoints, not nearly enough potions, and no RPG elements, it’s little more than playing those old super unbalanced NES games where you spent an eternity trying to master timing in order to get to an ending that will ultimately leave you unsatisfied. This game isn’t a hard pass, but it’s definitely not a soft buy either.
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