The Bard’s Tale hooked me instantly with its sense of humor. When I launched the game, it seemed like any other of the countless role playing fantasy games on the market. The music was the same tavern lute that I’ve heard before, the menus were designed to look like pages from a book I’m sure I’ve read many times, and the narrator (voiced by the great Tony Jay) gave brief descriptions of every familiar thing I selected. This was all well and good as a direct clone of any one of a hundred fantasy games, but then I got to the difficulty screen and saw the hardest setting was called Olde School.
I laughed for two minutes straight at that one, and instantly dove into what has to be the funniest game I’ve played this side of The Curse of Monkey Island.
The key to humor is the simplest rule: Make sure the funny is in fact funny. Humor is absolutely the most subjective thing on the planet, and everyone laughs at different things. Heck, two people in one of my college film school classes laughed during an execution scene in Schindler’s List. The Bard’s Tale, however, takes a whimsy sense of witty wordplay, and infuses it with such a healthy dose of cynicism that the result is an absolute comedic riot. I’ve been laughing for days at the banter between the tired-of-this-game narrator and the seen-it-all Bard, not to mention just how hilariously the Bard defuses the gravity of any situation by correctly pointing out that nothing he’s encountered is original.
Plus, any game where a musical number can just break out on the fly scores major points with me.
But all the high comedy of The Bard’s Tale failed to mask the simple truth that the combat is really nothing more than a prettied up Gauntlet remix. Based on the Bard’s background, so eloquently told in the game’s manual, I had intended to play the Bard as a smart aleck coward prone to summoning people to fight for him while he goes and hides in a corner until it’s done. Alas, that plan was not to be about 15 minutes in, because the combat is fast, fierce, and in your face right from the start, and unless you are prepared then the Bard’s tale will be nothing more than the Cliffs Notes version.
The graphics of The Bard’s Tale are actually pretty good during the cinematics. All of the human characters look appropriate based on their status in the world, and the Bard himself looks as scruffy as he should. You will spend an awful lot of time watching the various conversations in cinematic mode, so it’s a good thing that the developers made the models look as good as they did. I also enjoyed how the Bard’s model would physically appear to get annoyed during most conversations, and it wasn’t just through the use of the excellent voice acting by Cary Elwes. All of the characters have their own inflections, and no one just stands still during conversations. It’s also quite funny to watch any of the characters involved in the musical numbers match time with one another.
The rest of the game looks alright, but it’s nothing that hasn’t been seen before. I guess that was mostly the point of The Bard’s Tale, to present a fantasy world that every one has seen before, then have the game star a person who is just as sick of it all as we are. The maps are all limited in the places you can go to, and the top-down view only shows so much at a time. The models there really aren’t too far removed from Gauntlet, and the more I played the more I got the feeling I was playing that exact game, only with a +10 to Humor. Did I actually just write that?
The voice acting is where The Bard’s Tale really sets itself apart from the rest of the pack. Cary Elwes steals the show with just about everything he says as the Bard, though he’s matched bit for bit by Tony Jay as the narrator. They frequently argue back and forth, and not only do you get the sense that the Bard is trying with all his might to ignore the narrator, but also that the narrator takes no small amount of pleasure from openly mocking the Bard. The Bard’s Tale is a from the heart spoof of the role playing game and fantasy genres, and having a protagonist who really has seen it all triples the fun. His sense of world-weary cynicism is in such stark contrast to the wide-eyed wonder with which your characters always have to start in role playing games, that whenever a fed-ex quest is handed to him, the Bard not only mocks the quest giver, but can offer bodily harm if the quest turns out to be less than meaningful.
The rotating cast all turn in great performances as well, from the widow with the rat problem at the beginning, to the Greek chorus who routinely show up, to the Bodbs, to the recurring Snarpf, and so on. Everyone who turns in a vocal performance brings their A game, and the result is truly spectacular. I’ve been laughing for days at The Bard’s Tale, and I imagine I’ll be laughing for many days forward.
