The Bard’s Tale
manages to slap you with its wry brand of humor before you even pop the game into your Xbox. The bottom of the CD’s face reads “For a really disturbing image…flip disc over.” I won’t disclose whether I fell for that or not, but I simultaneously surfed to TheBardsTale.com for a quick preview. Several of the front page characters jibe about the website’s features, but the barmaid’s more prominently displayed ‘features’ invited my mouse’s attention. I tried to click on her ‘treasure’ chest but my pointer was slapped away and she spat an unflattering rebuff. Really. More amused than juvenile, I again attempted to check out her ‘goods’. After a few more failed attempts my browser was suddenly redirected to a sexual harassment webpage.
I was convinced. This was going to be a fun ride.
One of the gaming industry’s elder statesmen, Brian Fargo, takes his newly formed InXile Entertainment label and reintroduces The Bard’s Tale nearly two decades after the original. Only this time, Fargo comes to bury RPGs, not praise them. He attacks many of the hackneyed conventions dominating role playing videogames, and helplessly submits himself to several others. True, it is often easier to criticize than to correct.
Known only as “The Bard” our unlikely and unwilling protagonist scoundrels his way across the medieval Scotland-inspired landscape. The Bard is far from malicious but invariably selfish, and far more accomplished at throwing back ale than overthrowing evil. His motivations can be reduced to money and women (two words that are almost anagrams of one other) while his abrasive wit invariably pervades every interaction. Even when he is being ‘nice’ his nevermind-the-bollocks attitude cuts a lot of cliché conversations short.
The still-gorgeous Snowblind engine used in Champions of Norrath is the very same engine licensed here. Although the physical settings in The Bard’s Tale do not supersede the artistic imagination of the former, the verdant woodlands, gritty townships, dank dungeon crawls, etc., are still lovingly rendered and exhibit some unique structural elements inspired by Scotland’s Orkney Islands.
The top-down 3D perspective is an instantly familiar format to this category of games, but treads faulty ground when zooming in close during in-engine rendered cutscenes. These scenes are undoubtedly the highpoints of the game as top-shelf voice acting and funny as hell scripting make for many memorable moments. But the opening cinematic quickly exposes the engine’s Achilles Heel with a pixilated closeup of a cobblestone ground texture and a subsequent exposé of less than stellar character models. The Bard himself is a work of art, but many of his companions suffer from lackluster design. Acknowledging this shortfall, your companions often shuffle around the screen for several seconds before the camera swings in close--you can almost hear a video director prompting “Places, everyone! Places, please!” This is done partially to keep supporting characters out of The Bard’s spotlight, and partially because they don’t look quite ready for any Hollywood treatment.
That notwithstanding, these scenes truly flesh out the personality of this title. Most conversations give you the opportunity to steer your responses between ‘snarky’ and ‘nice’ which are simply depicted as the theatrical comedy/tragedy masks. These choices aren’t to be confused with some KOTOR-infused perceptions of ‘good’ vs. ‘evil’. Playing nice does not automatically yield the desired outcome, and neither will playing an incessant jerk. While maintaining a fairly linear mode of storytelling, the outcome of these conversations does affect minor narrative branches during your adventures.
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