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Games time forgot: The Bard's Tale

12:28 PM on 10.23.2007 // Anthony Burch

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Whenever I write a Games Time Forgot article on a videogame people hate, I usually recieve one of two comments: 

"How the hell is this 'forgotten'? I remember this game."

or,

"Time forgot this game for a reason."

With this week's entry, The Bard's Tale, I fear I'll recieve both comments -- and rightfully so. Not only is The Bard's Tale a reasonably well-known, extremely recent action RPG, but it's also not a particularly good one. Like a lazy but attractive college student, The Bard's Tale gets by on charm, and charm alone; when one also considers the fact that many have played, but probably not completed the game, I'd say it's ripe pickings for a Games Time Forgot writeup.

So, hit the jump for that. 

Story:

Essentially a re-imagining of the old Bard's Tale games, the new title follows The Bard -- no name, just the Bard -- who wanders around a fantasy land full of goblins and fairies, swindling people out of money and occasionally defeating monsters. On one particularly violent adventure, The Bard hears of the captivity of a beautiful princess, Caleigh. At first, he figures rescuing her isn't worth the trouble -- that is, until he hears how rich and sexually experimental she is. His head filled with dreams of financial security and daily fellatio, The Bard sets out to destroy the three evil Guardians who hold Caleigh imprisoned.

If that plot sounded almost mind-numbingly stereotypical, good. That's the point. Narratively speaking, The Bard's Tale serves as sarcastic iconoclasm for the fantasy-RPG set: it seeks to present, and then destroy, every irritating RPG cliche we as gamers take for granted.

Why do we fight enemies to within an inch of their life, and then watch them run away in a noninteractive cut scene when we have every reason to follow and slaughter them? Why do wild animals inexplicably drop money and items after death? Why are princesses automatically good, and bald sorcerors automatically bad?

By way of example, let's say the Bard walks through a dense forest and spots a standoff between a diminutive, evil-looking goblin and a young, adventurous, heroic-looking farm boy. The boy declares himself as the Chosen One, the prophesied hero who will rid the land of evil and bring balance to the f--

The Chosen One stops speaking, because the goblin has just shot an arrow straight through his forehead and killed him.

That's the sort of thing you'll frequently see in The Bard's Tale: designers Brian Fargo and Matthew Findley have a serious love-hate relationship with the RPG genre, and seem to take a lot of pleasure in alternately celebrating and criticizing its conventions. 

They also, it would seem, take a comparable amount of pleasure in staging musical numbers. All told, The Bard's Tale has about half a dozen full-blown songs, including "Beer, Beer, Beer" and "Bad Luck Ogun (The Chosen One Song)," and -- by far my favorite, and perhaps one of the best moments in videogame cut scene history -- a You Got Served-style dance off between zombies and skeletons. Were there a YouTube video of this particular scene available, I'd post that, and nothing else, to give you an idea of The Bard's Tale's sense of humor.

Other than the musical numbers and the satirical look at RPGs in general, the game's best moments come out of dialogue between the Bard (voiced by Cary "As You Wish" Elwes) and the Narrator (Tony "Megabyte" Jay). While both actors occasionally deliver their lines as if they've no idea of their context (at one point, Elwes, instead of irritatedly exclaiming, "Now I'M doing it!,"  delivers the line as a declarative: "NOW I'm doing it."), they generally imbue the game with a hell of a lot of personality and charm. 

Also, there's a pub in the game called "The Fat Lute." If you don't find that funny, you and I cannot relate on anything

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Gameplay:

When you start out the game, most of your time will be taken up by summoning monsters and fighting. Then, later, you'll be able to fight a bit, and then summon some monsters. After that, there's fighting and summoning, and then a little fighting and summoning, with a final side of summoning and fighting.

Then you'll summon monsters and fight people. 

The Bard's Tale is an action-RPG, heavy emphasis on the action. You'll level up and upgrade some stats, yeah, but 95% of the game simply revolves around going from place to place, summoning monsters to help you fight, and personally engaging other enemies in melee and/or ranged combat. The result is a game which, thanks to the top-down perspective and simplified inventory system (there isn't one), feels a bit like Diablo mixed with Gauntlet...only not quite as fun as that comparison would make it sound.

The first four or five hours of The Bard's Tale are insanely fun; you gleefully hack and slash through monsters while fighting to get to the next big comic setpiece or sarcastic monologue. After the six hour mark, however, The Bard's Tale begins to lose some steam. After a while, the player eventually realizes that there is literally nothing more to the game outside of combat and treasure collection and the game really begins to feel like an endurance trial. "How far am I willing to go just for the sake of funny cut scenes and dialogue?" the player will inevitably ask himself. Your mileage will vary, of course, but assuming you've got literally nothing to do for two or three days, I suppose it wouldn't hurt to play all the way through The Bard's Tale. If nothing else, there are three different endings, and the You Got Served reference doesn't show up until roughly 3/4 of the way through the game.

Though maybe I'm being too harsh. While The Bard's Tale is irritatingly heavy on combat, it also allows for a slightly-interactive dialogue system. In any given conversation, the Bard can choose to be "nice" or "snarky." The game refreshingly chooses not to prioritize one type of response over the other: acting like a dick will often get you just as far as being a gentleman -- though you'll probably have more fun speaking like a douchebag.

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Why you probably haven't played it:

There are three categories of people when it comes to The Bard's Tale: those who played it for a while and then stopped because of the monotony, those who never picked it up in the first place because of the warnings from the people in the first group, and those who picked it up and played it all the way to the end. I'm willing to bet that quantitatively, the first two groups far outweigh the last. 

The Bard's Tale contains humor, but not enough to really be considered a "comedy" game like Kingdom O' Magic; it contains action and RPG elements, but they aren't well-developed enough to make the gameplay significantly stand out from the pack. Your enjoyment of the game is totally reliant on how much repetitive gameplay you're willing to go through in order to get to some reasonably clever scenes.

Should you get it? Maybe. It's only 150 Goozex points, and it includes all three of the original Bard's Tale games; if you're really into old-school PC RPGs, then that addition alone might warrant a purchase. Otherwise, just rent it or borrow it or ignore it altogether -- I sure like the game and I respect its intention to destroy RPG story conventions, but it can certainly get a little goddamn tedious.




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