In Hollywood, movies get remade all the time. Whether it's because of a new directorial interpretation of material or the release of new technology that provides better effects or camera angles, practically every single film is up for reproduction and re-release in theaters. No so much in the gaming industry, where remakes of older titles are literally few and far between, even with more powerful hardware available to developers every few years. But what happens when the creator of a legendary series makes a remake that's completely unrelated to anything to his entire franchise? Well, if you're Brian Fargo, the maker of The Bard's Tale series, you create an anti-RPG RPG. Grab a sword, an instrument and a large dose of sass, because we're going to have a listen to The Bard's Tale.
Let me warn you RPG vets who remember with fondness the original Bard's Tale games on PCs: This is nothing like those classic titles. Not even close. Not even in the same category. I stress this so vehemently because there at least two major shifts in formula from the original game concept in this remake. First, there really is no party dynamic that you old school players are probably used to. The thrust of this story revolves solely around the Bard himself, and while he'll "acquire" party members, they're primarily a temporary support solution (which I'll get to later). Second, abandon the thought of this remake being a noble quest to defeat some ancient evil that threatens the land. Nobility is a character trait that isn’t anywhere near this Bard’s gene pool. If anything, he’s much more of a rat-bastard than a resolute hero.
I meant that last line specifically considering it’s one of the first ways that we’re introduced to our anti-hero. Seeking women, wine and song (probably in that order to satiate his desires), the bard conjures a rat with the power of his music and sends it into a tavern. Attempting to scam his way into a room with food for the night (not to mention potential sex from the wanton maid who owns the inn), he casually strolls in and dispels his summoned creature, only to get tasked with eliminating a much larger rodent problem. Thus begins the morally skewed adventure that our character embarks upon, which will take him all over the realm as he goes serving his own personal interests and making fun of the quests he’s sent out on. In doing so, he’ll take out a number of monsters, rescue imprisoned hostages in a number of situations, and being a smart ass to everyone you meet.
See, as you continue along your journey, you’ll run into people and strike up conversations. Often during these dialogues, you’ll be presented with an option to react in one of two ways: you can be helpful or acerbic. While technically polar opposites, in actuality they’re more like shades of sarcasm. Remember, this guy really isn’t tactful, noble or thoughtful in any way, so his responses are more like kneejerk responses in any way. To this end, helpful responses are mildly sardonic, while acerbic comments are scathing, derisive insults. (You can only imagine some of the statements he makes about the aforementioned rat mission) Although you might not recognize it, these remarks will influence how the plot develops, potentially opening or closing quests, party members and other facets of play to the Bard.
Creatively, though, you’re not solely restricted to playing a good or a bad guy; in fact, some people respond better to direct insults and threats than lightly delivered abuse. For instance, early on in the game you’ll run into a small pooch that is fascinated by your character. Provide the right responses, and you’ll have a stalwart companion that will attack enemies and find hidden treasure, amongst other tasks. Answer incorrectly, and you lose its services for the rest of the game as it runs away from you. Hysterically, you’ll find that The Bard’s Tale really leaves no RPG stone unturned, with just about every convention up in the main character’s vocal crosshairs. From the stupidity of dungeon crawling to the futility of people following supposed prophecies (just how many chosen ones ARE there in these games?) to making fun of acquiring items by breaking barrels and boxes, just about everything gets humorously skewered.
On another interesting side note, the game takes a few of the customary RPG conventions and places some new spins on them during gameplay. First of all, you don’t have to go through the hassle of trekking your spoil laden character back to town, hefting weapons and equipment onto store counters and sitting there as you sell everything back piece by piece. Bard’s Tale actively sells and converts old items and equipment pieces in the field into silver, allowing our “hero” to continually hack and slash his way through anyone or thing in his path. Although he’s competent with both melee and ranged combat, there will be a number of times where the Bard will have to use magic to recruit party members or restore health. Instead of having to memorize spells from scrolls or rest to remember magic, the Bard merely strums a lute and conjures something up. This can be done without pulling up a menu or pausing the action by hitting a few buttons, allowing players to avoid interrupting play.
