What better way to start a game than with a prolonged look at some bulging cleavage and a sing-along about beer? Well, that is exactly what you get during the opening five minutes of The Bard’s Tale, the hilarious new role-playing game from Vivendi Universal based on the classic The Bard’s Tale RPG series. In one of the funniest Xbox games to have emerged in quite a while, you play as The Bard, a womanizing musician and adventurer. The Bard, voiced by Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride, Liar Liar, Days of Thunder), is more than willing to lend a helping hand to those in need – just so long as they are willing to pay. This is where the game starts. After doing a handful of ?good deeds’ in exchange for money or magic, our Bard agrees to rescue a beautiful princess from a dark tower in exchange for (you guessed it) more money, magic, and the opportunity to gawk at his objective’s cleavage. With that, his tale (and the hilarity) begins.
A great example of this game’s humor can be found within the very first pub you visit. The proprietor of the pub, a well-endowed woman in a rather tight outfit, has a pest infestation and offers food and a night’s rest if you can dispatch the problematic vermin for her. In any other RPG when you talk to an NPC, the camera is usually focused on the character’s face. Not in The Bard’s Tale! Here, the camera lingers on the fair woman’s cleavage for quite some time before finally panning up to her face. After an in-depth conversation with her cleavage, you can then talk to a group of drunks, who in turn burst into a three-minute song all about Charlie Mopps – the man who invented beer. This song comes complete with the lyrics in a subtitle format, and a bouncing ball to help you sing along, karaoke style. Step outside and you see a bunch of cows grazing. Yes, that’s right, folks, this game has cow tipping! That alone should be reason enough for a rating of 10, but restraint will be exercised here and all aspects of the game will be duly taken into account. Humor runs riot through every element of The Bard’s Tale, from the dialogue between the narrator and The Bard, to the odd characters and storylines that develop throughout the game.
The gameplay consists of interacting with other characters in the towns, and combat with any monsters or animals that you stumble upon. When talking with characters, instead of choosing between various responses, you simply choose between a snarky response and a friendly one. You do so by selecting an icon of either a mean face or a happy face, and the dialogue continues. The story changes depending on how you choose to respond, so it’s a good idea not to be too snarky all the time – you might get yourself into trouble. Everyone in the game is sarcastic, though, so even the non-snarky responses are still pretty funny. This snarky or friendly system is actually fairly well done; not knowing what The Bard is going to say is great because it creates an atmosphere where you are hearing Cary Elwes’ dialogue without having read it first. Everyone will agree that jokes are funnier the first time you hear or read them; eliminating the standard list of possible responses was therefore an inspired move.
Some characters provide side quests for you to complete, which is nice for those of us who like these games to last as long as possible. The side quests are just as funny as the main ones. In one of the earlier side quests, you are asked to kill a Bugbear that is threatening a town. After tracking the thing down inside its booby-trapped labyrinth of a home, you discover that it isn’t a Bugbear at all, but an old man in a Bugbear suit. Quests never turn out the way you think they will, and always provide surprises.
Your character gains experience through completing quests and defeating enemies, just like any other RPG out there, and then uses said experience to level up and gain new abilities. The system is pretty standard, with your five basic stats: Strength, Vitality, Luck, Dexterity, and Charisma. In addition, though, The Bard’s Tale has a sixth stat called Rhythm. Rhythm affects the strength of your summoned creatures as well as their health levels.
The combat system has positives and negatives. Let’s start with the positives. The main weapon The Bard possesses is the ability to summon creatures through song; he’s always ready to whip out his lute and play a song that will summon a creature to help him. As he progresses through the game The Bard learns new songs, which allow him to summon more powerful allies during battles, as well as gain new musical instruments that will let him summon more creatures at one time. In the beginning, you can only summon Rats but, before long, you learn songs to summon things like Thunder Spiders, bow toting Heroines, and Light Fairies. The creatures you summon all have special abilities and uses. It is important that you learn to use them in different combinations to progress smoothly through the game. On top of the summoned creatures you can also get a pet dog. He can find and dig up treasure, chase birds out of bushes so you can hunt them, and you can also teach him to fight when you are in battle. The little pup becomes rather useful, and the spike collar he wears – once you’ve trained him for battle – is quite stunning. While in combat, you can issue commands to your creature companions by using the directional pad. Each direction issues a different command, like attack, defend, or follow.
