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So Hyped, So Mediocre: The Bard's Tale Review

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So Hyped, So Mediocre: The Bard's Tale Review

Review - posted by Role-Player on Mon 29 January 2007, 04:01:05

Tags: Brian Fargo; inXile Entertainment; The Bard's Tale (2004)

inXile's The Bard's Tale gets a Codexian smackdown for your reading pleasure. Bard lovers stay away.

Unlike most other hack’n’slashers, The Bard’s Tale has no inventory to speak of nor does it have any loot that you can physically acquire from fallen enemies. All the items the Bard can acquire are either purchased at weapon stores and taverns, or handed out at several fixed points in the game’s story with the weaker equipment being automatically converted to the game’s currency. It's not hard to imagine some sort of brief setup on why this happens - considering the Bard's big mouth and penchant for making rash decisions, he might have angered some wizard or genie that made his desire for coin come true but at the expense of never being able to acquire items unless he spent the gold he cherished so much. But nothing ever explains the logic behind this quirky mechanic, ingame or otherwise. And since the Bard's equipment is improved once in a while by picking up better weapons and replacing the ones he has automatically with shinier and deadlier versions, why am still I finding poor weapons that are instantly changed to gold? Instead of just finding a ton of weapons the Bard won't equip and since automation was apparently a design goal, why not have enemies just drop gold right away? There's no point showing the player a weapon or item the Bard has picked up but won't be able to use. There could be a certain charm to the items you find on slain enemies but seeing Wolfs dropping the likes of picnic baskets and red hoods isn’t exactly pushing humor to new heights.

Who would've thought loot in a hack'n'slasher was good?


Under the helm of Interplay in its better days, The Bard’s Tale was a best-selling and critically acclaimed series of dungeon crawlers which, among other series like Wizardry and Ultima, paved the way for the computer roleplaying genre and helped define many of its conventions. While not the greatest fan of the series – mostly because it never managed to capture me as much as Wizardry, though it did present several improvements to its formula – I did enjoy it back in the day and it was with some anticipation that I received news back in September 2003 that Brian Fargo – one of the original developers involved with the series now with his own company, inXile Entertainment - would be working on a new game of the series, set to be released in consoles and for the PC. I always had a weak spot for dungeon crawlers and the idea that I might be able to return to an updated version of Skara Brae was met with some enthusiasm.

Unfortunately, inXile’s The Bard’s Tale is literally a Bard’s Tale game in name only. Despite carrying the name of the series, Fargo only managed to acquire the rights of the name from Electronic Arts through a legal loophole, but not the rights to the content of the original series. Interesting then, that this was revealed to the public only after months of misleading marketing ploys such as touting the game as a “re-envisioning of the series”, and right after the game went gold, by the game’s very own lead designer during an interview. Even more unfortunate is that all the things that were hinted at during the game’s publicity – the irreverent humor, the entertaining gameplay, the reworking of RPG cliches – were by and large absent as the game ends up being a short and forgettable action romp that handles none of those elements particularly well, while still carrying issues of its own caused by its console origins.

Bogus Man

The Bard’s Tale was touted as a brave new foray into the RPG genre that would undermine all of its conventions and stereotypes. To do that, it proposed the character of the Bard, travelling musician without pier, greedy and self-serving anti-hero extraordinaire – voiced by the talented Cary Elwes, which expertly plays the title role. Much of the charm in the game would be found on how he was going to nevermind saving the world and go for coin and cleavage instead. Somewhere during development I guess inXile must have thought that it would be a great take on the RPG player expectation cliche to go the other way around instead and completely place the joke on gamers, making us feel like this would actually turn out as good a game as promised but then delivering a pretty ho-hum experience. If one looks closely there are still some glimmers of potential, though. The game’s introductory sequence and first few moments of the gameplay are perhaps some of the better parts of the game, where you see the Bard working his way into a free meal at a local tavern by summoning a rat to scare the tavern’s clientele and then offering to dispose of it. She then proceeds to tell the Bard that he should make short work of the vermin infestation in their cellars. Soon he finds out that the tavern is not all is what it seems, and that the self-awarded titles of Rat-Killer and Rodent-Bane won’t help his ego stand the kind of amusing adventurer trap the tavern is meant to be. But from then on, the Bard gets involved in an increasingly tepid and typical series of quests, much to his dismay – and ours.

