The Bard’s Tale (2004)


Review by · December 16, 2004

The Bard’s Tale is easily one of the most unique games for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox consoles. It’s possible to count, on one hand, the games for these consoles that are genuinely humorous the entire way through the game. However, as humorous as The Bard’s Tale is, no game can survive on humor alone. Fortunately, The Bard’s Tale makes use of Snowblind’s Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance engine for combat and graphics. InXile’s work with Snowblind’s engine seems to be minimal, however, as the less recent release of Sony Online Entertainment’s Champions of Norrath has a seemingly more developed engine. However, that does not mean The Bard’s Tale is without merit, it’s simply not the top game on the market.

Using the graphics engine developed by Snowblind, The Bard’s Tale is one of the better-looking games in its genre. Individual characters look good when zoomed in; The Bard’s Tale uses this to great effect early in the game to show the Innkeeper, from whom the Bard takes his initial quest. The Bard himself is well animated and looks much like one would think a rogue of his standing should: Dreadlocked, unwashed hair, an unkempt tunic and trousers, and plenty of bags. Bar patrons and environments look good during sequences, and villages are historically accurate, stylistically.

All parts of the game – aside from story and dialogue sequences – are viewed from a three-quarters isometric view. From this perspective, the environments are made of the same number of polygons and still look detailed. The game also paints a more accurate view of villages, where the peasants live in relative squalor. All in all, the game looks superb and there are no major flaws. This, along with the excellent audio, makes The Bard’s Tale one of the top games for getting the player into the spirit of the game.

Speaking of audio, The Bard’s Tale doesn’t skimp on anything in this department. With music and sound by Tommy Tallarico, one of the biggest names in US sound, The Bard’s Tale does little but impress. Big name voice actors take the two main roles: Cary Elwes, known for his role of Westly in the Princess Bride, takes up the role of the Bard. Tony Jay becomes the narrator, and although gamers may not know him by name, his voice is most commonly known as the Elder God from the Legacy of Kain series. Elwes and Jay have a very unique relationship as the Bard and the Narrator, often breaking the fourth wall – the separation of reality and the game – for humorous effect. During the game over screens, which the average gamer will see often, the Narrator often classifies it as a ‘happy’ ending.

Aside from Jay and Elwes, the voice acting is good. Dialogue is easily the strongest point of The Bard’s Tale, and the production values for audio shine through. Early in the game, a random NPC describes how to control the game, but to the Bard, not the player. This is one of the common situations where the fourth wall is broken, but it’s all in the interest of humor. There are also songs; for example, early on in the game, there are a group of drunks in a bar who sing a song about “Charlie Mops”, a man who invented a drink made of hops. It’s a hilarious song and one of the reasons that The Bard’s Tale is a top-notch game, aurally. The ‘standard’ music and sound effects in The Bard’s Tale are equally well mixed. Tommy Tallarico’s studios created a mix of music that’s easy to listen to and fits well with the ambiance. The sound effects are just as one would expect from a game with this much audio production value.

Once the aesthetic layer of The Bard’s Tale is peeled back, the game suffers a bit. The game has no major control issues to speak of, aside from a slightly convoluted casting system. To cast a spell, you use the shoulder buttons and the D-pad in combination, making it nearly impossible to cast quickly in combat. Fortunately, casting tends to be done outside of battle, as it involves summoning allies to fight at your side.

Similar to the Necromancer’s ability to summon a skeleton in Champions of Norrath, the Bard is able to summon up to sixteen different allies by the end of the game, but only one at a time. The intro movie describes the Bard as having no allies other than the ones conjured by magic, who are simply beings doing his bidding. However, the possibility exists for the bard to gain a permanent companion in a dog seen in the first village of the game. With the higher difficulty of The Bard’s Tale, allowing the dog to enter your party is not only a boon, it is a must. The Bard’s summoned allies are not under his direct control, but he may issue commands to make them more or less aggressive or to defend. This gives an interesting play style to The Bard’s Tale, as though it lacks a multiplayer mode, it features other characters on your team.

Actual combat in The Bard’s Tale unfolds just like in a standard action-RPG. The Bard is able to attack either with a close-range weapon or a long-range weapon. He’s able to parry blows almost as well as he’s able to parry insults. Combat in The Bard’s Tale is difficult, however. Often times you will find yourself on the bad end of a group of NPCs on the ground, getting the living snot beaten out of you. Luckily, the Bard can find save points scattered generously through the environments of the game. Players of Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance or Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel will find themselves right at home in the world of the Bard.

There’s more to the Bard than just combat, however, as the player often finds himself stuck with decisions the Bard has made before the game begins. Towns have been razed because of the Bard’s lax behavior, and he has two choices laid before him. The Bard can be snarky (mean) or the Bard can play it nice. With a simple choice menu during conversation, the Bard masterfully changes the situation to his own whim. Some characters are more receptive to the snarky responses, and may react better to them. Even some of the Bard’s ‘nice’ responses can be a bit off the chain, but always tend to be humorous.

Even when the Bard stumbles upon his main, slightly cliche quest, he presents himself with his lackluster moral character. A beautiful princess finds herself captured in a tower, but the Bard wants nothing of it, except when he is promised money and, er, favors from the princess. The humor in The Bard’s Tale is directed toward an older set, as it is a throwback to a game that originally saw release in 1985 for the Apple II/e. Although the humor is veiled well enough, this is not exactly a game you want your children under 13 to play. Rightfully so, the game is rated T for teen.

The Bard finds himself in the world of an RPG, as well, so there is a group of statistics behind his every move. His main set of statistics is Dungeons and Dragons-esque, and he gains stat points each level to distribute. He’s also allowed a feat each level, allowing him to have a more powerful ranged/melee attack or a new way for his dog to attack. The system is nothing spectacular, but it works incredibly well for the Bard’s Tale.

Also, players find themselves without an inventory system; the Bard converts everything he picks up into gold, while purchased weapons and armor automatically equip themselves.

It’s very easy to tell if The Bard’s Tale is the right game for you; for those who find games such as the Monkey Island series and Grim Fandango to be their cup of tea, The Bard’s Tale is the action-oriented title for them. Gamers who are looking for a serious romp will find no quarter here, however. Still, anyone who’s willing to laugh at a good fart or beer joke will find themselves a game to enjoy.

Overall Score 82
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John McCarroll

John McCarroll

A Nevada native now in the Midwest, John started at RPGFan in 2002 reviewing games. In the following years, he gradually took on more responsibility, writing features, news, taking point on E3 and event coverage, and ultimately, became owner and Editor-in-Chief until finally hanging up his Emerald Cloak of Leadership +1 in 2019.