Brian Fargo, famed creator of seminal RPGs Baldur's Gate
is finally back in action with a re-telling of his original great, The Bard's Tale
. Having formed his own company, inXile Entertainment, Fargo licensed the Snowblind Engine used to make Sony's Champions of Norrath
and created a rather unique, if somewhat familiar, top-down fantasy role-playing game. While The Bard's Tale
may look like every other top-down perspective RPG hack-n-slash you've played in the past, it is not. The Bard's Tale
is a lampooning of the entire genre with a hero who is often more despicable than the villains and a magic system that is unlike anything done before.
Let me first introduce you to the Bard, voiced by the brilliant Cary Elwes. Think of Han Solo, the rogue who sticks his neck out for no one. Compared to the Bard, old Han is a selfless softie. Yeah, the Bard is callous, greedy, self-centered, and a wee bit horny. His interests are easy to define: Women, wine, and song -- in that order. Every bit of conversation, every task given, it all revolves around suiting the Bard's needs. He doesn't rescue villagers from a band of Vikings because it's the right thing to do, he does it because then he can take all the Vikings' gold.
Where many role-playing games feature a reluctant hero who eventually realizes he must be selfless, that he must become the world's savior, The Bard's Tale is different. The Bard isn't going to change overnight because there's a world in need of saving. No, he's all about himself, from start to finish. This selfishness is colored in every bit of dialogue. Even when trying to be gracious, the Bard remains a, well, a jerk. But a loveable one at that.
You do have some control on the Bard's pettiness throughout his adventure, though it's really just deciding his level or ire -- either super-sarcastic or mildly sarcastic. Most conversations have at least one dialogue branch where you can choose how the Bard responds. However, this isn't your typical RPG where you select from a list of responses. Instead, you can choose to be snarky or nice. The Bard's "nice" responses are often still rude, but tend to be more in the affirmative.
At one point a pair of obnoxious Frenchmen beg the Bard to reclaim their stolen frog. Go snarky and the Bard refuses, since he's already been tricked by these Frenchies once before. Take the nice response, and the Bard begrudgingly accepts the quest, but with a warning that if there's any funny business, he'll run them both through with his blade. That's the Bard's version of being nice.
Unlike Knights of the Old Republic, there isn't any push to be always nice or always snarky (in Star Wars terms, Light or Dark). Instead, you are encouraged to choose however you feel based on the situation. Some lines from the NPCs just cry for a roll of the eyes and a snide comment and other times you may realize that it's best just to play nice for a few moments to get someone out of your hair. It's an amazing recreation of life at the IGN offices.
The choices you make not only lead to some funny quips from the Bard, but can also have a ripple effect on the entire game. Treat a dog poorly and it will run away, befriend it and it will be an invaluable companion for the remainder of the game. Refuse to apologize to a cranky old man and he may resurface 15 hours later to cause you misery. That doesn't mean you should be nice to everyone. In fact, there is a balance between responses, so that sometimes being crass will actually earn you respect, reward, and even discounted prices. There's no way to know for certain what response will earn something and there's no indication that something you do early in the game will lead to dire consequences down the road. In this way, The Bard's Tale feels very natural, with dialogue and a morality system that never feels forced. No matter what you dialogue choice, it becomes apparent early on that the Bard's attitude constantly gets him into trouble, even when he tries to be nice. Throughout the 20-hour adventure, you'll have to contend with some of the Bard's previous misjudgments and mistakes. Towns have been razed due to the Bard's carelessness, lives ruined because of his selfish ways, and women scandalized because of his wanton libido. He is the crowning jewel of anti-heroes.
The first few hours of The Bard's Tale serve as an introduction to the man and his talents. You'll have a chance to get accustomed to the combat and magic system and to learn just what a snarky bastard the Bard truly is. Once you have a grasp of the character and can accept the reality that this is not like any other RPG you've ever played -- not even one where you choose to be evil -- the true quest is revealed.
The Bard's world, which is based on the legends of the Orkney Islands in Scotland, is filled with unspeakable evils. There are trogs, giants, the undead, mystical cloaked zealots, Vikings, massive wolves, and French people. Damsels are often in distress, every dungeon is filled with traps, enemies drop a treasure trove of items upon death, and most children grow up believing they are "The Chosen One." This is a fantasy world that lives and breathes clichés -- on purpose.
The Bard's quest is another cliché. He is charged with rescuing a beautiful princess locked in a tower by an evil wizard. But this is the Bard we're talking about, so he can't be brought to believe he is the Chosen One or that he should do a favor for anyone, even a hot princess. What does it take to set him on his journey? The promise of fortune and a little bonus. "I can read your mind," says the Princess via astral projection, "So imagine me doing what you are thinking three times a day for the rest of your life." Yeah, this game is funny, smart, and a little daring.
Though the Bard must conquer three separate towers in order to free the Princess from her prison, there is a lot more game than merely this main quest. The Bard's life is filled with complications and nothing in his world is ever simple. He'll have to acquire various items by helping (or threatening) numerous people along the way. There are several towns to visit and even some of the Bard's past to be learned. It's a very robust adventure and much more interesting than similar games of this type.
