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.The action portions of your adventure introduce a couple more innovations. The Bard often fails at charming the females, but his summoning game is tight. He gradually gains access to sixteen different summoned creatures, up to four at a time in higher levels, with each companion bringing differing skills to the table. One is an oversized and prepubescent-voiced defender, another is a garishly played light fairy. Another is a frighteningly vicious vorpal rat. Several others come into play as The Bard learns to play different tunes.
Despite the lack of any meaningful interaction between our hero and his summoned creatures, you may locate a faithful little dog early on that will accompany you restlessly along your journey. Not to spoil anything, but you will certainly miss him when he is no longer by your side. The designers inserted a heartwarming account of man’s-best-friend companionship that is rarely accomplished or even attempted. Your newfound friend can be trained to attack enemies but also displays the same affinity for coin that The Bard does; your trusty pet digs up the occasional piece of loot, as if he didn’t already earn his keep by distracting your enemies during combat.
Combat, from The Bard’s perspective, proves problematic at certain points. He is certainly endowed with a variety of styles (dependent upon his selection of weapons) and he certainly climbs the ability ladder (with distributable points each level) but his moves are slow to respond to the frantically-paced combat scenarios. There is only one button to mash when executing combos, but he is frustratingly locked into finishing these one-directional attacks before he is able to act against another target. Battles are sometimes long finished while The Bard is embarrassingly stuck swinging away in midair; enemies easily flank you if you begin a combo facing the wrong direction; collision detection can extend in an unreasonable arc beyond an enemy’s actual reach; enemies can attack you through your companions as if your companion wasn’t even standing there; and hits landed on a fallen enemy have no effect. The flawed combat model is the only thing that drags this game down, but in an action-based title it unforgivably drags the game down from beginning to end. There is no honest way to adapt your tactics to this problem; you have to merely accept it as the singular gameplay hindrance in this otherwise tremendous premier title.
While I wax frustrated over some exasperating combat sequences, I admit to appreciating some gameplay variations InXile enacted. For one, the inventory screen is completely done away with. Any superior weapon you pick up is instantly equipped while the inferior weapon is automatically converted into silver. Every chuckle-worthy piece of treasure you come across (diaries, snow globes, or wanted posters, to name a few) are likewise converted directly into coinage. Although this cuts out some fantastic interactions with the blacksmiths (some of the most memorable characters in the game) it also cuts out a lot of back-and-forth between town and country from packing your inventory full.
Another is the rapid-fire summoning system. The Bard needs to be in a safe locale--or on the run--when playing a summoning tune, but the straight-forward arrangement of creatures is well-categorized and well-executed. Good thing, because despite The Bard’s every-man-for-himself mentality, there is virtually no way to complete this game without the aid of his summoned creatures.
The unseen narrator also contributes immeasurably during his spoken parts, often berating The Bard for making a poor decision, or provoking him in the right direction at other times. Never have I heard a game’s narrator so smug when its main character dies. Even here, laughter serves as an excellent medicine even when your health meter reaches zero.
Musically there is a folk selection from the UK that (with all due respect to the UK’s folk music) is corny, but simultaneously well-placed in this instance. I can’t imagine a sweeping musical score being entirely appropriate. The sound effects are effective until a speaking portion emerges near, say, a rushing river or a crackling fire--you’ll miss some dialogue if you haven’t previously turned the sound effects down a notch or two.
In the end, InXile has successfully put itself on the map with The Bard’s Tale. They play upon an RPGers Pavlovian response toward barrel-bashing and rat-hunting, manifest one of the genre’s most unforgettable anti-heroes, dutifully employ intelligent scriptwriting, and make it all a very enjoyable chord.