display | more...
Title: The Bard's Tale
Developer: InXile
Publisher: InXile
Date Published: 10/2004
Platforms: PlayStation 2, XBox
Genre: RPG
ESRB Rating: T (strong language, blood, violence, bawdy humor)

Introduction

Do you giggle every time someone says the word "bosom"?

Do you often find yourself loudly imitating Monty Python at parties?

Do you know what the acronym SCA stands for, without clicking the link?

Do you like bad puns?

If you answered "Yes" to any of the above questions, you might want to consider reading the rest of this review and possibly picking up a copy of "The Bard's Tale" for your PS2 or XBox. If not, well then, you're a better man (or woman) than I, and should probably go make yourself a cup of tea and settle down with a nice, classy video game.

Highborn heroes. Peasants molded to greatness through trials by fire and battle. Light and darkness, good and evil, honesty and lies. Most adventure games work along these lines: offering characters who are truly evil or truly good, despite thin veneers of pretense that might hint otherwise. Blah blah blah. The Bard's Tale is a different sort of game. You get one character to play: The Bard himself. No race selection, no gender selection, no class selection. You don't even get to choose a character that has class -- the Bard is at best smarmy and at worst cowardly. However, like most semi-successful wandering minstrels, he has a sharp tongue and quick wit. Voiced by the inimitable Cary Elwes, the Bard is a delight just to listen to if you are tired of dismal, unfeeling voiceovers in video games. The audio in this game is simply phenomenal, to the point where it overshadows other aspects of the game (such as combat). But we'll get to that later.

We meet our Bard doing what he does best: using his magical lute to summon a rat, which will be summarily sent into a pub to frighten any farmer's daughters, ale-wenches, or pretty widows who might be inside. Our anti-hero then performs his usual trick of ridding the squealing females of their rodent nemesis, and getting himself a little something warm and soft in the process.

All is well at first, and the Bard would certainly be happy to continue this way until the end of his days. He is a simple man of simple comforts and impressive ego. The game's narrator (who presents an amusing counterpoint to the Bard himself) often implies that the Bard is at least slightly daft, however, the Bard comes across to me as one of the most logical video game characters I've ever encountered. He actually has some interest in self-preservation. He has a sense of what mortality means, and he doesn't like the idea. He would much rather con someone than fight them, and all throughout the game, his motivations have more to do with money and pleasures of the flesh than any noble ideas. He's real, he's in touch with his feelings, and he makes no pretenses at being high-minded.

Anyhow, as this is an adventure game, our Bard soon finds himself in the midst of an Adventure. I won't get into spoilers here, but the adventure involves the usual sorts of things: captive maidens, strange cults, conniving fiends, vast journeys through fire, ice, and plains, and bizarre glowing weapons. The Bard is quite possibly the most reluctant hero you will ever meet. All the while you half-expect the character to simply walk off the screen and start picking at his toenails.

Game Mechanics and Play Modes

Gameplay consists of two main modes, and one minor mode: Town Stuff, Battle Stuff, and navigating between areas. Town stuff is exactly what you might think: conversations with NPCs, stops at the local tavern, shopping, bumping into locals, observing the scenery. Battle stuff is also exactly what you might think: stabbing and bashing of things that inexplicably want to kill the Bard. I found the default controls on the PlayStation 2 to be quite sufficient, however, I was somewhat disappointed with the camera control. You have the ability to rotate, but you are limited to the top-down perspective, which precludes any interesting butt-oriented camera angles. Plus, the zoom is minimal to the point where you wonder why they bothered putting it in at all.

I enjoyed the Town Stuff quite a bit more than the Battle Stuff: this game's value is largely situated in its capacity to entertain. Talking to people is generally rewarding in some sense, as is responding to their statements and behavior. For instance, you get experience points after a bratty preteen kicks you in the nuts. The whole game is filled with ridiculous, surprising, "WTF!?!" moments that will have you sputtering at the screen, "I got 1000 experience for THAT?!"

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of NPC conversations is the "attitude" system. Rather than picking from a list of responses (a la Neverwinter Nights and its brethren), you get to choose between a "nice" response and a "snarky" response. Oh, how I love the word "snarky". You will soon learn that it does not necessarily pay to be nice to everyone. The Bard might be a bit of a boor, but he encounters some individuals that are really just asking to be snarked at, insulted, conned, or otherwise ribbed. It can be quite satisfying to click the "snarky" icon and hear the Bard say exactly what YOU would have said, if you're anything of a smartass yourself. The dialogue system is quite streamlined, and you do have the option to skip dialogue if you've heard it before or if you just want to get on with things. However, most of the conversations are worth hearing in full at least once, even with the shopkeepers. Everyone in this game has a personality. Plus, what you say to certain people can have repercussions you don't find out about until much later in the game, which definitely adds an amusing note of realism. There are consequences to everything, and your choices can have quite a bit of impact on the tone of your adventure.

