Although I don't recall much from playing through the original The Bard's Tale, I do have fond memories of it, and the impression of a highly enjoyable game. Perhaps my memory loss is fortunate, because I approached this game with few preconceived notions, which is a good thing. The modern version of The Bard's Tale is an irreverent foray through the RPG genre, and a trip well worth taking. The title is very fun, easy to play, and extraordinarily funny, a combination that is all too rare these days.
This game achieves greatness in two areas: the characters and its sense of humor. The main character, the Bard, is your typical anti-hero; he is a jaded, cynical, and selfish man-child who is concerned only with wine, women, and coin (in that order … or was it women, wine, and coin?). If given the option, I am not one who chooses to ever play a Bard in any game setting, but The Bard's Tale made me reconsider that prejudice. The title does a wonderful job of connecting the Bard and the player, getting us invested in him and his story to the point where one truly cares about this clumsy oaf. Underneath his snarky replies and shallow behavior, he has a good heart but possesses the unfortunate luck of seeing his many attempted good deeds blow up in his face, whether he knows it or not.
Beyond the character of the Bard, we are introduced to a multitude of secondary characters, ranging from the Bad Guy of the story to the simple townsfolk of the various towns that must tolerate the sometimes insufferable bunglings of our protagonist. The best secondary character of all is the narrator, whose witty commentary and constant back-and-forth with the Bard make for a truly funny gaming experience.
As a product, The Bard's Tale is a fairly standard role-playing game. What makes the unique experience that it represents is the sense of comedy that pervades every aspect. The game pokes fun at every clichéd RPG convention you can think of, from the "Obligatory Lava Level" (the literal name of one of the levels you discover) to the introductory "rat killing" quest wherein the Bard, having just killed a tiny rat, is confronted with a monstrous fire-breathing Giant Rat that proceeds to set him aflame. In most interactions, you are given the choice of a cynical response or a kind response, the results of which are often comical. What I loved best about these choices was that, often, the cynical response gets you the "better" result. The world of The Bard's Tale is much like our own, with truly human motivations (sex, greed, and money) of even the heroic figures, and a perverse, sometimes dark, sense of humor.
While the game doesn't exactly push the envelope in any category, its graphics and art are quite good. They are by no means on the level of recent AAA games, but they do the job. Effects are "nice," and animations well done, though they could be tighter in places. Cut scenes in particular had issues with clipping and jerky, uninspired character animation. Overall, I'd give the visuals a "B" - nothing to take one's breath away, but they won't kill the experience either. The one thing about the graphics that truly bothered me was the lack of choices for resolution because PC gamers are stuck with 800 X 600, with no options above or below. This is the one aspect where The Bard's Tale reveals its status as a title designed for the console and ported to the PC as an afterthought.
The audio, on the other hand, is one of the technical and creative areas where the game really shines, and it's clear that a significant effort went into this aspect of production. With a family, only headphones are a real option, so I don't have surround sound and can't 't testify to anything along those lines. The music is appropriate and very well done, but considering this is a game with a Bard as the central character, I'd be sorely disappointed if it weren't. The bard's tunes are pleasant enough, but the voice acting is spectacular where it's meant to be, and clichéd in all the right places. The dialog is engaging when it is not downright funny; I've rarely laughed at a game (except to ridicule those titles that deserve it), but this one had me constantly chuckling, and often laughing out loud.
The Bard's Tale is easy to pick up, with straightforward controls that are easy to learn, although the controls do get in the way from time to time. They are modeled after Diablo-type controls but don't achieve them quite as well. AI for both enemies and the Bard's supporting cast is acceptable, if not a bit simplistic; the best that can be said is that the AI is effective.
One element of gameplay that I found especially effective was the "menu" for summoning support characters and switching weapons. The numbers 1 through 4 on the keyboard open the specific menu (i.e., "2" for summoning, "3" for melee weapons, etc.), and the player navigates through choices using the WASD keys. These keys are also used for camera control, so the player does not need to re-position his hand, and I found this to be very intuitive and effective. I had quickly memorized the key combinations for those pets and items I used most, and switching was fast and did not interfere with the gameplay. Additionally, the songs used to summon each pet were beautifully made.
Finally, The Bard's Tale takes a slightly different approach to character development in both skills and equipment. Players are presented with a standard set of character statistics which affect abilities and damage in a standard manner, but beyond the statistics, development is somewhat simplified. This is not to say that the method is bad; truth be told, in many ways I found inXile's approach quite refreshing. Equipment management and the puzzle of inventory space are gone. Instead, when loot is picked up, it is instantly converted into coin. When a new piece of equipment is found, such as weapons or armor, it is compared to the currently equipped items; if it is better, the Bard is automatically equipped with the new item, and if it is worse, it is converted to coin. Mainly, this approach works due to the relatively limited options for equipment.
As far as skills go, each level gained gives the player a certain number of points to spend on increasing stats, and every few levels allows the player to choose a new special skill. That's it. In some ways, I enjoyed this approach, as it allowed me to focus on playing the game and experiencing the story, but on some levels, I wanted more control and options. I enjoy comparing items and specifically choosing how to equip my character, and InXile's approach takes much of this control away from the player. Some will like it, and some will not.
Overall, The Bard's Tale is wonderful. Although it does lack in a few areas, the game's memorable characters and terrific sense of humor more than make up for any of these weaknesses. It is so refreshing to see a title that doesn't take itself too seriously and developers who are comfortable enough to use comedy as a key element in their design. The game has solid, if somewhat simplified, gameplay, good visuals, and great audio. As I said, I don't fully remember the first Bard's Tale, but I can imagine that this version is a worthy successor. Fans of classic RPG games (those who will "get" the jokes) should definitely take a look.
More articles about The Bard's Tale