Built on the now elderly Snowblind Engine, which has powered the Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath titles, The Bard’s Tale still manages to produce a graphically appealing adventure. Environments are large, nicely detailed and varied between your “stereotypical” areas, such as dungeons, lava fields and snowcapped landscapes. There are a number of generic textures that manage to plague just about every region you travel to, but these are almost outweighed by the decent animations and character models. There’s a significant number of cutscenes within the game, and the characters present during these in-engine movies are nicely rendered, although they can be a bit jerky and spastic in their movements at times.
Far surpassing the graphics, and perhaps one of the best features of the game itself, is the comical banter provided by none other that Cary Elwes, best known as Westley from The Princess Bride. Using the same sarcasm and wit that he demonstrated as the Dread Pirate Roberts, Elwes infuses the Bard with a cynical, biting and sneering wit, one that fits the flawed character traits of the adventurer perfectly. This is matched by the inimitable talents of Tony Jay, better known to some as The Elder God from the Legend of Kain series. As the Narrator, Jay’s mellifluous tone imparts a wonderful Masterpiece Theater-like air to the gameplay. This is made even more hilarious when the Narrator and the Bard get into vocal arguments with each other, riffing back and forth for a number of minutes. The rest of the sound effects and soundtrack is pretty generic and rather weak, although there are a number of rollicking bar songs that have been included. (Shoutout to Charlie Mops, y’all!) Some of these do feel somewhat lengthy, but it seems to fit the environment of the game well.
Although the game presents a number of creative ideas on typical RPG features, it manages to create new problems that are often more troublesome than their solutions. I mentioned how the game immediately transfers new items into money. However, this is a problem for a number of reasons. First of all, because the Bard has no inventory, it’s impossible for him to keep potentially beneficial weapons. One of the classic features of RPGs is discovering which weapons work best against a monster, equipping those arms and inflicting tons of damage against these creatures. Since the Bard has no inventory, you may sell a weapon that works best against a certain group of monster because it’s inferior as far as dealing damage is concerned. Second, you’re acquiring money that you’ll only spend in a few places, but if you fight enough battles, you’ll never be in danger of running out of dough.
The combat/magic system is rather screwed up as well even though it focuses upon real-time action instead of turn based combat. For one, the Bard’s melee skills can be somewhat lacking, allowing him to easily be surrounded and whittled down to nothing. Based around the timing of the attack button being pressed, both you and your opponents are so slow that it is almost tedious to engage in battle. Magic is no better, considering that you can only heal yourself using magic. Remember what I said earlier about no inventory and no menu screens when casting? Well, if you’re severely injured and you need to cast a healing spell, you’d better hope you can run away from your attackers, or you’ll be cut down in the middle of the incantation. Since the Bard also puts his weaponry away to play an instrument, you have no defensive or offensive capabilities when casting, leaving you completely helpless in the midst of battle.
Speaking of battle, the game winds up buying into more of the conventions that it makes fun of than creating new types of roleplaying action. You’re still tasked with a main quest and numerous side quests that pop up and come along. You’ll still have to fight your way through underground dungeons or other stereotypical areas, interacting with plenty of the standard RPG characters and ending up in some of the standard situations. While you have to expect this to a certain extent (it is an RPG, after all), it’s apparent that it couldn’t help but rely on the same features it mocked to make the game progress. Even more, the humor used for certain bits is stretched far too long in some places and not used at all in more appropriate ones.
It’s quite tricky to evaluate this rendition of the Bard’s Tale compared to the older titles in Fargo’s legendary series. This is particularly true when you consider that this Bard would’ve skewered it with his wit. RPG fans that are interested in a good laugh at their favorite genre’s expense will probably dig this title, flaws and all.