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Some chuckles may be in store, but it's all too predictable.

The setting is based on Scottish locations and mythology – in particular those of the Orkney Islands, which had been used in the original Bard’s Tale as well - but feels rather bland in its depiction. Instead of populating the gameworld with noteworthy characters and situations you’ll only find what you’d expect from every standard medieval slop: buxom tavern wenches, a damsel in distress, wizards in towers, a great evil, scores of hackneyed creatures to defeat, and so on. Sadly, these stand out for all the wrong reasons and this is where the game starts showing one of its pitfalls – it tries too hard to mock conventions that have been the genre’s basis for decades and generally finds itself funnier than the player ever will. The Bard will constantly stumble on some stereotype and rarely provide anything other than some trite remark about it; or worse yet, will create its own cliches then force them onto the player – at times compromising the pace of the game - just so the writers could include another dialogue between the Bard and the Narrator (voiced by Tony Jay, who also did excellent VO work in the Soul Reaver series) which they assumed would be funny, but is shallow and often condescending instead as we’ve spotted the cliche well before it’s rubbed in our faces. It’s like since inXile couldn’t design this any better than the standard dungeon hack they were trying to mock, they figured having the Bard babble about how nonsensical it is to have thugs placing a lever in front of a gate they're trying to protect instead of behind the gate where people can't get at it – but still needing to activate the lever anyway - then just maybe players couldn’t see the difference between making a sarcastic remark about something obvious and avoiding said thing entirely. Too bad it doesn’t work that way. And just as bad the Bard’s quest for coin and cleavage gets turned into a standard quest to save the world, contrary to what the blurb on the back of the game’s case and any promotional material might suggest.

What little of relevance that can be extracted from the plot concerns the predicament of one “princess” Caleigh (voiced by Jennifer Hale, whom you may recognize as Deinorra from Black Isle’s cult hit Planescape: Torment), a seemingly typical damsel in distress who beckons the Bard for assistance. Seems she’s entrapped in a high tower by Fionnaoch, who binds her to his tower by keeping three flames lit and protected by his most trusted guardians while apparently trying to spread great evil across the land. Unsurprisingly this is where the Bard comes in, and while this beginning and the rather short main quest is peppered with its share of amusing barbs and events, nothing quite really gives the feeling that this is a fresh take on the genre by virtue of lampooning its excesses, and it’s unfortunate that the Bard’s uniqueness as a characters suffers with this as well. By never being allowed to be doing anything else other than making obvious statements about which he cannot change, the Bard is never as irreverent as proposed and actually comes off as nothing more than a lowly grunt in the story who will carry out what is asked of him since he can’t actually forget about saving the world. Still, some credit has to be given to the game by at least managing to present a twist which, while not novel, does manage to spin the story and characters a bit. If only the rest of the game was as inspired as its initial and final moments it could have been sweet.

The game’s story is played out in fairly linear chapters, with the next world area being unlocked by NPCs and usually requiring a fair bit of exploration, combat and quest solving. Most of the initial areas work as a hub of sorts, complete with quest givers, local taverns and shops from which the Bard can gleam the latest rumors and purchase improved equipment. Sometimes players can unlock optional areas by performing quests in a certain way or buying maps from travelling salesmen. Travelling through a world map to move into other areas presents chances of enemy encounters, with enemy groups being represented by one single monster (that identifies the type of enemy you’ll encounter) chasing you; should you touch it, the encounter is triggered. These are basically small maps with close quarters squirmishes, as enemies are placed randomly across the area and will lie in wait for the Bard; surviving and exiting these areas simply requires that all enemies be killed. But it’s all so derivative you really can’t help but feel disappointed with what’s offered early on and sets the tone for the rest of the game. You’ll explore generic and bland environments, talk to NPCs which ride on some god-awful gimmick you’re expected to find humorous, watch some contrived musical moment by annoying creatures that will test your patience (and if you’re not bored by the second rendition of “It’s Bad Luck To Be You”, I have news you might like – the same song is deemed good enough to be played out a grand total of five times during the game), generally hack everything that rushes at you, acquire equipment and followers, level up the Bard and... Repeat.

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While the game tries to "turn RPG cliches on its head", you'll try turning a blind eye to the hit or miss humor.

