Bale – Chapter 1 is a pulp-influenced game released in 2018 by A. McMahon, a.k.a guo / vvight (Apophenia). It is an update of Bale, originally released in 2016.
The game opens in grayscale with the protagonist Helot pulling a sword from a stone and the earth beginning to shake. The title screen appears, the game transitions to color graphics, and Helot is resurrected from the dead by four scholars who need the eldritch sword only Helot can wield in order to ward off a cosmic threat named Jaducora from the Phasmic Realm who has trapped the scholars in the tunnels beneath their Athenaeum. In this area, the scholars have books of lore that provide useful information to the new player. Most of the scholars aren’t too talkative, but one fills Helot in on the details of his resurrection, gives him a Scry item (used as a bestiary as well as for communication with the scholars), and sends him on his way into the tunnels after a tome the scholars need. The bestiary doesn’t seem to work though, and Scrying just seems to greet the player. It would be handy if Scrying reminded the player of their current objective.
Objects in the tunnels can be pushed as well as pulled in order to clear a path. Helot can find several pieces of armor and a few scrolls from which he can learn spells. There are glowing orbs of Anima and Pneuma scattered around, which heal HP or MP. In the dungeons below, Helot meets one of the scholars’ familiars named Lint – a talking slug-like being who has survived by being inedible to the zombie-like Ghuls who have infested the Athenaeum. Lint has limited MP, but has some useful low-cost spells and can expend a combat round to recharge 1 MP (he can also squeeze between the bars and collect the book the elders need).
There are portcullises that need to be opened on the surface and ghuls to fight along the way. Outside ghuls roam the plateaus, and boulder traps damage Helot as he passes near cliffs. Caves contain enemies who inflict a poison status. A scholar named Zobel is packing up to flee her study in a cave atop a mesa, but Helot and Lint can use a mechanism in her study to open up passages in the caverns below. I thought I was stuck in the low-lying area near the cave containing Jaducora’s backside, but I figured out how to make the Anima orbs respawn by restoring my game and was able to heal up enough to take down the tentacled butt of the demonic worm. Vacating Jaducora from the tunnel opens up a loop back to the starting area, as well as a surface hub that leads north and west (the northern exit didn’t work for me). Heading west I discovered a location that triggered a memory for Helot (memory = black & white cutscene), but Helot still can’t recall a lot of important details.
Heroes don’t level up by grinding for XP in battle; rather stat bonuses are purchased using a special currency scattered around the game’s maps. Bale also forgoes random encounters altogether; instead battle is triggered when Helot makes contact with an enemy sprite running around the game world (sometimes in a pattern or within a zone, sometimes chasing the heroes). This became a problem because the hero can cover a lot of ground quickly without fighting, but ultimately a group of enemies will converge leading to a series of HP- and MP- depleting battles that do not help the heroes to heal or grow stronger. This arrangement also makes it a bit tough to know when Helot is ready to progress to a new area – I kept running into a formation (Sabrewulp + Wulps) that decimated my party, but there was no way I could think of to grind besides retracing my steps through the early game and hoping to find some overlooked Mons Anima lying around.
I got stuck at this western area and gave up, so I’m not sure how much longer the game continues. I played at a leisurely pace and my last save was at 1 hour 51 minutes; however I did spend some extra time trying to progress through the wilderness (without much success).
The graphics and score are adequate, and the ambient sound effects are eerie. None of the tunes stuck in my head, but the music was all competent and never obnoxious or intrusive. Creatures look appropriately weird and gross (I dig the enemy sprites and cutscenes in particular). Dungeon design was likewise very good. The premise itself is intriguing, but I didn't get far enough into the plot to become too invested in the hero.
Bale started out very strong and remains focused through the opening stages. Once Jaducora was vanquished however, it became too open-ended and unbalanced for me to make further progress. I’ll be glad to try it again if it gets another update; I want to see this one finished.
...spake The Lord Thy God.