Forget chivalry. Never mind saving the world. Just say "no" to noblesse oblige. Players enter 2005's The Bard's Tale with refreshingly simple motivations that the often underrepresented everyman adventurer can really relate to -- "coins and cleavage." In the role of the opportunistic, smart-mouthed, somewhat pompously disaffected Bard himself, players embark on a humorous, action-oriented misadventure through a classic medieval fantasy realm, based on the fondly remembered 1985 home computer game of the same title. Like the landmark original, this latter-day Bard's Tale was produced by RPG luminary Brian Fargo, and it is the first release from his inXile Entertainment studio.
The 3D game world is viewed from a top-down perspective, reminiscent of NeverWinter Nights, Dungeon Siege, or in particular, Snowblind Studios' Champions of Norrath: Realms of EverQuest; Bard's Tale was built on the Champions of Norrath engine. Players guide the Bard through the large world, exploring new areas and always on the lookout for a free meal or a "soft place to rest his head." While he is skilled enough with his sword, the Bard's true talent is in his voice. He can learn to use his special musical powers to summon a variety of able-bodied creatures that will follow along and help him in combat.
In spite of all the hacking and slashing that ensues, there is a considerable amount of real role-playing in The Bard's Tale -- not just stat-maxing and attribute improvements, but truly player-directed character development that influences the story being told. The game features a "Snarky/Nice" conversation system that allows players to choose the tone the Bard takes when speaking to different NPCs. Obviously, this can have a significant effect on their responses. Because the plot offers so many choices, with so many possible results, players will have to adventure through the game multiple times to unlock all its secrets and see everything it has to offer.
To question a gamer's sense of humor is to initiate a losing battle. We reckon ourselves a funny bunch, be it slapstick or deadpan humor, and anyone who doubts the Truth is either lacerated by a sharp tongue or riddled with virtual bullets. With that in mind, the developers at inXile Entertainment must be incredible gamers, because their action role-playing game The Bard's Tale is hilarious.
The action-RPG genre is chock full of titles, from the Baldur's Gate series to the recent X-Men Legends, so adding yet another game to that mix means the newcomer must be ingenious, innovative or insane. The Bard's Tale is a little bit of each. The down side to that is that the game also borrows a little bit of each element that makes the genre feel a bit watered-down. This makes the game perfect in some spots, but it also dooms it to suffer from the very elements it parodies.
inXile is keenly aware of the RPG landscape on which it treads, so the studio developed a game that follows the age-old adage "If you can't beat 'em, mock 'em." Literally every cliché in the RPG book is satirized in The Bard's Tale, each to good effect: the first quest involves a stereotypical rat-slaying adventure. The narrator has a grand voice and poetic, omnipresent script. Nearly every pub has a buxom bartender. There's even a trapped princess, for crying out loud.
But The Bard's Tale never takes itself too seriously, consistently acknowledging that gamers are tired of the clichés and want a fresh breath, which is precisely where the game interjects its humor. In the rat-slaying quest, the Bard kills a rat, looks toward the camera, raises his hands triumphantly and declares "quest complete!" The narrator tries desperately to follow his script, but both he and the Bard (yes, they interact) question the writing. The bleach-blonde bartenders feign helplessness, only to have the Bard look incessantly at their chest rather than their eyes. inXile knows the genre, and by poking fun at itself, the developer clearly hopes to win over those who know the genre just as well.
The problem with that gamble is that the game not taking itself too seriously sets the stage for gamers to do just the same. Yes, the humor is top-notch, and sure, the cow-tipping is fantastically funny. But even the funniest gags are seen by only by those who feel compelled by the gameplay to make it through to the end, and while The Bard's Tale makes a masterful mockery of its genre, its missteps will keep the funniest jokes under wraps for most gamers.
Remove the humor, and The Bard's Tale is a traditional, top-down action-RPG in the same vein as every quality title in its genre. There's a button to attack enemies, a button to block and, in an appropriate twist, a button to play a tune on the Bard's guitar that summons a variety of mystical characters with differing attributes (think of them as temporary offense- or defense-augmenting party members). With each enemy slain, the Bard earns experience, which players can auto-allocate or assign on their own to improve the Bard's attributes. The Bard also picks up items and pelts from most enemies, which automatically convert into that players can use to buy new armor and weapons.
Navigation in the Bard's world is quite open-ended, with a world map that invites players to explore towns in virtually any order, so long as a town has been unlocked through conversations with townsfolk. Wandering the world is kept from being mundane as well, with wolves, boars and enemies meandering across the map just waiting to ambush the Bard. These ambushes are often easily avoided, in spite of enemies actively pursuing the Bard between towns. Yet this avoidance strategy unfortunately holds true for intra-town battles as well.
For example, in the early stages of the game the Bard seems underpowered, and blocking has to be timed so precisely that survival is rather challenging during the first few hours of gameplay. As a result, early adventures end up being an exercise in weaving quickly between enemies trying to avoid their attacks more than they do strategic bob-and-weave battles. Yet once the Bard is more powerful, has better armor and has learned new tunes to call forth more allies, the avoidance strategy is still quite tempting (and surprisingly plausible) because it's the fastest way to get to the next humorous interaction with a non-playable character.
That's the problem with The Bard's Tale: it still relies on the very elements it mocks to make the game progress, and we've all encountered these things before. The humor in The Bard's Tale is undeniably new, and inXile's writers did a fantastic job poking fun at this overcrowded genre, particularly in their presentation of "snarky" and "kind" options when conversing with NPCs. But the gameplay gets in the way of the humor...an unfortunate side effect of jumping into the action-RPG fray. Like the best comedy films, The Bard's Tale provides hours of entertainment, but it's not something you'd expect at the Academy Awards or necessarily want to pay full admission to see.
That's not to say The Bard's Tale is a slouch in the visual category. Quite the contrary, the game has outstanding graphics, with colorful but appropriate textures, crisp and detailed character models and good lighting. The level design is somewhat pedestrian, but you can only do so much with a top-down RPG anyway. In fact, the only disappointment with the graphics is the camera, which only swings left and right and zooms in so little that the great imagery is always kept at a frustrating distance. Had the camera offered an isometric viewpoint and supported a better zoom, gamers would have an easier time appreciating the hard work inXile put into the graphics, and in some scenarios, it might have helped the combat, as well.
When a game relies on humor, it's imperative that the comedy be delivered in a top-notch manner, and The Bard's Tale doesn't disappoint. Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride, Robin Hood; Men in Tights) provides the voice of the Bard, and his interpretation of the carnally driven hero is perfect. The environmental sounds are also well done, particularly in the underground levels, which show off the game's surround sound and echo effects, and the script for every character in the game is good enough to warrant comparison to a Mel Brooks or Monty Python short.
In fact, with Cary Elwes in tow and the hilarious script already in hand, it's easy to wonder whether inXile would've been better served making a brief comedy than a game. inXile Entertainment is clearly composed of great gamers with great senses of humor, but even the greatest of combinations can miss its mark. The Bard's Tale doesn't do anything wrong by any means, and in fact it does a few stereotypical gameplay things rather well. But it doesn't do anything particularly new, either, and to stand out in any overcrowded genre, a game needs more than a funny script to drive it forward.
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