The Great Pretender

While far removed from what would be expected of a CRPG when it comes to dialogue choices, The Bard’s Tale gives players the ability to establish an attitude for numerous interactions with NPCs, which provides a healthy dose of consequences which carry over across the game. inXile touted many times the Nice or Snarky system of negotiating dialogue, which will require players to appraise their situations well and choose with some care because it’s never quite clear just what may happen, and some NPCs appreciate wit and confidence from the Bard rather than simple pleasantries. Apologize to an old codger who is taking the piss on you, and he may not return later to sabotage your quest. Dismiss a Peerie Trow and he may point you into the wrong direction of your quest. Be nice to a perky barmaid and she might interpret your kindness as a lack of virility. If it ever does one thing right is that for the most part it allows players to advance wheter they are sympathetic to one’s plight or totally callous towards it, and each player is free to define the Bard’s resolve in a conversation. The hit-or-miss satire filled with innuendo and self-referential attempts at humor that permeate the dialogue do tend to hinder more than help, but more often than not the voice acting will manage to make you forget about the game’s more unpolished elements.

However, there is an uneven presentation in how some of these interactions occur. You’ll often find that choosing to be nice or snarky merely sets the initial tone of the conversation, and that the Bard may veer into a totally different attitude halfway through it because the character’s attitude is set in stone many times. This also poses another question regarding the forced nature of the character: if the Bard is not heroic, then why am I being given the choice to be so? If he's considered to be an uncaring and self-serving git who will only help his fellow man if there is some reward, then why am I allowed to play such an altruistic role so often? It's defeating to the proposed nature of the character, as well as to various events during the course of the game. Of course providing a personalized experience for every gamer by allowing them to choose the attitude behind many interactions is welcomed, but the mechanics just aren’t solid enough to support this. An example of this is how the game allows you to be snarky or nice to NPCs, but will often put you in situations where the Bard can only advance by doing what the designers intended. In one level you need to convince a not quite dead Viking to give you an item. I tried all the Nice possibilities only to see he wouldn't budge and after a while I had no other choice but to act Snarky. So at times you may try to play one way only to have the game prevent you from advancing until you have the Bard act the opposite of what you’re doing.

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Snarky or Nice? Whatever the choice, something unremarkable or painfully boring will ensue.

Another problem comes from being given the choice to play the Bard as you want while having to contend with the exposition of a predetermined personality. While this is not exclusive to this game it's still a disingenious route taken by developers who simply can't understand that having a protagonist with a fixed personality will clash with the ability to stray from what has been previously written for the personality. It comes as a bit of contradiction that in one minute he can be nice to a lost dog and helpful to an old man, while in the next he can insult the barmaid, threaten to gut someone or burn their house – and this inconsistent exposition tends to undermine much of the natural flow of the character and dialogue. I think in these situations it would have been preferable to have the Bard play a fixed role rather than give choices that just promote the feeling of a hysterical, maniacal and just plain schizoid character. It’s better to be given a character with a fixed personality than a character that plays out a personality out of my control but the game suggests is under said control. Amusingly enough, those thuggish threats are pretty ridiculous in nature since the Bard can’t even carry them out – the game never allows him to harm NPCs in the first place, as it relies on the tradition of storytelling through invulnerable NPCs who will often do nothing but bloat the game’s length by sending the Bard run in circles. So it even ends up shortchanging players who would want to roleplay a vicious Bard and limits them to a loudmouth hustler that can’t follow up on his threats, no matter how bloodthirsty (of which he makes quite a few in the game).

Driving Me Backwards

The Bard’s Tale uses Snowblind Studios’s graphical engine that also powered the Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and EverQuest: Champions series for consoles, which can be summed up as Gauntletesque versions of the PC originals, combining simplistic and reflex-based action with modest roleplaying features in the form of statistical customization for characters, and using an overhead perspective which can be manipulated by zooming and panning the camera. While graphically par for the course, the game engine shows its age more than ever with backgrounds which are largely sterile and which suffer from heavy pixelization in some areas, making them seem very rough and contrasting with the locations they are placed in. There’s some texture blurring as well, plaguing a few spots but generally doing their job. The best graphical feat of the engine are the quality 3D models which do a good job of rendering characters and creatures (along with their animations) but this is somewhat hurt by the overhead perspective which rarely allows players to see anything in detail until they trigger a cutscene which gives a greater detail of a particular scene. Why a better kind of camera control wasn’t available to gamers in the first place is a mystery but it would have certainly been useful for the many situations where some enemies are obscured by the environments. On the other hand, the worst aspect of an otherwise stable and sufficient engine is the video quality. You’d think the awfully grainy and faded FMVs being shown were ported from a 32-bit era console and not from a last generation console which is capable of producing very high quality computer generated images, but something was lost in translation to put it mildly.

