The Ballad Singer – Steam Early Access Review

Factfile
Developed by: Curtel Games
Published by: Curtel Games
Released: 2018
Format played: PC – Steam

Ruminations

Funded via a successful Kickstarter campaign, The Ballad Singer touts itself as an RPG / Visual Novel where player choice shapes your experience. As the Developers put it;

“We’ve taken elements from game-books and visual novels to develop a videogame with an unprecedented format. TBS offers a fantasy story yet to be written, where the world changes and reacts to the player’s actions. This will allow you to live up to 1700 stories and 40 different endings, your decisions will affect the way the tale unfolds. Every single development and subplot in your story will be completely narrated and illustrated, even the smallest ones. Death is final, you won’t be able to go back to try and correct your mistakes. In TBS, every choice is crucial.”

Developer Curtel Games is an Italian development studio with The Ballad Singer representing their first release. It is currently available on Steam in early access form with a mobile, cross-platform compatible version intended to follow.

Gameplay

So just what is an ‘RPG / Visual Novel’ anyway? To be honest, as soon as I saw the initials ‘RPG’ my anxiety hackles were raised, fearful of a need to spend hours learning complicated button layouts, deploying team members or even, heaven forfend, having to make unalterable decisions about character creation. Luckily then what I found, whilst heavily decision driven, was an altogether more accessible experience.

To start your adventure you choose from one of four characters, each with their own backstory and particular journey to follow. Their tales run independent of each other whilst at the same time intertwining at key moments. Indeed I started my first adventure as green skinned Sylph, Ancoran, only to find part way through that my narrative had shifted to elemental wizard, Leon.

Whichever character you choose, the game plays out in the same fashion. I say ‘game’ but it is a description that doesn’t quite capture the experience. Each scene is detailed by an on-screen novel and accompanying narration with the key part of the scene described also represented in graphical form. Based on the text, you as the player / reader then have a choice to make to determine where the story goes next. Sometimes these choices are binary; effectively you can choose to go left or to go right. At other times, these choices are more complex, opening themselves out into puzzles. For example at one stage in my journey as Leon I encounter a dragon that needs to be bested. Presented with various options I can choose to try and subdue the beast with various pieces of magic. At least one choice will take me forward however at least one will lead to instant death. In another example, Ancoran is presented with the difficult choice of whether to stay loyal to her Rebellion brothers or to seek the glory of personal vengeance. There is no right or wrong answer here, the choice is very much personal to you and will affect how the story unfolds from that point on.

Older readers may remember the Fighting Fantasy series of books, penned by Steve Jackson and industry legend Ian Livingstone and The Ballad Singer very much reminds me of those. Like in the books, you guide your character through the story, making decisions along the way that affect how it will end. And like with the books, some decisions, if taken incorrectly, can result in your grisly demise. Other decisions are more open ended, one choice perhaps offering a more favourable outcome but otherwise as valid as any other choice. Death is rarely the end though, the completion of one character arc allowing you to jump straight into the narrative arms of the next.

The interface is beautifully clean and stylised for the fantasy setting. The onscreen novel is presented as a suitably weighty tome and can be shunted out of the way to provide a clear view of the still images depicting the action. It is worth doing so too as the artwork is tremendous, if somewhat reliant on genre tropes. Each scene is backed by a satisfying score and narrated by a professional sounding cast but I found that I could read much quicker than the narrator could speak and so quickly switched this off, my adventure played out largely in silence. Whilst most scenes unfold at a a leisurely pace, there are occasional interludes for a key event, such as the scene with the dragon or perhaps encountering a Necromancer. In such scenes, the music swells and the picture zooms in dramatically to emphasise that this is an important moment within the narrative, one that may help to shape how your character evolves or bring their journey to a swift end.

There are several options as to how to play that will suit a variety of preferences. The hardcore will want to jump in with the most extreme settings. Under these rules, death spells the immediate end of that particular adventurer’s journey with no option to restart, the story switching to one of the other available characters yet to breathe their last. Other options are more forgiving, providing an allowance for deaths with a number of ‘lives’ and providing the opportunity for more frequent saves.

To ensure I could see a good portion of the adventure I opted for the easiest setting, which allowed my 14 lives and a save anywhere approach. And it was a good job too as I came a cropper in the very first scene, my decision to wield my sword, rather than pre-emptively strike with knives, leaving me as a feast for a pack of ravenous wolves. My luck would not readily turn as I similarly cooked myself raw in the dragon’s cave after choosing the wrong spell, died an agonising death after misunderstanding the Necromancer’s puzzle and somehow ended up in bed with a grizzled, battle hardy veteran. Whoops.

What’s The Story?

The Ballad Singer is a simple game to jump straight in to. The difficulty settings allow you to play to your own level of ability, helping to remove some of the frustration of early deaths until you become more attuned to the vagaries of the storytelling. This is simply a story with decisions that you make at your own pace, the game never applying a time pressure within which to answer. Like a book, you can make time to enjoy it at your leisure and with your own sense of immersion.

As a huge fan of the ‘decide your own adventure’ novels as a kid, the basic concept of The Ballad Singer really appeals to me. In fact the Sorcery! series by Steve Jackson has also made it’s way onto Steam and is currently sitting on my wishlist, although I suspect that the mechanics of that game, with its focus on skill points, health and inventory as much as narrative choices, makes it a more complex affair. The key though with any such narrative driven game is that the story itself, and the characters that inhabit the world, must be compelling enough to draw you in, and it is here where I have my doubts. The character bios of the central characters tick all the usual cliches; warrior, wizard, ranger and elf. The plot and storytelling is overly earnest, some of the verbiage striving too hard.

To a degree it is to be expected within the fantasy setting and certainly The Ballad Singer is no more guilty of a reliance on genre cliches than any number of other titles but the fact remains that a story driven adventure is only as appealing as the story it is trying to tell and, to that end, it left me a little cold. I often found myself skipping great sections of the overly wordy text just to get to the next bit whilst at other times the story felt crude, lacking the gravitas that it seems to reach for. Added to which there are dark overtones to some elements of the story. Playing as the assassin Ancalimo, I am presented with a series of quite repugnant choices, from infanticide to assault. The interweaving narrative design hints at a story that has ambitions to rival A Song of Ice & Fire et al, it’s more adult content reflecting the post GoT world. Rather than coming across as gritty though, it feels distasteful and tonally at odds with other parts of the narrative. For an experience based around narrative, the story often feels like the weakest part of the package.

The Early Access version allowed me to play through as Ancoran and Leon to complete the prologue before choosing any of the four characters to finish the first chapter. The developers cite a circa 10 hour playthrough time for the full game so there is certainly plenty of material to sink your teeth into. With the various narrative strands available, Curtel Games claim there are 1700 stories and 40 different endings, although how significant some of these variations are remain to be seen. I often found that my decisions were either right or wrong, lacking any subtlety or grey area, the wrong option simply resulting in death whilst events would often unfold on the pages of the lengthy narrative, the story moving forward without need for my input.

Early Access Thoughts

Moulding decision-based novels into an interactive game form, The Ballad Singer is well animated with an impressive musical score and competent voice work. Simple to pick up and play, it offers game-influencing narrative choice and scope for replaying to see alternate plot strands or character journeys. And with options to tweak the experience to your personal preference, this can either be a relaxed take on the interactive story genre or a single-death pressure fest.

As a visual novel though, The Ballad Singer must ultimately be judged on the quality of its story content and whilst never less the competent, the cliched characters, verbose writing style and questionable narrative decisions hold this back from being a genuine page turner.

A solid concept, let down by the very story it seeks to tell.

5/10

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