It’s been a long time since I encountered a game that made me laugh out loud and sing along with the tunes in game (and out as well), but Bard’s Tale has managed to do this. Fans of Mel Brooks or the Shrek films will be right at home with this hack and slash title from InXile Entertainment and developer Vivendi Universal. Brian Fargo, the creater of the series, wanted to bring his classic tale from the Commodore 64 and Apple II to a new generation of gamers. He didn’t want to just re-create his gaming classic on the console, but actually reinvent it for a new generation of gamers. The original Bard’s Tale game is what you would expect from a classic RPG. It contained your basic good versus evil storyline, party management, and regular turn based combat. This worked well, and the game was known for it’s story and gameplay. Now Brian is attempting to repeat his success with the first, but by turning the formula on its ear.
There are no large enhancements to the graphics here from what we’ve seen in the Snowblind studios engine before. They have taken the engine that Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance 1 & 2 and Champions of Norrath have used, and placed it in a Scots highland setting. The graphics are, for the most part, clean and easy to see. The texture combinations of grass and foliage sometimes make the game a little hard to play on the Playstation 2, unless you make good use of the map. The character models are well done, and the Bard’s model updates depending on the equipment you use.
I was a little put out by some of the foliage and dungeon dressing that was placed in the areas. Trees and objects in the dungeon would block my view of the enemy and/or my characters. This happened somewhat frequently, but could be mitigated by just planning your attack direction a little in advance.
The sound in this game is excellent, on all points. The background music provides the right amount of flavor in each of the areas you travel through. It isn’t jarring or too subtle, and follows the gameplay well. What really stands out is the character dialog. Every character I could speak to had dialog with a voiceover. The voiceover dialog was well done, and each character had it’s own vocal quirks or style that made it unique. I could only find some instances of repeated dialog, and that was usually in the incidental characters that would just say, “Excuse me,” or something nonsensical as I walked past. Even your summoned assistants had unique sounds or speech that set them apart from the others. All the voiceover work is well done and easy to understand.
The dialog is also well written. The Bard’s wit shows though in the dialog. Cary Elwes does an excellent job voicing the Bard for the game, and sets the stage for our victim…er, Hero. Cary is best know for his lead roles in “The Princess Bride” and “Robin Hood: Men in Tights.” Not to be left out, the Narrator, who is voiced by Tony Jay, is the Bard’s foil in many situations. Providing voices for many of the Snowblind engine games in the past, Tony has nailed the scholarly tone necessary to be “reading” from the book. The two characters reguarly discuss absurd details of the world or the Narrator mocks the Bard’s accomplishments. Several of the discussions had me laughing out loud as the situations. The Bard reguarly breaks the fourth wall, and speaks to the Narrator and the player directly.
Also of note are the musical numbers that appear in different scenes. As you travel through the quests, you encounter people who have failed on this very journey. And your most hated enemy, the numerous Trow, come out and sing you a song to remind you of the futility of your journey. Of course, the song is sung much in the manner of the Oompah-Loompah songs from the Willy Wonka. These songs also had me in stitches throughout their run, and the majority of the songs are not simple short songs. Most of these songs are three minutes or more in length. They are also classic ballad based songs, which tell a story rather than being short verses with a repeated chorus.
The controls of The Bard’s Tale is extremely simplistic. The game uses the X button to attack, and the circle button to block. The square button lets you interact with the various objects that you encounter in the levels. Triangle allows you to jump a short distance. The shoulder buttons display a series of ring menus that control what weapons you have selected, what songs you want to use, and other special abilities that you gain during the course of play. All the menus are fast to navigate, and since they are tied to the regular face buttons, become second nature. You learn really quickly that R1, Triangle, Square will summon up the Crone. This is important when facing a tough enemy and you need to bring some of your assistants back into play.