While the necessary elements needed for the game to retain its action RPG roots are intact, inXile made some design decisions that considerably compromise the gameplay in several areas. Not comfortable with mishandling the Bard’s role with screwy dialogue presentation, inXile saw fit to streamline the game – and at this point you should really be asking, just how much more streamlined do action RPGs need to be? – and with that has effectively taken out much of the charm of the genre.

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Joking, map travelling, floating on ice. All in a Bard's day.

One of the main issues is loot. Unlike most other hack’n’slashers, The Bard’s Tale has no inventory to speak of nor does it have any loot that you can physically acquire from fallen enemies. All the items the Bard can acquire are either purchased at weapon stores and taverns, or handed out at several fixed points in the game’s story with the weaker equipment being automatically converted to the game’s currency. It's not hard to imagine some sort of brief setup on why this happens - considering the Bard's big mouth and penchant for making rash decisions, he might have angered some wizard or genie that made his desire for coin come true but at the expense of never being able to acquire items unless he spent the gold he cherished so much. But nothing ever explains the logic behind this quirky mechanic, ingame or otherwise. And since the Bard's equipment is improved once in a while by picking up better weapons and replacing the ones he has automatically with shinier and deadlier versions, why am still I finding poor weapons that are instantly changed to gold? Instead of just finding a ton of weapons the Bard won't equip and since automation was apparently a design goal, why not have enemies just drop gold right away? There's no point showing the player a weapon or item the Bard has picked up but won't be able to use. There could be a certain charm to the items you find on slain enemies but seeing Wolfs dropping the likes of picnic baskets and red hoods isn’t exactly pushing humor to new heights.

Wheter one finds this streamlining method a blessing or a curse, it just shows poor design skills to cut out an entire feature instead of solving its issues. After all, the problem in getting enormous amounts of random loot isn't being solved since you're still getting it anyway and are dependant of its value to advance - the only difference is that you can't access it as it gets instantly turned to gold. And if the idea was to have players focus more on gameplay and less on inventory management, why not apply this to other elements such as backtracking? Even if an honest desire to mitigate the genre’s issues was present, there were better ways to achieve this. Instead of having to take the Bard shopping, he could have access to a special song with which to summon a shopkeeper himself instead of having to make it back to vendors in towns or in the world map. Instead of needing to find progressively better loot he could be given a sentient weapon which improved over time in damage and accuracy, or gained new abilities depending on what the Bard told it to do. A lot could be done and simply wasn’t. Instead you walk away with the stark realization that this isn't a whimsical take on an RPG cliche nor a really great way to handle the genre’s problems, just a contrived design decision. By taking out one of the things that managed to alleviate the genre’s focus in combat, inXile effectively exposed its weak spot and then rubbed in some salt in the wound by providing nothing else but combat – not even a good excuse or reason for this kind of absence.

The only bright spot of the excess of combat comes from how enemy encounters will have different difficulty levels the more you progress into the game. At earlier levels you might find small hordes of Kunal Trow rushing you in melee, but later into the game you’ll chance upon Trow Shaman and Trow who are mounting wild boars. The more you progress the more impressive creatures begin roaming the land, although they still keep rushing you and there are very few times when you’ll encounter danger at the hands of spellcasters (which only seem to know about three spells, anyway). There are also some attempts to spice things up in a couple of areas by having the Bard make use of improvised rafts which have limited maneuverability or guiding NPCs to safety across lenghtly, dangerous and sometimes timed areas, but nice as these ideas may be they’re botched by continuous combat that doesn’t really make these moments stand out. Take rafts, for instance, where you confront water-based Finfolk who will come out of the water and onto the raft. If they die while in the water, their dropped loot will somehow still make it into your hands. Instead of taking the time to present a nice tradeoff – wait for enemies to be in melee range to get loot at the expense of more danger, or safely kill them from a distance but sacrificing any monetary rewards – you don’t need to bother with any of that and just click away to get your loot. Keep clicking like a good monkey.

