“Thank God that’s over. I never want to read another word about that bloody bard.”
These are the words quietly uttered by the elderly narrator of The Bard’s Tale after you die, and choose not to continue. After a bit of game time with this cheeky variation of the game Brian Fargo and pals created in the mid-80’s, it may well be that you’ll find yourself of the same opinion about spending any more time with it. As a game, it attempts a tongue-in-cheek approach to presenting RPG character development and story progression. But so many pieces of The Bard’s Tale end up over-spoofing themselves, or feel like basic constructs, that the end result is something largely uninteresting.
As one of the genre’s baby boomers, the Bard’s Tale series has set many of the watermarks for RPGs that we see and play today, namely the diversity in party characters and their strengths within the group. Also, the realm of consideration became a more cerebral keystone to the gameplay, meaning that the player had to think about what actions to take instead of the knee-jerk in-game responses prominent at the time. And now, a regression of sorts; The Bard’s Tale eschews both of these hearty standards through a fourteen chapter game for something that focuses more on the story satire and the character’s response to it than anything else. That spells imbalance, and it shows.
The Bard’s actual tale starts off modestly enough, as he attempts to find a meal and some income after being run from his home town for what could be considered minor indiscretions. His first foray in a local tavern, to rid it of a “huge” rat problem, shows just how seriously the game will take itself throughout – which is to say, not at all. Locals seated around the bar will converse in all manner of temperaments, and there’s even a rather lengthy and amusing song sung (penned, amongst other tunes in the game, by industry vet Tommy Tallarico) by surprisingly able drunkards hailing the Lord of the Beer. It’s one of the more touching moments in the game, after the realization comes that the Bard himself is either caustic or smarmy in his responses. In fact, there are conversational forks where the player can choose one of two responses, one naughty and one nice, in order to affect certain outcomes. Sometimes these outcomes are simple innuendo with a comely lass, other times information or more useful character building tools will be acquired. It’s a mildly engaging choice to have in simple interaction with the NPCs, but it feels like a sidebar and not some consequential selection.
Character development is kept light right from the start, as you create your Bard by assigning attribute values to things such as strength, vitality, and charisma. Initially, swordplay is the primary fighting technique, though blunt force flail and missile weaponry will show up later. There are also Talents, such as two-handed weaponry or missile strike enhancements, and some lip-service magic abilities as well. With the weapons (as well as armor), it’s a simple matter of acquisition. There are no equipment or inventory screens, so if you pick up or buy a weapon, it will instantly replace whatever you have. That’s an appreciable simplification of what is sometimes an exercise in statistical comparison, but with the element of choice taken away, character progression feels far too linear to be an RPG. Magic is treated with the Bard’s series touch, using his trusty instrument to summon a total of 16 different companions, from a giant lightning spider to a human rogue. This is one of the more interesting, and somewhat stronger, features of The Bard’s Tale that actually creates a sense of strategy.
Combat, as a necessary means to an end, is handled in very much the same way as Baldur’s Gate, which falls mostly in the hack-n-slash category, though with nowhere near the acuity. Collision detection and intuitive countermeasures in The Bard’s Tale are more than a little vague, and will probably leave the player feeling ineffective and unsatisfied. Blocking requires timing, and while this is a noted deviation to a more realistic combat technique, it adds a frustration that detracts from the dark jocularity of the rest of the game. The Bard himself will heal over time, but there are also a few healing options, one in the form of an angelic spirit that stops all gameplay to descend amidst a screenful of stars. Though the control layout of the controller is relatively well-organized, the optimization leaves something to be desired, considering the awkward three-step procedure to summon the healing spirit.
The aesthetics of The Bard’s Tale are diametrically opposed. The graphics and environments are elementary at best, for the current technology. Blurry visuals and questionable textures nearly upset the visuals into the realm of impressionistic. Character models are well-designed for the most part, but movement is choppy, like someone had cut out 20% of the pages of a running man flip book. The sound, on the other hand, contains some masterful voice work, helmed by Cary Elwes as the Bard (from Princess Bride fame). While the script isn’t written with the expert timing of The Daily Show, there is nary a baroque voice in the game that doesn’t shine with humor, personality, and wit. My personal favorite would have to be the deadpan smithy in the very first town, who recited weapon and armor sales pitches with a weathered familiarity of someone who’s bored with the topic (but manages not to bore you). It’s subtleties like that that bring a flourish of color to an otherwise drab game experience.
There’s a lot to be said for the simplification that The Bard’s Tale presents – maybe it’s a conscious throwback to the days when graphics were blockier, sound was penned within the cages of MIDI, and you actually had to type in what you want to do. Unfortunately, it comes off as unfinished instead of cleverly scaled back, and even its own self-deprecating spoofs on the RPG genre can’t save it from those detriments. With a league of series benchmarks behind it, this latest take on the Bard’s Tale is the goofy cousin in a family of distinguished elders. Those who don’t mind some muscle trimmed from their action RPGs may take to this most current Bard’s Tale adventure, but it’s mostly a lamentable devolvement of anything RPG or action-oriented.