The Ballad Singer Impression
It’s nice to know, particularly with the repetitive nature of gamebook-style adventures, that there are entirely new paths to take, with significant variances in the story.
Following my first experiences with Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! series in the ’80s, followed by other entries from the Fighting Fantasy canon, role-playing gamebooks became a sort of minor obsession of mine for a while. There’s something about becoming an actual part of a well-written fantasy world, influencing it in myriad ways and challenging Lady Luck with each turn of the page that’s hard to replicate in a modern gaming experience, though many have tried to varying success. The Ballad Singer, by Curtel Games, is the latest attempt to present the familiar formula as a digital experience.
First things first: The Ballad Singer isn’t the most interactive of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure visual novels. While it asks gamers to role-play as each of the members of its four-character cast in turn, making decisions that affect the direction the story takes — sometimes greatly — and how battles unfold, the amount of player interactivity is relatively low, even when compared to other titles of the same subgenre. Rather than collecting artifacts, equipping gear, raising stats, and rolling dice to carry out feats of strength, all gameplay in The Ballad Singer relies on choosing from several available options when prompted to do so, leading to the next block of prescripted text, until either the story concludes or the character dies. There’s no requirement to skillfully balance health points and healing items, for example, or attain items or skills to open up optional paths later on down the road; instead, gameplay is a simple loop of click-read-click-read, hidden behind some admittedly arresting and stylish artwork. To give credit where it’s due, however, combat does at least follow some common sense rules. For example, during an early battle against a dragon, carefully selecting which elemental spells to cast and when can make it possible to not simply kill the creature, but subdue it without mortally wounding it, letting it become an ally later on.
Right from its title screen, the game presents players with its four main characters: Leon, the mage; Ancoran, the ranger; Ancalimo, the assassin; and Daragast, the titular bard. Only Leon and Ancoran are actually playable during the prologue when starting a new campaign, though any of the four can then be selected once the prologue has concluded. The four stories tie in with each other in certain ways — Leon, for example, seems to be the game’s chief antagonist, with Ancalimo one of his trusted men — and one character may briefly appear in another’s story. In broad strokes, the powerful mage Leon has embarked on a campaign to take over the land, causing a war to break out and a rebellion to rise against him. This seems to split the characters right down the middle, with two on each side of the conflict. Since the objective of the game is to complete their stories, with some yet-to-be-released game modes tasking players with playing all four back-to-back, it’s a little difficult to imagine how this will work out, what with them starting out on opposite sides. As the game is currently still in Early Access, these final modes are not yet available to play.
What I was able to experience gave me some general idea about the scope of the narrative, in particular that of Ancalimo, whom I spent most of my time with. Following the prologue sections, which I played through three separate times and which seemed to have very similar outcomes each time, I dove into the assassin’s story for an extended amount of time. The narrative quickly hit a fork in the road, one which significantly influenced the story from that point onward. While there are choices both large and small to make constantly, certain decisions, like this one, have irreversible consequences and lock the player into a certain path from that point forward. It’s nice to know, particularly with the repetitive nature of gamebook-style adventures, that there are entirely new paths to take, with significant variances in the story. Despite Ancalimo’s brutal profession, I chose to pursue a path toward love, attempting to pursue a more peaceful existence for the cold-hearted killer.
Even on this road to redemption, combat was still par for the course, both against vicious monsters as well as human enemies. After a potential combat situation has been presented and described to the player, players simply select from a list of up to four choices what to do next. In a battle with a giant water serpent I was given the choice whether to dodge the attack, shoot a crossbow bolt, throw a knife, or wait for the monster to strike before attacking it at close range. Sadly, there is no deeper level of role-playing going on here; for example, a situation where the crossbow bolts may have all been spent previously, or perhaps a better weapon been attained at an earlier moment. Instead, players will have the predetermined options to choose from, with one likely being the correct response while others perhaps leading to instant death. Death happens at a moment’s notice, but, depending on the selected difficulty, choices can be remade a set number of times before it’s Game Over permanently.
None of this is to imply that the story wasn’t entertaining, the situations not exciting in their own right. In fact, it’s clear the developers are quite skilled at telling an engrossing tale, and there is quite a bit of narrative in-between decision-making segments. All text, including choices, is also fully voiced, with the four main characters acting as narrators of their own stories, with other characters jumping in for individual lines of dialog. This is a great touch, even if the voice of Ancalimo himself wasn’t the most pleasant to listen to for extended periods of time. More than that, the narrative is accompanied by a large amount of detailed, gorgeous artwork. It’s possible to hide the UI to better appreciate the artwork fully, just as it’s simple to skip the voiced dialog — particularly when replaying a familiar section — and just move on with the game.
One of my few complaints, however, is that the world The Ballad Singer throws you into, with its plethora of characters and location names, and no useful map or historical framework to draw upon, is very difficult to make initial sense of. Events that happen in the early parts of the narrative in particular are hard to contextualize. Perhaps this is something that will be addressed with the game’s full release, which is planned for February 2019, or at the very least with repeat playthroughs. The Ballad Singer has a strong presentation and concept, though it is a bit light on gameplay, even by virtual-gamebook standards.