Release Date: October 2004
The original Bard’s Tale series was one of the most popular and respected RPG series from the early days, that is, the late 1980s and early 1990s. When word came that Brian Fargo, one of the creators of the original series who had recently departed the quickly-sinking Interplay (which he founded in 1983) to not only form his own studio, but to create a new “Bard’s Tale” game, industry interest spiked. Okay, that’s probably the longest and most convoluted run-on sentence I’ve ever written in a review, but you get my point. Not only another “Bard’s Tale” game, but one made by the man himself, Brian Freekin’ Fargo!
Fargo’s new studio, InXile, licensed Snowblind’s Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance engine to use for their new game. And rather than a simple remake of one of the old titles, this Bard’s Tale is a complete rethinking of not only the original games, but of the RPG genre itself.
This is a good thing, as the genre certainly is due for some reevaluation and even irreverent parody. And this is where the game shines the most.
The writing is snappy and funny. Many elements that seem generic in other games this type – the drone of the narrator’s voice, the cliché dialog of shopkeepers, etc. – is given a very fresh makeover.
The villager who sells supplies, for example, offers a hilarious running commercial commentary on every item of his stock that you are considering buying. It’s funny, and what’s more, it makes sense – it makes you wonder why ALL shopkeepers in games don’t talk this way.
Ditto the narrator. The lead voice actor in the game is Cary Elwes, who you may remember hasn’t been good in a movie since The Princess Bride (anyone remember his laughable character in Twister?) No, it’s the narrator who steals the show this time around. Voiced by that dependable king of game voice work, aged-in-oak-throated Tony Jay, this is a narrator that doesn’t take RPG clichés for granted. When the hero dispatches a wolf and it drops money and other bling, Jay stops in his tracks. “Did I read that correctly? The wolf drops . . . gold?” He also has mordantly funny comments to make whenever the player pauses for too long before resuming adventuring, and he even engages in irritated exchanges with the game hero.
The game even weaves its sharp sense of humor into the various quests. There’s a hilarious spoof of the old television show “To Tell the Truth,” in an early quest, and later there’s some fun to be had when it seems every character in certain town has the same name as the guy you’re looking for.
I have a soft spot for any game that features dogs, and there’s a beagle in the game’s first village that wants to make friends with you. HINT: Be nice to the dog! You’ll be glad you did!
If good humor was all that it took to make a great role-playing game, The Bard’s Tale would be a huge winner. Alas, when it comes to RPG mechanics and gameplay, InXile didn’t have the creative juices flowing quite so freely.
The game is solid, to be sure. Even though you have to play the title character, you are given real choices as to his development: More of a ranged user, melee brawler or summoner? And, while the game is fairly linear, you do have some choice about the order in which to tackle quests.
The game takes place in a very generic medieval-tone fantasy setting that feels like . . . well, like pretty much every other non-Japanese RPG you’ve ever played. The prospective is over-the-shoulder third person.
The menus in the game, which are mostly built around a pop-up system of rings, are serviceable but a bit clumsy and involved. Even after a few hours of play, controlling my character in and out of combat didn’t flow naturally from my fingers to the screen.
One major streamlining effort the game implements has to do with looting defeated enemies. Instead of picking up various bits of equipment you don’t want to use and having to schlep the pile of it back to a vendor in town to sell it, the game magically converts any item that’s of less value than what you’re currently using into cash on the spot. And, while I appreciate the impulse, the effect unfortunately just emphasizes the thinness of the actual game.
The Snowblind engine is several years old now, and what blew us away when Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance was released isn’t quite so impressive now. Also, the third person perspective on your character is pitched so steeply that you get a crick in your neck trying to look forward. This problem also renders ranged weaponry not nearly as effective as it could be.
Playing this game reminded me very much of the experience I had playing 2003’s comedy platformer Whiplash. It was perhaps the funniest game I’d ever played, but it was terribly bogged down by bad controls and monotonous gameplay.
If you’re a real RPG junkie (which I freely admit I am), the fresh, irreverent, humorous tone of Bard’s Tale may be entertaining enough for you to ignore the fact that it’s sitting on top of a pretty mundane, flat game experience. If you aren’t as seduced by the jokes, you’ll probably be better off by playing any number of meatier RPG choices out there.
Final Grade: C+