The Ballad Singer takes interactive fiction to the next level.
While there are many games that prioritize player choice and read much like adventure novels, few are as ambitious as this one. With full voice acting, original art, four playable characters and a dynamic soundtrack, The Ballad Singer — an illustrated RPG from Curtel Games — is truly a remarkable endeavor.
As you select which perspective to experience first, you view full-body character art of each of the four protagonists, along with an infographic panel akin to a character sheet. This information displays things like the characters’ combat skill, magical skill and alignment, giving you a sense of their traits and personality before you begin playing. Its presentation will likely be familiar to fans of tabletop RPGs, where character sheets are common and serve a similar purpose. From the start, each of the four playable characters are engaging and make archetypes and tropes work in their favor. There’s the shadowy assassin, the noble war hero, the mysterious-but-righteous sylph and the rebellious anti-hero.
The Ballad Singer’s prologue portion is a friendly enough introduction to the straightforward mechanics and familiar storyline. You are first introduced to the narrative through the perspectives of its youngest playable participants, Leon and Ancoran. Even the prologue, which takes only a few minutes to complete, has several different outcomes and decisions which impact the rest of the game in significant ways.
When it comes to player choice, The Ballad Singer knows what it’s about. Many games known for their emphasis on branching narratives are criticized for leading the player to the same conclusion regardless of their decisions (looking at games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Dragon Age 2). The same cannot be said of The Ballad Singer, as even seemingly insignificant choices can have widespread and unexpected outcomes. Its decision-making methods also pull no punches — it is surprisingly easy to die in-game. Despite this, The Ballad Singer is not unforgiving. Depending on your selected difficulty level, you have access to a certain number of ‘fate points’. Upon a character’s death, you have the option to either spend fate points to return to the fatal choice (and thus make a different decision instead) or continue on through the story in another character’s shoes. Higher difficulty levels afford you fewer fate points and lower ones afford you more.
In regard to the narrative itself, The Ballad Singer is good at drawing players in. The voice acting is wonderfully tailored to each of the characters, which aids in defining their personalities. The text is easy to read and navigate, which is especially useful if you’d rather read the words yourself instead of listening to them. The characters and creatures you encounter throughout the game are compelling and believable, adding to a rich experience — each of them fits into a vast political drama, one that is difficult to not be invested in. Additionally, the obstacles and dilemmas the characters face are often intimidating but never overwhelming, making your decisions feel even more important.
One of my favorite narrative mechanics in The Ballad Singer is the use of riddles. These take advantage of the game’s visual interface and voice acting, as you can hear the riddles delivered to you in a character’s own voice. They aren’t too difficult, but they do encourage critical thinking and get you involved in the specifics of the presented text.
Another strength of The Ballad Singer is its attention to detail — every piece of information provided in-game can be used to inform your decisions. The game rewards players who remember details the narrator provides, as they can provide lifesaving context later.
Unfortunately, one flaw in this game is the emotional content, which often feels forced. Most glaring are the romantic connections between characters. While I enjoy a good romantic subplot, The Ballad Singer’s romantic entanglements come off as superficial, based largely on physical attraction and not particularly concerned with personality or characterization.
All things considered, this is a game that is best enjoyed leisurely, taking the time to listen to the voice acting and appreciate the original art in each scene. The Ballad Singer is truly expansive in the experiences it offers to players and will delight any fan of interactive fiction or D&D. Newcomers to the genre will also find plenty to appreciate here, with an accessible interface and an engaging narrative. Replay value on a game has never been higher — The Ballad Singer is full of possibility on each playthrough.
You can buy The Ballad Singer on Steam for PC and Mac.