Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Digits & Dragons
  by Greg Allen
October 2005

The Bard's Tale
InXile Strikes a New Chord in an Old Genre.

It's hard to find a good story-telling game these days. Most RPGs you'll find on the shelves are really just enlarged dungeon crawls with little to distinguish one from the next. While some of these can be a lot of fun for co-op play, adventuring by yourself can be repetitive and unmemorable.

Older gamers remember playing LucasArts hits like Day of the Tentacle, Maniac Mansion and The Curse of Monkey Island--games that were not only fun, but were also funny. Nobody talks about these games because of their gameplay, but much has been and still is said for their witty dialogue and engaging stories.

Well, The Bard's Tale by InXile Productions has decided to leave the trail of cookie-cutter DND adventures and create a game that is witty, cynical, and very refreshing to the single player looking for a fun fantasy game. If you liked the humor of Monty Python and the "in the world but mocking the world" tone of Shrek, you will probably have a lot of fun with The Bard's Tale for Xbox, PS2, and PC.

A Tale of "Tales"

The Bard's Tale name has been around since 1985, when Michael Cranford, Brian Fargo and the young company of Interplay Productions created Tales of the Unknown, Volume I: The Bard's Tale. Tales of the Unknown introduced a somewhat 3-D first person perspective, an exciting advancement to the Dungeons and Dragons style of adventure game.

Although the "Tales of the Unknown" name didn't stick, the game gained a devoted fan base and the series continued under the Bard's Tale name. The stories of the original three dungeon crawls were fairly cliché and took the adventurer and his party through cities and dungeons on a quest to destroy the evil wizard Mangar, who had taken over the land.

While the original series was, and still is, adored by many fans, Brian Fargo decided to take things in a new direction in 2002 when he broke from Interplay to form InXile Entertainment. Because Interplay still owns the rights to The Bard's Tale, devoted fans who were expecting a continuation of or connection to the original series may be disappointed.

This modern recreation has none of the original content or style and die-hard fans may be left wondering just why the two games have the same name. On the other hand, those familiar with these early dungeon crawls may feel they are on the "inside," as Fargo's recreation mocks many of the clichés that his original series is based upon.

Not Your Everyday Hero . . .

Most so-called RPGs released lately lack any kind of compelling characters or story; the only role you play is a knight or wizard with about as much personality as a block of cheese. If you are sick of playing such a character then Bard's Tale has the answer with a story and characters that keep you interested and actually make sense.

In this game, you play the role of The Bard, a common lowlife who manages to get caught up in events way beyond his understanding (or concern). There is certainly no shortage of adventurers wanting to save the world and be "the chosen one"; in fact you will find many of their corpses as you progress.

The Bard is not a likely hero: he'd much rather chase wine and women than try to save the world. Honor and glory are not his aim, but in looking for a way to get the princess and her riches he manages to wreak havoc on forces of good and evil alike. As you progress through the game you will meet various people who will help (a mysterious band of dismembered brothers) and hinder (dirty Frenchmen who send you in circles) you on your quest.

Upon meeting these various inhabitants of the Orcades Island you will have the choice of behaving "snarky" or nice. Though these conversational choices may seem simple, they prove to be very natural and very hilarious. Social interactions will have lasting effects on your travels, though none enough to lose sleep over.

As you stumble from crisis to crisis you will find yourself adventuring through caves, castles, snowfields and plains in this magical isle. The Bard is not sure just why he is on this quest, but you will sure enjoy the twists and turns he follows, even if they are predictable.

In short, the motives of the Bard are much closer to those of the people playing the game. As a consequence, the Bard is as ready as you are to comment on predictable turns and annoying detours.

You'll meet some rather odd characters on your travels
Give Your Thumbs a Rest

If you are thirsting for a revolutionary new combat system or a game that will push your reflexes and button-mashing skills to the limit, then you probably won't find what you are looking for here.

The action portion of this "Action RPG" is perhaps the game's biggest weakness. If you have played the top down adventure games Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance (Xbox, PS2, GC) or Champions of Norrath (PS2) then you have already seen the Snowblind Engine on which this game is built. The engine certainly isn't new or unique and neither is the basic combat in the game.

While your sidekick, a faithful mutt, gets constantly knocked out, the bard is left to block and chop repetitively through legions of foes. Those that crave constancy in their lives will be pleased to know that enemies in each world area are usually limited to two or three different types, generally ranged, mounted, and unmounted. Those who like their foes more exciting may not be as pleased with that reality. Despite the cloned perils, the player can spice things up through his own choice of medieval weapons and enchanted allies.

Weapons, at least at first, are of the classic medieval RPG variety. As you could guess, you can equip yourself with a sword and shield and, if you really want to mix things up, you can even go with a bow and arrow. If you want to make things easy for yourself you can equip a sword and dirk and perform the block / riposte moves ad nauseam.

Just about every enemy in the game can be killed easily with this combination so you may want to make things more difficult on yourself and use the flail. Though painfully slow to get going, as the manual aptly describes it, the flail can be "quite fun, actually, once you get it twirling." There are a few other weapons that add personality later on but don't change the gameplay much.

Still, despite these drawbacks, hopefully you aren't playing the game for the sweet moves you can do in battle. Summoning interesting and amusing allies is what really makes the action of the game stand out. Using magical musical instruments you can play tunes that you acquire and call forth help. Our friend the Bard is pretty weak on his own so you'll find these teammates to be essential.

The InXile team did a great job of making some very interesting companions, and no two are alike. Seriously, what other game has a valiant sword-wielding knight to defend you, a giant mosquito to heal you, and a bipolar old explorer who you never know if you can trust?

