There's a difference between pointing out clichés and avoiding them all together.
I don’t think I've ever played a game that started so strongly or sunk into mediocrity so quickly. The first hour of The Bard's Tale
is simply brilliant. Sadly, only flashes of this brilliance show up over the next nineteen hours.
Within the first hour, The Bard is asked to kill at rat in the inn's basement, bumps into countless NPCs walking through Houton, and smashes many barrels. Of course the rat is fire-breathing, one of the NPCs demands an apology, and the barrel maker is paying him for each barrel he knocks off—it's good for business. This is The Bard's Tale at its best: pointing out RPG clichés and turning them on their heads or simply skewering them.
If you are a classic gamer, then this isn't The Bard's Tale
you remember. There's no traditional party building or first-person jaunts down the streets of Skara Brae. This The Bard's Tale is an action RPG, equal parts sword & sorcery and tongue-in-cheek. It strongly resembles Dark Alliance
, having the same engine and all, and plays out from that standard third-person once-removed viewpoint.
The Bard, voiced by Cary Elwes (Errol Flynn still being dead), is a rakish blackguard who's on a personal quest for "Coins and Cleavage", even though others (including the game's narrator) are trying to make a hero out of him. During conversations, The Bard has the option of being snarky or nice (i.e. marginally less snarky). This has an effect on game play—opening quests, gaining items, and the like—being snarky doesn't automatically trigger a bad outcome.
Before I get too far, I should mention this game is absolutely hilarious. The dialogue is always a delight to listen too, but so is skipping it—"Get to the good stuff," growls The Bard. Even generic quests, which are normally filler, are fodder for The Bard. The tutorial even features an exchange where The Bard berates someone who tells him to press the triangle button, "You're worse than that guy who went on about some invisible mouse."
In terms of role playing, The Bard's Tale is pretty bare bones. The Bard has the core attributes you'd expect and gains special combat abilities every few levels. Inventory collected (The Bard: Wanted Posters, Stonehenge Souvenirs, Weight Belts) automatically converts to gold. Stores only sell the bare essentials: swords, armor, flails and bows, and typically only have one of each type. There's no mixing and matching here, either you buy the weapon or armor upgrade or not. Also, if the store's inventory is worse than your current equipment, then the shopkeeper won't even talk to you.
As far as action, The Bard's Tale is a mixed bag. The Bard either uses a one-handed sword, a two-handed sword, a flail, or a bow. Combat is a matter of pressing one button to attack and another to block—which requires timing. The Bard detects enemies faster than they detect him, but once he's close enough to trigger them it's quite a battle. Luckily, The Bard has some friends along.
Using his magical instrument (whichever one's on hand), The Bard can summon a character that serves him until it dies or he unsummons it. Starting with the lowly rat (later upgraded to a Vorpal Rat), The Bard finds more characters to summon and finds instruments that lets him summon more than one character at a time. Whether it’s the Crone for healing, the Knight for combat, or the Trapper for dungeon crawling, most of the characters are essential to the game and they work well together—even commenting on the action from time to time. Also following The Bard are the omniscient Narrator (who hates The Bard) and (if you are lucky) The Dog—the best canine companion since Dogmeat
I usually find combat in games easy or hard. Here, it is tedious. Simply put, I'm not playing one of the funniest games ever written to kill 1000 trow (kinda like goblins). Unfortunately, The Bard's Tale is combat-intensive, even though combat controls are basic and weapon choices are limited. In fact combat is so poor here, I kept thinking of other games where it was better and where multiplayer was an option. You know, the games The Bard's Tale is poking fun at.
The Bard's Tale has no trouble mocking RPG clichés, but can't seem to avoid them. At one point, The Bard learns that he must fight his way to the top of a tower to free a princess. He grumbles that nothing ever takes place on ground level. At the first floor of the tower, he's confronted by the Boss who awaits him on the top level. "Can't we just finish this here," begs The Bard? The Boss agrees this makes sense, but that's not the way things work. Instead, The Bard must fight his way up three levels, fight the Boss, and then fight his way back down the three levels. Of course the princess wasn't at the top of this tower; The Bard must defeat all three tower bosses to rescue her. Rinse and repeat.
At least with Dark Alliance's tower battle, you have an interesting level design and the conviction of the characters. With The Bard's Tale, you have the sad case of a game that pokes fun at other games, but then delivers an end product worse than them. The Bard's Tale can joke about barrel-smashing, obligatory lava levels, and "Chosen Ones" all day, but isn't bright enough to figure out what to do instead.
The Bottom Line
I was disappointed by The Bard's Tale, but much of it is involving. It has great sound, great graphics, and top notch voice acting. However,I think the designers felt that gamers wouldn't accept an unconventional action RPG and hedged their bets. I'd like to see The Bard return (most of the alternate endings permit this), but in a game that's either shorter or sharper.