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Click, monkeys, click!

Been There, Done That

For the most part action RPGs aren’t exactly a shining beacon of depth but The Bard’s Tale manages to make the competition seem incredibly varied by providing very basic combat mechanics and controls. Attacks are only activated by the left mouse button, which means that the same button is used for single hits or three hit combos. Blocking is set to the space bar by default but ranges from the overpowered to the useless, since the Bard can block pretty much everything thrown at him – including arrows and spears thrown at him – but can only block that which is directly in front of him which is rather useless when he is surrounded by enemy groups. Movement is handled by the right button which can be left pressed to make him continuously move around the screen, while the context sensitive pointer will change shape everytime it hovers above noteworthy things. Targetting enemies in melee then, which is where the majority of combat is played out, requires the use of both mouse buttons to turn the Bard into the enemies’ direction and clicking to activate an attack. Simple isn’t necessarily bad, but when you realize what little you need to do in melee combat and that combat is by far the thing you’ll be mostly doing during the game, you can guess how repetitive and boring this can – and will – get. There’s the possibility for ranged combat but considering that bows never require ammunitions – in fact, any arrows picked up will be turned to gold right away for some reason we’ll never know – and that most enemies will reach the Bard faster than he can pull the bowstring, it’s nearly useless.

Perhaps one of the most aggravating aspects of the game resided in the interface, or rather, how it muddles things up pretty badly when it’s most needed. The game’s menus are based by categories – Weapons, Summons, Artifacts and Special. To access these, players have to keep the left Shift button pressed then click on either the W, A, S or D keys to activate a specific menu, then click on either one of those keys again to activate a specific option in these submenus – which would be fine were it not that all this happens in a realtime framework that does not present any kind of pause feature. This is worse when trying to activate the Summons menu, since it’s divided into four subgroups - Support, Elemental, Helper or Warrior. Trying to get help from your allies in times of need can become frustrating since you have to negotiate the interface that partially obscures the center of the screen while literally running away from enemy assaults since you can’t attack while navigating these menus. So, it basically boils down to left Shift, S, D, and another key just to call on an elemental creature while also having to make the Bard run away. I wonder if Fargo intended this to comes off as a reminder of why Bards are usually considered to be worthless characters in many CRPGs, or if this ends up being an unintentionally funny outcome of poor design? It’s also aggravating that, since the Bard doesn’t have any inventory to speak of there are no healing potions and the only way to heal himself and his followers is to summon a healing ally (which may be temporarly destroyed by enemies) or a ghostly visage of Caleigh herself – which not only requires the same summoning procedure but also pauses the gameworld while it does its work, which takes too long to heal and ends up skewing the pace of combat.

The character system is pretty easy to get into, at least. After earning a particular amount of experience wheter by combat, solving quests or just watching some cutscenes, the Bard will level up and be allowed to allocate some points into his attributes. Genre staples such as Strength will determine damage inflicted in combat, while Charisma grants discounts at shops (though some shopkeepers still give the Bard a hard time). More esoteric skills are present in the form of Luck, which will have a subtle effect on many of the Bard’s actions, and Rythm, which influences the defensive and offensive skills of the Bard’s allies. The Bard picks up on some talents as he progresses through the game but even these feel half-hearted. There's a useful, if predictable, selection of talents – akin to Dungeons and Dragons’s Feats - which enable him to cut down the opposition or block their attacks in all sorts of ways. There are talents that enable him to focus on dual-wielding, handle heavy weapons or focus on ranged attacks, and each of these will also open up a couple of extra talents that are based on it as he progresses in levels. For instance, focusing on ranged weapons will enable the Bard to take the Power Shot talent later on which lets him perform more damaging ranged attacks; whereas dual-wielding a sword and a dirk will unlock Blade Dash, allowing him to focus power and unleash it in a short running motion that has him perform blade swings.

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It's easy to find money sinks, but flying mantas just can't be bought.