This game is basically a series of areas or dungeons that you need to play through, getting the magic widgets at the end to move on to other areas. If I stopped there I would not be doing this game justice. The game has a world map that shows the areas you have unlocked through conversation with the various people in the towns. It also displays random encounters on the world map which are simple randomized areas in which you must kill a specific number of enemies before you can leave it. It is possible in this game to go from chapter three all the way to chapter nine without experiencing anything in between (though you will have to go back and face most of those other chapters to advance the story). This is not advised, but the difficulty is not shown to you until you get cut down suddenly by these higher level creatures. Consider carefully each area you enter or you will be reloading a lot.
This game epitomizes hack and slash gameplay, with your basic attack button causing the Bard to swing his weapon at the enemies, and the block button allows him to completely block most attacks. There is little more to the control of the Bard. In most cases this would result in an average and boring game. But that fails to take into account the Bard’s summoning abilities. The Bard can have anywhere from 1 to 4 creatures summoned into service with him, depending on the musical instrument that you are currently using. These allies, of which there are sixteen, can help round out the Bard’s party and make up for his weaknesses in combat. There are four classes of tunes that you learn: combat, elemental, tool, and support, with each class having four different creatures in them. There is the Crone, which I mentioned earlier, who will heal wounded allies periodically. There is the Knight with his valor, and the Mercenary who is concerned about how much he is paid. The Explorer finds traps in dungeons and disables them for you by throwing himself on them. And the list continues… You can earn an upgraded version of each of these sixteen songs through adventuring and questing. I never did discover if you get the upgraded version without getting the initial song. Your friendly Frequently Asked Question site may be able to assist you in this. And a word to the wise, it never hurts to be nice to the local dog…nor to train him. He can be as valuable or more so as any of your allies in battle.
By using different combinations of these allies in battle, the Bard’s Tale goes from being a hack and slash game to a party management game. You have to consider each environment you are entering and plan accordingly, as changing or re-summoning allies in combat is a challenge in running away…in circles. I found most of the combat to be challenging, but fun. Switching out allies in combat, or re-summoning them if they get killed made paying attention to who is getting attacked important. Your character development is also important. Putting points into your Rythm statistic at level up time makes your allies much stronger. Managing the allies and fights made the game play well, as I found myself switching from front-line fighter to bow support and back as the situation needed. The game supported this careful approach to fights well, and I found the flow of the game much more enjoyable using this method.
The Bard’s Tale brings another new game feature to the table in its inventory system. More accurately, it takes that management out of the picture. If the item you pick up does not upgrade your equipment in any way, it is immediately converted to silver. If it does improve your equipment, your old equipment is immediately converted to silver. In shops, you will only see the equipment that will improve your abilties which makes the decision to buy that much easier. This system takes a lot of the numbers management out of the system, and makes upgrade choices considerably easier. Initially, I didn’t like this idea, as I am used to dealing with items and trying to decide what I need at a given time. Once I had worked with the system for awhile, though, I realized that it helped let me focus on the combat and story of the game.
Originally, when I started this review, I picked “Olde School” as my difficulty level. I found myself increasingly frustrated with the game as it kept finding ways to kill me. When I restarted the game, I also found that Olde School changed where save points are in the levels, making them more difficult. I would only recommend Olde School for those players that have completed the game and want a greater challenge. As it was, the game took me about twelve hours to play through, and I found this was just right for this world. As it is, I am ready to dive back in and play again on the next of the three difficulty levels (Normal).The game has a low replay value, as the only areas I found that were randomly generated were the random encounters. There are unlockable items, but they are unlocked by making a certain number of donations to the Priest in the Kirk (or in a random encounter). This is somewhat worth doing early on, as it unlocks sing-along versions of the Bad Luck, Beer Beer Beer, and other songs, as well as art galleries and some movie files. Replay is up some due to the effect of being snarky or sweet to different conversations and seeing what happens.
Bard’s Tale takes a decently realized world and puts it in your hands as a decent action RPG. The world is detailed and interesting to be in, with only some annoying graphical issues. The dialog (written and spoken) is amazingly well done, and funny to boot. It is a complete package that works, and will provide a nice diversion to people who enjoyed any of the Baldur’s Gate console games, or Champions of Norrath.