Well, OK, they really could have done without the last one. Whoever designed "The Explorer" had a sick sense of humor. This crazy old man runs around and jumps on spike pits and blocks colliding walls that would otherwise crush you without warning. You would think this would be great until you are right in the middle of the trap and he jumps away laughing maniacally and saying how much he hopes that hurt! After a couple of spikes through the bowels and arrows to the face I decided to just leave the exploring to myself and be free of this geriatric sadist.

But this annoyance is made up for by the inclusion of my vote for the coolest and funniest ally of all time: the Vorpal Rat. The rat you start out with is good for scaring barmaids and . . . well, that's about all it's good for, but find the upgrade and you have yourself a furry little killing machine.

It's like the killer bunny from Monty Python's "Search for the Holy Grail," complete with screech and all; and it's on your side! Nothing beats hearing its triumphant cry as it launches itself toward an unsuspecting foe who explodes from the vorpal force of this deadly beast. It's allies like this and the creative combinations of friends you can summon that keep the battles from getting too dull.

The Vorpal Rat heads in for the kill
A Toast to Tommy Tallarico's Team

Well, for a game dealing with the adventures of a bard you would certainly expect a decent soundtrack, right? Luckily for you, InXile picked the biggest and one of the best in the industry, Tommy Tallarico Studios.

Though you may not have heard of him by name you have certainly heard the work of Tommy Tallarico Studios in many of the games you play. It is the industry's largest audio production studio and has produced the audio for games such as Mortal Kombat, Earthworm Jim, The Wheel of Time and Advent Rising. Without the excellent audio work done by Tallarico and co. the Bard's Tale would have certainly failed.

You will notice from the beginning that the dialogue in the game is not only witty and amusing but is performed to professional standards. The Bard is played by Cary Elwes (of "Princess Bride" fame), who does an excellent job coming across as sarcastic and cynical while still remaining someone we almost care about.

To keep the Bard humble is the ever-present narrator played by Tony Jay (Elder God in Legacy of Kain and narrator of Fallout). The constant interrupting and arguing between the two of them is very true to character and witty, which keeps the game progressing amusingly.

The voices of the minor characters are also well done; the French and Scottish accent somehow fit in this strange world that is part Neverland, part Nightmare.

The weird world you travel through has obvious influence from Monty Python, and perhaps nowhere as memorable as in the random cut scenes and drinking songs with sing-a-long lyrics. These come with little warning and even less introduction, but for some reason are addictive and will get stuck in your head.

For example, after finding a body of one of many of the not-so-chosen-ones previously mentioned, three funny little creatures appear and without introduction break into song and dance about how bleak your fate looks. I'm not the kind to get too emotionally involved in games (never the guy who moved my body as well as the Nintendo controller to make tight turns), but these musicals had me laughing out loud! I'm still singing "It's Bad Luck to be You" in my headů

The funniest scenes come when you least expect
Sadly, the sound effects do not live up to the quality of the other audio in the game. Sounds are as cliché as the story Bard's Tale mocks, and you will quickly tire of the same clanging every time you swing your sword. Area background sounds do make things a little interesting but there is not enough ambiance and accompanying music to make the levels truly immersive.

Bards Were Never Known for Their Good Looks

And neither will this bard's tale... graphics in the game aren't anything new or exciting; you won't see much improvement over the latest Baldur's Gate or other RPGs. Further, the colors are a little dull and dark, but since much of the game takes place underground and in towers that is somewhat excusable.

You may find on older machines that leaving on all the shadows and particle effects can cause the game to slow down quite a bit. To avoid this problem, turn these down/off in the performance options or keep the view zoomed in on your character.

Graphics are fine but unimpressive
It's the Little Things that Count

You are deep in an underground castle, fearful for what may be around every corner. Bracing yourself for the worst you entire a darkened room when . . . techno music starts playing and you walk into an undead break dance competition!?!? Can this be happening? Well, yes, and the weird part about it is it actually fits in. Hundreds of these "little things," often mocking pop or fairytale culture, are included and though they certainly don't add romance or class to the game they are brilliant and hilarious.

Where else do you find red cloaks and picnic baskets on wolves or diplomas on scarecrows? Much like "Shrek," The Bard's Tale manages to create a realistic (according to its own definitions) and immersive world while mocking more serious stories of the past. Even down to the CD label and manual, the developers haven't forgotten their aim to make a game that is not only fun, but funny.

Some Songs Can Get Old

As funny as The Bard's Tale is, it really isn't the kind of game you would want to play over again soon. Many of the jokes and events are funny primarily because of their unexpectedness and randomness. You may want to go back and try different options with the game's "snarky or nice" dialogue system, but that is only for the truly diehard; the rest of us will be content moving on.

The Last Word

When I first started the six disk installation I really didn't expect to like the game much. I thought the game's innuendo would be childish and pathetic and the jokes would fall flat.

Well, I was right about the first part--the advertised "quest for coin and cleavage" really doesn't add much to the game--but fortunately I was quite wrong about the rest of the humor. The game had it all in areas I did not expect: excellent audio, hilarious dialogue and musicals, and a somewhat unique story that wasn't afraid to branch off from the mainstream RPG.

Overall, I enjoyed the 20 or so hours I played to complete the game. Remember, however, that The Bard's Tale doesn't take itself too seriously and you should treat the game accordingly. Don't expect revolutionary graphics or gameplay, but do take the time to enjoy the story and have a good laugh with the Bard.

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