Some other talents aren't entirely useful or well thought out, though. The Riposte talent allows the Bard to counterattack enemies with a circular swing after blocking an attack. Seems useful until you notice that he will always counterattack whenever he blocks. So if you block a ranged attack you'll riposte anyway even if there's no enemy within melee range, thus making you lose precious time watching the animation hit nothing but air. Treasure Hunter increases the percentage of loot the Bard finds but isn’t terribly useful since Charisma already gives discounts at shops, and money isn’t exactly hard to get. A talent called Dog Training is added to the list of possible talents when the Bard finds a stray pup and takes it with him, but there's actually no training at all - the talent merely enables the Dog to bite enemies in combat. Picking out from a broad list of better abilities to teach him would have been nice instead, especially since the Dog is pretty damn useless and remains that way through the whole game. It’s also strange how the game doesn’t take the chance to go the extra mile to mock this convention and come up with some Talent that helps the Bard in his quest to find more cleavage. Unfortunately, Talents end up not really adding anything noticeable to combat as you'll often acquire items that already boost your abilities by a considerable number, and the extra abilities rarely present any advantage that repeatedly clicking can't handle. In fact, since a couple of these require time to be activated they may hinder rather than help in situations where you're required to act fast or be on the move. It feels like a small distraction: you allocate points, choose a talent if it's available, and get right back at the twitch fest you were involved in.

Some Of Them Are Old

Speaking of allies, the Bard's Tale offers a cast of allies for the Bard to manipulate. As was mentioned before a dog can join the ranks of the Bard's troupe early on in the adventure, but he's not that useful. He gets kicked around all the time and doesn't pack enough punch to help against enemies, not even lower level ones. Biting them to momentarily distract them is nice, but it never lasts enough time and the enemies quickly get resistant to his bites making him worthless very early on. Beyond flushing out grouse (which besides unlocking one area in the world map is pretty useless otherwise, unless you have the patience to earn money very slowly) and randomly digging up baubles from the ground, the Dog isn't that much of an ally and will have you remember just how cool and useful pets were in Fate. Still, he is the only companion that will never leave the Bard’s side – should the Bard decide to take it along.

The rest of the ‘cast’ is basically comprised of summoned creatures which the Bard will pick up or learn how to summon along the way – in a way replacing spells. While lacking in any kind of personality they’re one of the best features in the game since surviving combat will often depend on combining efforts with different types of summoned allies. Though their talents are somewhat basic and pretty obvious, there is a healthy dose of combinations that can be pulled off nonetheless. Take the Thunder Spider, which can be used to stun enemies while the Gouger drains enemies’ health and distributes it among the party. On the other hand, a Light Fairy that can blind opponents would be useful to create a temporary diversion for the Crone to heal the party uninterruptedly or for the Heroine to unleash a burst of crossbow bolts. All of the summons can also be upgraded which brings either added efficiency to their base abilities or new ones. The Trap Finder will temporarily hold a trap in place so the Bard can pass unharmed while his improved version will also spot hidden paths in dungeons. The Thunder Spider’s stun attack can also stun more enemies by chaining bolts from one enemy to another, and the Crone can learn to curse enemies as well.

The summon system sounds good on paper and for the most part is good, but there’s often an inability to execute the tactics you’d like because there aren’t a lot of control options for the summons, and those that exist provide only marginal differences. The Bard can issue four different orders to his summons and followers - Follow, Stay, Attack, and Defend - but the summons don’t always respond accurately. Following is pretty self-explanatory and has them converge on the Bard’s position – which will work unless they spot an enemy, at which point they will sometimes ignore the order (or only obey a very short amount of time) and attack whatever foe lurks nearby. Meanwhile, attacking and defending rarely makes a difference in behavior since they will still attack on sight, and defending the Bard only has them perform the same moves but closer to the main character. Which, once you notice how heavilly focused on melee enemies are and how they will also attack the Bard despite the summons’ attempts at defense, doesn’t seem like such a good idea. Another oversight is that orders are always heeded by all the active summons. This spells doom for some tactics the player may want to pull off since you can’t tell one ally to defend and another to attack – once you give an order, all the summons will obey it (or try to). This was problematic when I wanted to prevent one summon from attacking while another sucked health out of enemies, since one ally kept killing foes faster than what the other ally could sap health. If only the summons actually managed to defend themselves rather than standing there getting whacked maybe this wouldn’t be such an issue.

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The Summons can be helpful but also incredibly clunky to manage.