Battle stuff is mechanically simple, yet more challenging than you might expect from such a game. I played this game on "Normal" difficulty, and found myself extremely frustrated during the second fight because I kept getting killed. There is some hack-and-slash here, but there are also plenty of situations where you have to use strategy or else find yourself getting smacked down before you can say "bloody hell!" Whenever you encounter a new type of enemy, it is vital that you ascertain the fighting style of this enemy. There are quite a few creatures that individually do not comprise much of a challenge, but can beat you to a pulp within seconds if they have a few of their friends backing them up.

The Bard fights partly with his own weapons and partly with the aid of his summoned companions. Rather than using a more typical party system in which you go around enlisting folks to help you on your quest, the Bard learns various tunes for his magical instruments which enable him to summon different types of allies. You start the game being able to summon a single ally, but gradually earn powerups that enable you to summon a greater number, of which the maximum is four. Allies each have their own unique skill: from stunning enemies to specializing in defense to healing. You can summon an ally as many times as you wish, however, while in the act of summoning you are unable to fight -- which means you have to run about like an idiot until your ally materializes fully. In small groups of enemies this is not a problem, but when you are surrounded, it can be quite a challenge.

The battle system is certainly adequate, though unremarkable. The best part is, of course, the quips made by the Bard and narrator during various battles. There is a lot of snide pointing out of adventure game cliches which I found enjoyable, but that a more jaded individual might simply find to be lame.

To move between worlds, the Bard must leave an area. He will then enter an overview map of the entire land (which happens to be some semi-mythical region of Scotland), where he will see various towns and places as well as wandering enemies. These wandering enemies represent random encounters, and they are truly obnoxious. At the very least, you have a chance to avoid them by not bumping into them while on the main map.

I'm not going to get into which buttons to press to do what. You can get that stuff in the manual, plus, the game's (optional) tutorial bits do an excellent job of familiarizing the player with the controls.

Audio and Visual Quality

As mentioned briefly earlier, the audio in this game is superb. There are quite a number of hilarious original songs, many of which will end up running through your head for days afterward. This might be a good thing or a bad thing, considering your level of affection for ballads that rhyme "Heinous" with "Anus". Very silly, with oddly well-done musical arrangement and vocal harmonization. If you're into that sort of thing.

Pretty much everyone in the game has a thick British Isles accent, generally Scottish but a few that sound a bit more Liverpudlian or Irish to my admittedly amateur ear. The accents are infectious. I think I talked like Shrek for an entire day after playing this game for the first time. There are even a few characters that you can barely understand (though luckily, the dialogue is subtitled).

The graphics vary a lot. During battle and general wandering-around, they are average: on the level, perhaps, of the Baldur's Gate console games. This makes sense, considering Bard's Tale uses the same engine as Baldur's Gate. (Presumably, not having to write their own engine gave the game developers more time and energy to focus on story, songs, and in-game merrymaking) I can definitely respect that -- why not use something that already exists, if it will help streamline the game creation process?

During songs, conversations with NPCs and encounters with certain boss creatures, there is definite "wow" potential. The Bard's Tale is set in a rough, gritty, earthy time, and the people are rough, gritty, and earthy themselves. Facial expressions are, well, expressive. Not everyone is beautiful or ugly: this game contains a refreshing number of people that look entirely average. Skin is not perfect, noses and cheeks bulge oddly. Many of the townspeople are actually dirty -- as in, they are encrusted with grime and other signs that we are not navigating an era of indoor plumbing and daily showers. It's all about atmosphere in The Bard's Tale, and the graphics definitely help convey this.

A Note About Humor

The humor in this game might be too goofy and/or scatological for some. There are quite a few references to breasts, balls, and bodily fluids. Beavis and Butthead might approve. There is copious use of alcohol in this game, as the Bard often finds himself drawn to pubs and taverns. Normally this would annoy the heck out of me -- I am not one for drug or alcohol-related comedy at all. Dude, Where's My Car? made me want to retch. The thing that saves Bard's Tale from descent into abject stupidity is that the humor is largely based in wordplay. The game is full of puns and twists of vocabulary. The closest thing I've ever seen to this sort of humor before is that in the old Sierra games, notably the early "King's Quest" adventures. The pubs and groin assaults are forgivable because they're just atmosphere: the real funny stuff is in the wit and banter. And it's generally worth sitting through the stuff that makes you groan in a bad way, because it's more than likely that a glorious pun lingers just around the corner.


References:

The Bard's Tale game manual
Personal experience from playing the game