Critics (yours truly amongst them) have been complaining for years about how all role-playing games (RPGs) tend to follow a set formula when it comes to narrative. Invariably, some young kid is the reluctant savior of the world—and he and his assortment of misfit friends will band together to save said world from some evil despot. If I had a dollar for every RPG that followed this basic narrative structure, I could buy myself a few nice things.
Breaking from this convention is InXile's The Bard's Tale. Astute RPG fans will note that there were several Bard's Tale games in early years of gaming—and this title is a direct descendant of those much-loved releases (in fact, Brian Fargo—the original creator of the series—is back to helm this one as well). Does this mean gamers can automatically assume this is yet another classic release? Almost…but not quite.
The game's greatest selling point is easily its humor. Playing like a videogame version of The Princess Bride (going so far as to enlist the voice talents of Cary Elwes), The Bard's Tale skewers RPG conventions with gleeful abandon at every turn. Rather than feature a character who's a good guy from the start, players tackle the role of The Bard. The Bard is more concerned with his personal well-being than saving the world—however, if there's a handsome reward involved (generally meaning ample amounts of gold or a well-endowed wench) The Bard may be spurred into action.
This unlikely hero is a refreshing change of pace for the RPG world—and his dialogue trees (delineated into "snarky" or "nice" responses) are genuinely brilliant. Better yet, the game's morality system is just as murky as the motivations of its reluctant hero—being nice can be bad, and being snarky can pay off in the right situations. Because of this (and the fact that you'll miss funny exchanges the first time through) the game has a genuinely high replay value—a real rarity for games in this genre.
In keeping with the break from tradition, The Bard not only doesn't act like a traditional hero, he doesn't fight like one either. Since he's a bard, he can wield a sword or a dagger, but his real skill is in singing songs. Songs in The Bard's Tale work a lot like summon spells in other RPGs. The Bard plays a tune and a companion comes to help him in battle. The abilities of the various summons are rich and diverse—some are geared for combat assistance, others for support. Knowing which song to sing in any given situation is key to surviving to the end of the game.
One thing worth noting is that the title isn't a traditional turn-based RPG. Instead, it's an action-oriented RPG that runs on the same engine as Everquest: Champions of Norrath. Unfortunately, it's here that the game falters ever so slightly.
Presented in a traditional, over-the-top isometric view, The Bard's Tale looks like every other action RPG out there. Players will maneuver The Bard through countless areas in a never-ending search for coin, treasure, items, and mission objectives. Naturally, said areas are chock full of enemies who'd just as soon suck the marrow out of The Bard's bones as hear one of his irreverent tunes—and this is where the game really hits a snag.
Combat is repetitive. All hack-and-slash games are subject to a certain amount of tedium based solely on their almost complete reliance on fighting, but The Bard's Tale goes above and beyond in most cases. While the game's summoning magic system is nice (but not without flaw), the standard melee combat is simplistic and shallow. The complete lack of combos makes the game's latter stages a chore; everything becomes a button-mashing fest, with only one button to mash. With everything else that this title does right, it's disheartening to see such a generic combat engine.
The other problem is more of a balance issue than anything. To summon creatures, The Bard must play a tune—this makes sense. However, while playing the tune, players will get beaten down unmercifully by the countless hordes of enemies the game throws at you. Early on, this isn't too major of an issue (players can only have one or two summons out at a time), but in the more combat-intensive later stages, trying to keep multiple summons on the field while getting pummeled by everything in the immediate vicinity is bound to frustrate even the most patient gamer.
In the game's defense, the original Bard games were revered for their difficulty too—and maybe this is something of an homage to the old days. I don't know. I do know that it left me frustrated at certain points, and that it seemed more like a genuine balance issue than a conscious design decision. At least the controls are solid, though: utilizing the triggers on the Controller S to pull up menus is quick, easy, and intuitive.
Serious combat issues aside, The Bard's Tale still does more things right than wrong. It's refreshing to see a game that finally spoofs other games—and the cliché-ridden RPG genre has certainly been ripe for a skewering for at least a decade. Humor is this game's selling point—not battle systems or graphics or game engines—and gamers who value a smart and entertaining tale well told will certainly be able to look past the game's other problems.