One incredibly missed opportunity (and I’m not just talking about the game itself) comes up during the later stages of the game. In the final area the Bard must decide on how to tackle the final confrontation by listening to the tales of two opposing characters which were not what they seemed at first, and deciding which one to help - undoubtedly one of the finer moments in the game, especially since one of the choices is to simply walk away from the confrontation itself (though this does seem to run contrary to all the effort the Bard put into his quest). If he is accompanied by summoned allies at the time, the Bard can ask his allies what they think of the whole situation. This wouldn't be so bad were it not for the fact that these allies are summoned creatures whose best display of will is obeying combat orders, and often poorly at that. In one minute they're just cannon fodder with no tangible traces of sentience above that of a common housefly, in the next they're trusted companions whose opinion somehow matters. You know you're in trouble in trying to give off the feeling that your allies are actual characters when their names are the utalitarian kind - such as Trap Finder, Brute and Knight – and they only manifest themselves through rather minute or pointless moments such as dancing alongside the Bard in a talent contest; quite different from having personality or a mind of their own. It’s a pretty good moment nonetheless but not enough to save the game. If they had been more fleshed out this wouldn’t have seemed so discordant.

A Long Way Down

Unfortunately, The Bard's Tale spends too much time pointing out that barrel smashing and Chosen Ones are cliches but simply not enough time turning these conventions on their heads. The Bard just drags things on and on with quips about yet another cliche he finds but then suffers through each and every one of them while being incapable of avoiding, countering or solving them. It’s filled with heavy handed comments and lame jokes which everyone is going to see a mile away while it misses dozens of opportunities to actually poke fun at the genre’s idiosyncrasies. He will express concern about his safety when ordered to destroy a handful of undead, but will remain silent the entire game about the fact that all the enemies he kills respawn in most of the areas he goes through. He won’t sneer at elevators that are only activated after he slaughters waves of monsters, but will moan about how typical it is to go across the land in search of some item. Incredibly enough, the Bard will never joke about how he can carry multiple large weapons and equipment in a small backpack, or how his canine companion never dies at the massive beatings he takes from enemies but gives up the ghost in a specific cutscene – some of the most oft debated cliches in RPGs.

The game will drop references to movies such as Star Wars and The Highlander, but instead of drawing some potentially fun parallels with movies that share the game’s goal of parodying fantasy or medieval archetypes (such as Robin Hood: Men In Tights, where Elwes also played the title role), it will go out of its way to include a completely obscure and pointless reference to You Got Served. That's one thing I really don't get with developers cramming references to movies in videogames, either. They're completely out of context in a different setting and story, will only make sense to people who saw the movie in the first place – and that’s assuming they’ll remember it – and will also become obsolete and irrelevant content in a few years. Granted, this wouldn't be terribly out of place in a game that doesn't really take itself too seriously and spoofs all it can, but where is the humor in reenacting a line from a forgettable movie? There's not even a joke made about the movie at all, you just see some undead breakdancing (to the sound of what seems like techno in a medieval dungeon, no less!) and saying "you got served”. Even one of the summons, the Knight, will ocasionally say “Thou hast been served”. Either I'm missing something here or Fargo's brand of “intelligent humor” is the kind of euphemism that prepubescent 13 year olds would use to justify laughing through their noses while watching Little Man. It’s as much of a marketing tool as nearly everything else that was announced for the game.

No One Receiving

What was meant to be a searing hot stab of fun into the genre carried by a lighthearted tone quickly turns into a formulaic adventure at best and a mediocre action RPG at worst, with a character who is quick to recognize the genre’s cliches but slow to overcome them. The game had many reasons to succeed, with an original premise and the production values to pull it off. One only needs to look at games like Grim Fandango, Discworld and Anachronox as excellent examples of actual intelligent humor handled by competent developers. But this simply isn’t the case here. There’s not a whole lot that saves the game from being a rather generic and shallow action romp, and even with three different endings and unlockable content you’re still looking at a 10 hour main quest that only has simplistic combat to offer as its main gameplay draw. But perhaps worse than having erratic character development, convoluted design decisions, wonky interface, and drab and repetitive combat, it’s assuming that it actually has good humor – and assuming players will think the same.

In the end, the only punchline that The Bard’s Tale ever manages to get right is that derivative design and boring gameplay can’t be forgiven by intentions to improve the genre or puerile humor.

There are 32 comments on So Hyped, So Mediocre: The Bard's Tale Review

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