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SummaryDull game in a slightly funny outfit
The GoodA role-playing game that is a comedy all the way through is a rare beast. I can't think of anything else but Knights of Xentar, the classic of parodies, and perhaps Anachronox, with its share of humor exceeding usual limits. Tengai Makyō games probably had too many serious elements to be taken as true comedies.
The "new" Bard's Tale aspires to be humorous all the way through. The writing here is sometimes similar to such classics as Space Quest - laughing at the hero, breaking the fourth wall, etc. The humor focuses almost entirely on conversations. There are by the way quite nasty bits, almost reminiscent of GTA games. The two characters who steal the show are, of course, the Bard himself, and his omnipresent companion, the narrator. Bringing back the narrator, whose presence in games I missed so much since Quest for Glory IV, was one of the best decisions this game has taken. He can't stand the Bard, and he keeps teasing him with ironic narration of the story. There is something very British about the narrator, he has dry wit and is always skeptical of the Bard's success.
The game also boasts excellent voice acting and, as the icing on the cake, features musical performances. The "beer song" will stay in your mind long after the game has lost its appeal. Overall, if the musical theme were pursued more thoroughly we could have ended up with a pleasant comedy alleviating the boredom of the gameplay.
Speaking of which, the one element of the gameplay I liked was summoning. You don't have magic, but instead can summon various creatures who act like your party members. You can issue general commands to them, and the intended goal here is to build a balanced party with the most effective combination of skills and abilities. Not all summons are just given to you: some are found in optional areas, and their upgrades are particularly worth hunting down.
The "snarky" and "nice" options in conversations are a nice idea as well. Sadly, it is barely implemented, since most of the time your responses either do not affect the gameplay at all or result in insignificant rewards or penalties. The choice of three possible endings, however, is a definitive plus.
The BadThere are many things wrong with Bard's Tale, the most obvious ones involving what are, in my opinion, the pillars of game design: gameplay and game world. I'll get to those soon, but first I'd like to point out that - apparently unlike many other reviewers - I don't think the game can even be enjoyed purely for its comedic value.
I don't think the game was really funny. A lot of people were delighted when the hero was breaking empty barrels at the request of a shop owner who wanted to make a profit out of it or when the narrator icily commented on the implausibility of wolves dropping gold bags. Unfortunately, this pretty much sums up the humor style of the entire game. The Bard half-heartedly mocks RPG cliches, the narrator keeps telling us how much of a loser our protagonist is, and... that's it. Sure, it's amusing at the beginning, but it grows old really fast. There are no funny characters to remember and no real wit in the dialogue. Without those, humor loses its significance, particularly when it keeps being applied to the same thing over and over again.
The real problem is the fact that while the humor in cutscenes and dialogues is present no matter what, it has absolutely no effect on the gameplay. Even worse: the gameplay is actually what the game laughs at! The dialogue constantly mocks stale RPG conventions, and the gameplay keeps following precisely those conventions in the most conservative way imaginable. It is as if the developers wanted to make it easier for themselves and turned to humor as an excuse for poor design.
Seriously: The Bard's Tale is a by-the-book action game with a semi-RPG system slapped onto it, as generic as they go, without anything to distinguish it from the very games it tries to lampoon. What is the use of satire applied to a situation where you have to climb a long boring tower to face a powerful boss if the game actually forces this same situation upon you right away? And this happens every time, everywhere. Take away the humorous cutscenes and you'll be left with monotonous, unimaginative hack-and-slash that makes Diablo games look like epitomes of sophisticated role-playing.
Whoever says The Bard's Tale is a "funny Diablo" fails to see that the heart of Diablo was not at all in its massive doses of repetitive action, but in its obsessively vast item-collecting opportunities and customization. Compare the limitless outfitting of Diablo to The Bard's Tale with its paltry selection of equipment, where a "stronger" sword directly replaces a "weaker" one and where all items automatically convert to silver coins! Compare the wealth and fine-tuning of character classes of Diablo II to the paltry sword-flail-bow choices of this game, of which none makes much difference anyway.
Indeed, The Bard's Tale is "streamlined" in that infuriating modern (some would say "console-like") way, when everything is all too convenient: all the stuff you'll ever need is being neatly laid at your feet, whatever you do leads to easy victory anyway, and exploration is just a matter of following an obvious corridor or clicking on a map icon. Why bother pumping up your strength if you are guaranteed to find a more powerful amulet that renders anything you've found so far obsolete? Why search for that perfect combination to give you the edge in combat if all you need to do is just follow the general direction of the game?
The only trouble you'll ever have is guaranteed to come from the game's atrocious perspective. The Gauntlet-like top-down view is absolutely unsuitable for a 3D action game and ruins even the simple pleasure you might have had from hacking your foes to pieces. I hope you like clumsily waving your sword around trying to figure out when it actually connects, or aiming your bow at red dots representing your off-screen enemies, pressing the fire button to hit them automatically regardless of your skills. Combat is simply not satisfying, badly needing dynamics and drama that come courtesy of a free-roaming 3D camera this game unfortunately hasn't heard about.
Perhaps as a result, the game suffers from a serious lack of atmosphere. You do not feel the beauty of open fields or the fear reigning in demonic caverns. Predictable layouts, mediocre graphics, and the aforementioned overhead view greatly diminish immersion in the game world.