Hear ye, hear ye, the Bard has returned from his long exile! The storied hero of the Bard’s Tale series, revered classics from the history of gaming. Now it’s returned in a new and, in theory, improved form, updated for today’s 3D world and ready to charm a new generation of fans with engaging gameplay and sly humor. So, how does it fare? Read on to find out...
The Bard’s Tale is a pretty run-of-the-mill action RPG. Players get to customize the Bard by allocating a set number of points to various attributes that determine whether the hero is good at things like swinging a sword or sweet talking shopkeepers. Once these are allocated skills are selected and the process is done. Later, when enough experience is accrued, the character will level up and the player will receive a few more points to allocate to attributes and gain additional skills. It’s a pretty standard RPG character creation mechanic.
Once that’s finished, it’s time to summon beasties, swing swords and fight the forces of evil. The action occurs from an overhead view, essentially identical to the perspective in games such as Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath. The gameplay is also very similar to these two games. One button attacks, one blocks, etc. A simple menu system allows the player to cast spells, heal the party and switched weapons. It works well enough, but it felt a little awkward compared to the previously mentioned games. Unfortunately, it can’t be changed or customized.
The game is played by accepting missions from various NPCs scattered around the game’s environments. The missions themselves are pretty straightforward but offer a decent challenge. The game’s environments are relatively small, contained areas with clear entries and exits. A short loading time occurs when switching between areas.
The game looks nice, with some nicely detailed, if a little bare, environments. The game’s effects are suitably sparkly and well implemented. The character models all look pretty good and are well animated. Some of the character models stand out, especially the weirdo that teaches the character some of his first spells, but too many, including the Bard himself, are bland, faceless fantasy caricatures. The same could be said about the game’s environments, enemies, and effects. There’s potential all around and the game engine appears capable of getting the job done, but everything suffers from a sense of over-familiarity. It’s not bad, it just fails to distinguish itself.
The sound is also a mixed bag. The Bard is voiced by none other than Cary Elwes, known and loved as Wesley (and the Dread Pirate Roberts) from “The Princess Bride.” Despite this, the character’s voice ends up being as undistinguished as his look. Saddled with an overly thick and fake sounding accent, Elwes’ talent is wasted here for the most part. The rest of the voicework is decently solid but also fails to do anything to truly set itself apart. The sounds effects are of a similar caliber; it’s difficult to find much to complain about, but nothing leaps out as being truly special. Because the hero is a Bard (that’s a type of medieval musician/poet for those that weren’t paying attention in history class) he works his magic via musical performance, and unfortunately these little songs are among the least appealing aspects of the game’s audio. They just aren’t that good.
Like the original Bard’s Tale, the game tries to set itself apart with a sense of humor. The problem is, it just isn’t that funny. As Spinal Tap taught the world, there is a very fine line between clever and stupid. Bard’s Tale spends a little too much time on the wrong side of that line. A lot of the humor attempts to poke fun at the multitude of RPG clichÃ©s that abound in the game, but its less funny when the player is being annoyed (or bored) by those same clichÃ©s. Wouldn’t it have been funnier to actually innovate, and then make fun of the clichÃ©s? There are occasionally funny bits, but they are too rare to carry the game.
Ultimately, the Bard’s Tale is a moderately solid action RPG that fails to live up to its peers in this generation. It just isn’t as solid, gameplay wise, as games like Baldur’s Gate and its humor is way too hit or miss to make up the difference. Updating a classic is always a dicey business, considering the high expectation of fans. In this case, it simply isn’t up to the burden of carrying such a storied name on its shoulders. There are enough small touches present to suggest a few more months of polish and tuning might have made all the difference in the world for this game, but alas, it was not to be.