Despite being a single-player game, the Bard does not trudge through this journey alone. This is "The Bard's Tale" and it is told by an unseen narrator who is often disapproving of the Bard's actions. Frankly, the two have a hate-hate relationship and the Bard often breaks the fourth wall to argue directly with the booming overhead voice. At times the narrator serves to give hints to the gamer, but most of the time he's there to act as Jimmeny Cricket to the rebellious Bard.
Along your adventure, you'll meet a bevy of NPCs, all fully voiced with thick English, Scottish, and French accents. None celebrate the Bard's appearance, because he is a scoundrel, not a savoir, but there are several songs in the game dedicated to the Bard's adventures. These humorous ditties play like a scene out of a Monty Python movie. Sometimes the carolers come in miniature form, singing and bouncing as if they were Oompa-Loompas. The Songs of the Bard
Speaking of songs, the Bard has sixteen spells (or tunes) to aid him throughout his journey. Rather than having your standard magic system, where a character shoots fireballs from his hands or casts magic missile to fire at the dark, inXile chose to utilize the idea of a true bard. Using his musical instrument (of which there are several upgrades throughout the game), the Bard can call for any available spell on his list. This summons a creature, which acts as a temporary companion, attacking enemies or providing other services for the Bard.
The spells are a brilliant idea, as they serve as your party members. The Bard's Tale is a single-player game, but you 100% absolutely cannot complete the game without using your spells often -- he really needs the help. Some spells are for offense, like the Knight, who attacks without mercy. Some are for defense, like the Crone who heals the party. And some are for exploration, such as the Light Fairy, who illuminates a dark dungeon or the Trap Finder, who sacrifices himself to disable traps.
Each spell has a personality, but only a few lines of dialogue, which you will hear again and again and again and again. Surviving The Bard's Tale requires you to maximize your spell potential, because enemies are constantly swarming you. Without spells (and frankly your dog) you will get your hat rudely handed to you.
While the spells are an ingenious idea, they do bring up the first negative aspect of The Bard's Tale. While the concept for the spells works great -- especially when you stroll into town with your vorpal rat (which I've nicknamed "The Decapitator"), fire elemental, and pet dog in tow -- the functionality hurts the gameplay a bit.
When you call a spell, you have to play your lute, which means you can't attack. But the enemies are oppressive and never give you a moment's rest in combat, so you have to run around for 15 seconds like a rabid chicken, playing your spell. And since spells can die fairly easily but can be recast almost immediately after being dispelled, you will need to do this quite often. It may be sensible to force you to play songs to summon creatures, but it really does slow combat and it does get annoying after a while.
Combat is really The Bard's Tale's weak link. It's strange that a genre known more for its addictive combat than strong story elements would get the opposite from inXile. It's not that the combat is bad, it's just very average and sometimes a little frustrating.
The interface for combat is very smart, with the triggers being used to open menus for spells and weapon selection. But once you have a weapon, it ends up with far too few combos to be interesting and with just a one-button attack, combat quickly becomes monotonous even though the spells and creatures are pretty interesting.
There are times, especially earlier on in the game, where combat is more like a prison gang bang, with four enemies surrounding the Bard and bashing him relentlessly. As you can only block the way you're facing, being surrounded is often a death sentence. That's why you need spells to distract enemies so that you can get behind the baddies or at least only face one or two at a time. The problem is, early on you will only be able to call forth one or two spells, so it's tougher to avoid being swarmed. And since you are weaker at the start of the game, you may just get so fed up with being mauled that you toss down your controller before combat becomes a little easier to manage. There are many times, particularly once you pass the halfway point in the adventure, where you will have no troubles beating down enemies and the combat is actually fun. However, there are far too many instances where combat feels oppressive. The Bard's Tale poke fun at the conventions of RPGs, but then falls victim to one of the big problems with any action-RPG -- its combat is repetitive and at times tedious. It's unfortunate, because if not for the combat issues, this would be one of the true action-RPG greats thanks to the story and humor.
What's really peculiar is that inXile has created several clever ways to remove the tedium from the genre. Instead of having to sell all your collected items at the store and switch out better weapons as you acquire them, the game does it instantly for you. Find a better sword and it's immediately equipped and the cash deposited for the sale of your old weapon. It saves a lot of the annoying travel time seen in Baldur's Gate and Norrath. But those games featured a more enjoyable combat system. Again, the combat isn't so much bad as it is just sort of average with a few frustrating moments, but it's enough to hurt The Bard's Tale's overall good vibe.
Graphics and Sound
The environments in The Bard's Tale look fantastic and are easily on par with what other 3D isometric action-RPGs have done (try typing that ten times fast). The characters have nice detailing and though a lot of NPCs have a similar look, there are a variety of face types so that NPCs remain relatively fresh. In general, the key NPCs are uniquely designed so as to be a bit more personabe. I especially like that there's a variety of different heights and weights so that towns look believable and NPCs stay memorable.
As with the graphics, the audio is solid. The voice-overs are fantastic from top to bottom and Elwes is the perfect choice for the Bard. The variety of accents helps distinguish towns and characters and the dialogue is sharp and never boring. The sound effects and music, on the other hand, are pretty standard. The ambient sounds never really draw you into this otherwise fully-formed world. It is pretty commendable that I never once had the desire to skip past dialogue, because it's easily the strongest part of The Bard's Tale.
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