Reviewed: December 12, 2004
Released: October 26, 2004
It’s been almost 15 years since I played the original Bard’s Tale, then published by EA. I still have the original 3.5” floppy disk it came on along with Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight and The Bard’s Tale Construction Set. Those games (with the exception of the construction set) bring back some very fond memories.
When I learned that Brian Fargo, the creator of Baldur’s Gate and Fallout, was helming the project to bring this epic RPG back to life on next-gen consoles I was understandably excited to say the least. Brian and his team at inXile have spun the RPG genre on its ear and created one of the most enjoyable, and certainly the funniest RPG of the decade. We’re not talking “obvious” humor here, but a more sophisticated and irreverent style of satire reminiscent of games like MDK, Giants: Citizen Kabuto, or more recently, Armed and Dangerous.
If you doubt inXile’s ability to make you laugh just visit the game’s website and try to feel-up the barmaid. Three attempts to cop a feel will land you at a sexual harassment website. Milk came out my nose and I wasn’t drinking milk.
The Bard’s Tale might look like your average top-down RPG game, partly due to the fact that the designers have licensed the Snowblind engine used in other popular RPG games, but it only takes about ten minutes of gameplay before you realize you are in for a real treat. That’s about the time you are following the bouncing ball singing a cheery pub tune paying tribute to the founder of beer or getting your ass toasted by a giant cellar rat.
In a bold decision the game design favors character and story development over gameplay. Each and every character you meet is simply so engaging that you will talk and keep talking until all possible avenues are exhausted. But as with any ensemble cast, it all starts with the leading man, in this case, the Bard.
Cary Elwes voices our unlikely hero. Most of you know Cary from The Princess Bride but with more than 40 acting and voice credits to his name, he’s dazzled us in other classics like Robin Hood: Men in Tights and more recently, Ella Enchanted, and Saw.
A huge part of this game’s witty charm is the ongoing banter between the Bard and the narrator, voiced by Tony Jay (Megabyte on Reboot, Legacy of Kain, X-Men Legends, and 80 other classic performances). Individually, each character tries to steal the show, but when the Bard looks up at the screen, breaking that forth wall, to argue with the narrator about the contents of a chest, it’s truly a surreal moment in the spirit of Ferris Bueller.
The Bard is not necessarily the “good guy” in this game. Even when he’s being nice he’s still pretty flippant and even a bit rude. Rather than wading through a laundry list of conversation topics you merely pick the “attitude” of your response. You can be “snarky” or “nice” and your choice dictates the flow of the conversation and even the game to some extent. Thankfully, there is no right or wrong way to approach these conversations, so you can feel free to explore either path without fear of backing yourself into an undesirable corner.
Being naughty or nice has its advantages and disadvantages. Being snippy with the barmaid can earn you a romp in the proverbial hay, well that and slaying the rat in the cellar. Being mean to the puppy outside will cause it to run away while befriending it will make it an ally that you can upgrade throughout the course of the game. Your actions might not have immediate consequences, which only makes it that much more entertaining when your past can come back to haunt you 15-20 hours later in the game.
The first 15-30 minutes of the game serve as the tutorial, as you learn how to move, jump, swing a sword, and play your flute to summon a variety of creatures to aid you in battle. The game even makes fun of itself in the tutorial when the instructor speaks of using “controller buttons” and the Bard goes off about a “previous tutorial talking about mouse buttons”; a tribute to the original PC version.
In a cliché of adventure game themes, our hero is quested with saving a princess locked in a tower by an evil wizard. All we need is a talking donkey and we have a hit movie on our hands. The Bard isn’t a sucker, even when it comes to rescuing a princess, even when there is a reward. Only after the promise of numerous “sexual favors” does our hero set forth on his epic adventure.
The core gameplay is cast in the fine tradition of RPG adventure gaming. You wander wonderful locations gathering items, talking to NPC’s, and slaying hordes of monsters earning coin and experience. You level up increasing both your physical abilities and musical skills to tackle more difficult monsters.
The hook for this game is obviously the musical prowess of the Bard. He has 16 tunes (spells) he can learn. Using the clever medallion-style interface you pick your type of song then choose the exact tune to play to summon a companion to aid you in battle or help you in other ways. It’s like having an entire party all contained in your flute. Need to kick some butt – summon the Knight, zap a rat, call the spider, light the tunnel ahead, call the Light Fairy. The list goes on, and while their uses could be considered puzzles, you are seldom left trying to figure out whom to call for any situation.
There is a lot of combat in The Bard’s Tale and most of the time you are heavily outnumbered or at least outclassed. Even with your finely trained attack puppy you will come to rely on your musical abilities to get you through most of the combat. While this is clever and even a bit fun at first it quickly gets repetitive and even awkward in the later encounters.
Perhaps my favorite element of the game design has to be the automatic handling of the inventory. If you’re like me and hate the micromanagement aspects of buying, selling, and equipping items you’ll love the fact that the game automatically switches out lesser items with better ones and deposits the proceeds from the sale of the original item directly in your purse.
The visuals in The Bard’s Tale are fantastic on multiple levels. The environments are highly detailed with lots of polish and subtle effects like lighting and shadows. One of the first things that caught my highly trained eye was on my first trip to the cellar. There was a shelf with jars containing a rainbow assortment of colored liquid that cast this prism-like pattern on the floor. It was a pre-rendered lighting effect but stunning nonetheless.
Outdoor environments are just as rich with all sorts of details to bring this fantasy world to life. The water effect is outstanding and all of the grass, rocks, and building textures are realistic with a subtle fantasy flair to them. The game makes great use of the progressive scan capabilities of the Xbox and looks amazing on an HDTV.
Character design is excellent although some of the lesser characters get a bit repetitive. Everyone who plays a part of any significance has extra levels of visual detail to match their stellar voice performance and create a totally unique encounter. Likewise, the monsters all have plenty of original detail per their type, but within that type they can get slightly repetitive.
If I were scoring this game on acting alone it would get a perfect 10. I can’t even imagine this game without the unceasing banter between Cary Elwes and Tony Jay, and the rest of the cast, while not nearly as famous, delivers flawless performances filled with rich and authentic accents.
The music slips into the background until they ram it down your throat with dancing and bouncing-ball lyrics. I can go days without playing the game then all of the sudden find myself humming a tribute to Charley Mops and craving a beer.
Sound effects are subtle and work great without dominating the overall presentation. Your dog will bark; the cow will moo pitifully when you tip it over (and I thought they only tipped cows in Indiana), and then you have all the expected sounds of combat. The tunes you learn to summon your companions are short and thankfully don’t get annoying considering how often you will be using them.
The Bard’s Tale is a 20-25 hour adventure, which is quite substantial these days. The repetitive combat might start to wear you down near the end but the delightful story and hilarious dialogue will keep you playing.
There’s no alternate endings or branching plotlines to bring you back anytime soon after your first pass, but I suppose if you logged all your snarky and nice decisions you could conceivably go back and make the opposite choices to see the game unfold slightly different. There won’t be any earth shattering revelations but you’ll certainly get some new laughs.
This is without a doubt one of the best RPG games I’ve played on the Xbox to date. It’s not as epic as KOTOR and your karma-building decisions aren’t as crucial to the gameplay, but this game packs in more humor and charm than anything I can remember.
Whether you want to simply play a great adventure game or just laugh hysterically for a week or more of solid gaming, The Bard’s Tale is the perfect solution, and a game that I can’t recommend highly enough.