But our Bard doesn’t always rely on his summoned friends to defeat his enemies; he often has to get right in there and fight as well. You have the choice of melee or ranged weapons, and there are a number of different skills your hero can learn over time, like Two-Handed Weapons, Dual Wielding, and Critical Strike. The combat controls are a tad stiff, though; while you can hit multiple enemies with one swing, it is difficult to hit enemies when you have them both in front and behind you. If you want to attack the enemy behind you, you have to turn The Bard around so he is physically facing the enemy. This could have been more of an intuitive control detail, and does tend to cause some frustration when you are surrounded. There are skills you can learn when you level up that allow you to perform spinning attacks, though, and these help make up for the initial control deficiency. One feature that was initially annoying, but became an eventual favorite of mine, is the need to time your blocks to match the attacks of your enemies. It was initially a pain simply because I had become used to games where you can just hold a button to block. In The Bard’s Tale, your character only holds the block for a few seconds; you must wait until your enemy attacks, and time your block to counter the attack. It’s hard at first but, once you get the hang of it, a whole new dynamic is added to the game. It actually increases the fun factor of combat by forcing you to use a little strategy.
The audio is awesome. With a renowned comedy actor like Cary Elwes doing the voice of The Bard, you can imagine how funny the game can get. They also have Tony Jay, an absolute pro who has done voice work in too many games to mention, doing the voice work for the narrator. Merely the banter between The Bard and the narrator is enough to keep you laughing. It’s great stuff. The narrator seems eager to have The Bard meet an early demise, and The Bard often takes offense to his remarks of impending doom. All the voice acting in the game is flawless. The music is also great, as are the environmental sounds.
The game uses the same engine as Champions of Norrath, and while it does look good, the third-person overhead view can become somewhat tedious – a little more direct camera control would have been nice. As it is, though, you’re stuck with only being able to rotate the camera and add a small amount of zoom. The cut scenes are great, and really accentuate the detail level in the graphics. The characters all look awesome (especially the pub landlady in the tight dress), and the environments look amazing. The water effects, the leaves on the trees, the cows you tip over?they are all splendidly rendered.
There could have been a little more variety in the NPC population, but overall they all look good. However, the visual effects are often so-so. Things like the spilt blood of an enemy slowly seeping into the ground look awesome, but other effects, magic for example, come up a little short sometimes. The summoning magic effects look fantastic, but others sometimes appear plain, bland and unimpressive. The world map is three-dimensional and you are able to walk wherever you want. Only areas you have access to appear on the world map, though, so your options are limited at first. Enemies wander around on the world map, and if encountered you enter a small area map where battle commences. Once the enemies are defeated, you can return to the world map and continue on your way.
There are a few small glitches in the game, like your summoned creatures freezing up after a cut scene (only happened once), or the weird white blotch that temporarily appears in the middle of the menu screen. These errors are few and far between though, and, for the most part, the game runs smoothly and without incident. The small issues with hand-to-hand combat sort themselves out if you make sure to learn some special attacks when you level up. These small negatives are vastly overwhelmed and washed away by the game’s genius sense of humor and skilled storytelling. This is one of the funniest and most entertaining games to have hit the market in quite a while. If you like Monty Python, if you just love to laugh, or if you follow role-playing games in general, then you should definitely take a look at The Bard’s Tale. Come on, it has songs about beer! What more could you want? Everyone! Sing it with me! Beer, beer, beer-tiddley-beer beer beer!