Final Thoughts 14

The Bard's Tale


Note: This is not a review, but merely my musings after having recently completed a game as part of my Rogue's Adventures playthrough of my backlog. Follow @RoguesAdventure to keep up with my playthroughs.

Developer: InXile Entertainment

Release Date: October 26, 2004 (PS2, Xbox)

The Bard's Tale would seem a strange game to be in my backlog - a mediocre, console-based Action RPG, and one of the few major releases seen by Ex-Interplay CEO Brian Fargo's smaller development studio InXile Entertainment. It's possible you ignore any and all Kickstarter goings-ons as it regards to the video game industry, but you'd be missing out on the huge resurgence in 2012 that saw many companies, big and small, go the crowdsourcing route in looking to make what has normally been considered niche titles - Point and Click adventure games, real time strategy, and old school tactical computer role playing games. InXile found an insane amount of success first with the multimillion dollar Wasteland 2 project, and then earlier this year with making a spiritual successor to the much beloved Planescape: Torment. (I previously wrote about starting another Kickstarter project while the first is still in development right here).

What does this have to do with The Bard's Tale? Well, I'm a huge fan of the properties and the CRPG genre that InXile is in the midst of reviving, backed both Kickstarter projects, and picked up The Bard's Tale during a deeply discounted Steam Sale so I could see at least one of their games in action!

The Bard's Tale shares its name with an old dungeon crawler RPG series from the 80s called Tales of the Unknown (Bard's Tale being the subtitle) of which this action "remake" has almost nothing to do with aside from a few names. This modern telling puts players in the shoes of the unnamed Bard (voiced by Princess Bride's Cary Elwes), an incredibly snarky scoundrel who's very aware of the tired fantasy tropes that surround him. He's seemingly plagued by an omnipresent narrator whose droll voice and mockery of the Bard's every move remains a constant annoyance to our hero.

The Bard's Tale plays exactly as you'd imagine a console-based Action RPG would, but the difficult combat prevents it from being a button masher and the almost complete lack of skills gives you very limited options during a fight. The Bard can attack with several different weapons and styles including dual wielding and flails which change his attack speed and blocking capabilities while skills gained every other level grant either passive abilities like more critical hits or finding better treasure or give a few limited combat abilities like rushing charge attacks and utterly necessary riposte skills that knock the enemy down after a successful block.

On the magic side the Bard takes his cues from the traditional Bard class of Dungeons and Dragons and specializes in summoning a variety of allies and creatures from four different classes - Support, Physical, Elemental, and Utility. Summoned creatures range from the mundane rats, mercenaries, and bow wielding amazons to the more interesting lightning bolt javelin throwers and bodyguards that absorb blows with their shields. Then there was my personal favorite: A badass skeletal triceratops that breathed fire and lit himself on fire before charging into foes! Even if he did die a lot and cost all my mana to summon, the behemoth was always by my side for his sheer awesomeness.

The ability to summon your own army was a nice way to balance the combat for a small party, but The Bard started with only a single slot and by the end of the game I only had three (I believe the max is four). Gaining new songs and summoned allies was a great reward for doing quests or advancing in the story, and each song had an additional upgrade to be found that made the creature much stronger. While certain allies performed best in certain dungeons and a few even had out of combat uses (the fire elemental could melt ice, the light fairy could dispel darkness) I normally just found my optimal crew and rolled with that.

Combat is certainly not the game's strong suit, which is shocking for an ARPG, but thankfully the Bard's Tale's real advantage is sardonic and many times outright mocking humor of traditional fantasy stories and games. Many, many standardized tropes are commented on by The Bard and narrator throughout the adventure: from the Obviously Trapped Chests to the Princess that Needs Rescuing to the Back and Forth Fetch Quests. While the game does successfully subvert a few of these, including a rather brilliant ending, it makes the cardinal sin of simply repeating them while trying to make the joke. Just because The Bard gets to be snarky about constantly going back and forth to try and accomplish a fetch quest in town doesn't actually make that same tedious task any more fun. It would've been fun if instead the Bard threatens the lying NPC to begin with, thus making the same joke without having to do the same lame task.

Despite the frequent missteps in its send-ups of common fantasy themes and plot devices, The Bard's Tale is weakest during the long dungeon crawls where dialogue and witty commentary are few and far between. An ARPG, even one with a fairly clever writing style should at the very least have enjoyable combat, but The Bard's Tale utterly fails in this regard. Since your only skill/spell options are to summon allies before a battle, every fight comes down to timed attacks and blocks, and the enemy is all too proficient at timing its own blocks. With a few foes the player learns to adapt to this timing, and after learning the critically important riposte skill for my dual wielding I finally felt like I could defeat most enemies with a few well timed counter attacks. Unfortunately this system completely falls apart when they are half a dozen or more enemies on the screen, which the game throws at you frequently. Like every other battle. You'll block two or three attacks but the fourth will connect at the wrong time and you'll be stunned just long enough for the other eight to get their licks in. The Bard can't ever take more than a handful of hits, and even with the auto-healing ally the crone doing her best to keep me alive (she was a permanent spot on my team once I acquired her) my only option was to turn tail and run. Every other battle. On Normal difficulty! Needless to say, I was completely frustrated by the end of the game and during several late game areas I simply ran past all the enemies while shaking my head at their sheer numbers. In what should have been a light-hearted adventure quickly devolved into a frustrating mess.

It's a shame that the combat ended up being more frustrating than fun, as I genuinely enjoyed the writing and storytelling displayed in The Bard's Tale. Making fun of a genre by diving into it head first and being very self-aware and "in on the joke" is really nothing new, and it can be a tricky line to walk between clever satire and eye rolling dumb jokes at low-hanging fruit, but for the most part The Bard's Tale succeeds in the former more often than not. As an added bonus there are several musical numbers littered throughout the story complete with bouncing ball and sing-along lyrics, at least one of which I really enjoyed! As boring as the final dungeon ended up being (literally just a series of arena type battles against all the previous enemy types) the final sequence gave me an interesting choice of whom to side with, as well as a brilliant 3rd option to simply walk away! My choice was obvious; the Bard got to be extra snarky, and the game ended with our hero "taking the easy way the nearest bar," where he seemingly got drunk with a bunch of breakdancing skeletons we'd met earlier. Just perfect. Even so, unless you have a lot of patience to wade through tedious combat, mediocre level design, and aging PS2 era graphics, I would be hard pressed to recommend this humorous ARPG to anyone when a few youtube clips can give you all the best jokes.

Or go to the next page to see some of my favorites I screencapped!