Steam Review: A Bastard’s Tale, or, The Importance of Being Punished
If brevity is the soul of wit, A Bastard’s Tale is four levels of Mark Twainian deconstructive social satire. Barriers to conquering its directive one-on-one combat challenges include your patience and sanity, driven to their limits by a half-hour long game that can become endless through trial and frustration. Most of all, success requires only experience with A Bastard’s Tale. It is the least constructive or enjoyable kind of difficulty, one that is fully isolated in the brackets of its own tiny existence and scarce inspiration. I’m going to explain why this game works for almost no one, but that’s neither unique or noteworthy on Steam’s oversaturated Indie library. The catalyst behind this article on this game particularly isn’t that A Bastard’s Tale is bad, but that irrationally and unforgivably I kind of like it.
The first thing you’ll notice about A Bastard’s Tale is how slowly you move. Despite its pixel-art graphics, the game goes for total realism in the simulation of crossing an empty field in six layers of sheet metal and burlap. The game is also 2D so the slow movement means that you’ll spend a lot of A Bastard’s Tale holding the right arrow key and doing nothing else.
Gameplay consists of six buttons that relate to your sword: three different swings and three different blocks. The game’s trailer brings special attention to the fact that there are no upgrades and no progressive tactics. This is its idea of “hardcore.”
But let me describe the difference between games that are hardcore, and those that are merely themed to be so.
Dark Souls is a game that asks a lot of its player. But anyone who’s played it knows that it asks even more of itself. Even though it punishes the player’s ignorance and impatience, it also rewards the right mindset, and values the progression of the player’s skill with the right balance of risk and reward. Example: you don’t have to take on that horrifying bug thing, but there’s bound to be treasure waiting for you if you do.
This essentializes the idea of hardcore, which rewards a different player mindset than a casual game. Dark Souls doesn’t value your ability to “just have fun” or your refusal to learn new things or to try harder. It values rarities: an adventurous spirit, a willingness to be defeated, an openness to new challenges. That’s what makes it hardcore.
A Bastard’s Tale would like very much to be the Dark Souls experience reduced to its finest point, like if one is a symphony the other is a grace note. It wants to be hardcore undiluted by stories and long campaigns, a single moment of gratifying control, defeat, and success. But it’s not.
It’s actually better now that it’s been patched. The boss of level 2 in the original design was so obtuse with his swings that player alienation was the only possible result, even for those who conquered him. You have to predict an enemy’s swing pattern (most have three) and block accordingly. The level 2 boss feinted, meaning he might tease one attack and use another. It’s hard to describe if you haven’t played it, but it became a guessing game, the finger and keyboard equivalent of getting tongue-tied. You’d use one block, second guess yourself, and use another, often right the first time and just as often not right the second. I felt almost embarrassed when I inevitably failed again, like I’d said something terribly racist at an important luncheon and said something terribly sexist trying to apologize. A Bastard’s Tale thrives on bad feelings, like it gives you a chance to recover but already knows it’s going to show you the door when you’re through embarrassing everybody.
But after they nerfed that guy I had no real trouble making it to the end of A Bastard’s Tale. There are variations on New Game + but I’m content. Why would I subject myself to all four chapters even once? The answer is a matter of personal preference, but basically it’s that I like to overcome punishment.
My favorite games stack against me, some insurmountably, and the pleasure I get from playing a game is often in outsmarting a developer or overcoming an impossibility. I like beating the old arcade games that no one expected you to beat. I like the hardest difficulty on Doom. I like Ghosts n’ Goblins and I’ve beaten every game in that series. I’ve beaten Contra three times in a row without using a continue.
I like these games because I like drinking lightning and daring it to kill me (at least in video games I do). I like conquering an adventure and saving virtual worlds. I’m not masochistic – I don’t like being defeated. But I like being respected by a developer to figure stuff out. I like being rewarded for having a working human mind (rather than a rat’s mind, which is what the over-directive mazes of so much of the mainstream expect me to have). I don’t like being helped.
A Bastard’s Tale isn’t a good game, but it’s a bad game in a frame of mind that I like. If Mad Max: Fury Road was your favorite movie, you still might get a laugh out of Fast & Furious, right? The conceptualization of this game is shallow and restrictive. Its core concept – observation and prediction-based combat – is undermined by the game’s inability to create balances. You have to discover a difficult enemy’s exploit, not predict and outmatch him. You have to spam-lock before you become spam-locked. These are life lessons in A Bastard’s Tale. I, and probably not you, was ready to receive them. I didn’t like it.
But I still had the power to have an opinion – if AAA had a hold on it, it would have tutorialized me right out of the equation. For three hours’ worth of a dollar’s worth of gameplay, that was enough.