Since the game is based around the story of surly minstrel, the music was a primary focus. It’s a good thing the developers nailed this critical piece of the game, because the music of The Bard’s Tale soars. Whenever he plays his lute to summon a different character, the brief strains are very nice on the ears. All of the tunes are different, and all of them are worth hearing repeatedly. I also really enjoyed the background music both in the world and inside the buildings. There is a land of beautiful song here, and its well worth listening to.
It took me a little while to get the full hang of the controls in The Bard’s Tale, but once I did the game took off. The camera control and movement are handled with the typical right and left thumb sticks, respectively, and the Select button brings up your stats menu. The A button attacks, the Y button uses items, the X button jumps, the B button blocks attacks if your timing is just right, the white button lets you change your melee fighting style, and the black button alters between your melee fighting and your ranged fighting. The left trigger pulls up your Artifact summon menu, which lets you summon different creatures based on how many artifacts you have. The right trigger pulls up your Tune summon menu, where you can select which NPC you want to have fight with or guard you.
Switching weapon styles and summoned creatures while under attack is not advised though, as your character does take a second to get himself ready. If you swap between a bow and a dual wielded sword and dirk, then expect a brief delay. Be careful if you want to summon a creature to heal you or your companions, because the game does not pause while you sort through menus looking for the right tune to play, nor does it pause while the tune is being played. The game will only pause during a summon once the creature is actually summoned.
Overall, I’ve had a lot of fun with The Bard’s Tale. It is chock full of the type of high comedy that I truly enjoy. The banter between the egomaniacal Bard and the Narrator (who’s played by Jay as someone who can’t believe his agent couldn’t get him a better gig) is one of the many consistent highlights of the game. It’s always worth playing through just to get the next chance to mouth off to someone just to hear what all is said. Unfortunately, you have to play through some really repetitive combat and the fights along the way just tend to get old after a while.
Let me put it this way: You really are playing through a modern day version of Gauntlet. The Bard’s Tale is a comical combat game set in a fantasy world, and that is what everything boils down to. Whether you have a lot of fun depends entirely on your own point of view. If you enjoy hacking and slashing at things, then you will definitely enjoy The Bard’s Tale. If you enjoy brilliantly funny comedy, then you will definitely enjoy The Bard’s Tale.
One of the things The Bard’s Tale does just right is something I’ve heard come under fire in the gaming community. It is the complete lack of inventory management, and personally I think it’s a terrific addition. One of the running jokes of past installments in The Bard’s Tale series was how every character in a role playing game has an inventory that carries an endless amount of potions, weapons, clothing and armor and so forth. Once the inventory was full, you have to drag everything back to town and sell it all. Where The Bard’s Tale changes this is by automatically upgrading your weapon or armor to a superior one, and then giving you the cash value of the older weapon or armor. Why no one ever thought of this before is beyond me, but not having to worry about slugging around 500lbs. of armor and weaponry let me focus on the game at hand, and for that alone The Bard’s Tale should be commended.
The massive amount of comedy in The Bard’s Tale leads one to think that this is the game to bring out whenever personal gloom is high. I laughed hard, and I laughed consistently throughout my adventures with the Bard, and this is definitely a game I’ll keep in my library for the future. The adventures don’t change, and the options available only range from marginally interested to snarky, but with so much witty wordplay afoot I won’t be able to resist playing through it again someday.
The Bard’s Tale is a genuinely hilarious spoof of a genre long overdue for it. Role playing games, and indeed the fantasy genre itself, are so ripe for parody that they are in danger of becoming a parody of themselves. When a person thinks of the fantasy genre, visions of elves and wizards immediately spring to mind and are chased away just as fast by the regret that we can’t think of something more inventive. The Bard’s Tale is a breath of fresh air in the sense that the protagonist has exactly the same problem. Long live the bard, and may he have plenty more adventures in the future.