The Bard's Tale (Xbox) review
"If you're a parody – I know you're not, but let's just say you are – then there are two major things you have to do. Number one, you have to be funny. Parodies, spoofs, satires, they're all played for laughs by poking fun at a certain category of music, literature, or in this case, gaming. But the other thing all parodies need to watch out for is that they don't sink to the level of that which they are spoofing. That kind of beats the purpose, you know what I'm sayin'? "
If you're a parody – I know you're not, but let's just say you are – then there are two major things you have to do. Number one, you have to be funny. Parodies, spoofs, satires, they're all played for laughs by poking fun at a certain category of music, literature, or in this case, gaming. But the other thing all parodies need to watch out for is that they don't sink to the level of that which they are spoofing. That kind of beats the purpose, you know what I'm sayin'?
The parody in question is The Bard's Tale. It succeeds mildly in one of those areas, and fails miserably in the other.
Woe be the parody that imitates its targets and in turn makes fun of itself. It claims to rub out the world of the generic, repetitive hack-and-slash RPG, and yet it is itself, in fact, a generic, repetitive hack-and-slash RPG. It aims its numerous jokes at the Diablos and Neverwinter Nightses of the late RPG years and fails to realize that all of these humorous observations apply to itself. It's as if the writers are saying, “Hey! Get a load of how bad this game is! Are you laughing yet?”
It chronicles the tale of a guy known only as the Bard, a self-centered musician who's come to the land in search of “coin and cleavage.” (That's about as far as the story goes; the whole plot goes nowhere.) He's got kind of an attitude and is voiced (in an excellent casting choice) by Cary Elwes. His comments are the centerpoint of the game's comedy – he, like the player, realizes just how mundane the game is and feels the need to express his opinions out loud.
So a lot of the humor is self-referential: The Bard makes comments about he's always called on to perform menial tasks and quests for random citizens; a group of NPCs that all utilize the same character model reveal that they all share the same first name; the narrator makes verbal exchanges with the Bard and shames him for opening a chest that probably belongs to someone; the Bard is recruited to kill a rat in the basement, and then he finds out that it's an enormous, fire-breathing rat; hardy-har-har. These jokes would make a greater impact if their laughs weren't immediately cancelled out as soon as control is handed over to the player. (The one recurring joke that I loved was the trio of singing goblins that chimes in every time the Bard raids a corpse. Funny stuff.)
The thing is, The Bard's Tale isn't even enjoyable by generic RPG standards. Even for a bad RPG, it's bad. The combat is absolute torture. It's a lot of that awful button-mashing, hack-through-a-gazillion-identical-enemies crap that I thought we'd seen the last of. The Diablo games had similar gameplay, but those were released years ago (in videogame years, they hadn't even hit the Crusades), and even then, the combat was deeper and more enjoyable than this. The controls are sticky, and there's really no magic system at all. The only magic you can conjure up is in the form of summoning AI-controlled teammates – but, save for the healing lady, they're all pretty much useless.
And get this: There's no inventory. All of the items you collect on your journey instantly get converted into money, and when you buy new equipment, the superior weapons and armor merely replace the old stuff, which gets tossed. Lame.
But the worst offender of all is the camera. Not bad to the point of losing functionality, the camera in The Bard's Tale is simply one of the most uncomfortable I've ever witnessed in a game. It's entirely top-down, as if you're looking through the eyes of a bird that's hovering directly over the Bard's head. That's it. There's no adjusting the camera at all, other than spinning it and zooming it a little bit. Playing The Bard's Tale for long periods of time is an absolute eyesore.
Little attempts by the developers to try to make this a “modern” game don't help either – like the good/evil choices, which are hilariously out of place and obviously a way to try to copy the success of BioWare's Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic games. You see, during many conversations, you've got to choose between a “good” or “bad” response, and both always force Mr. The Bard to act out of character, by being either sickeningly sweet or aggressively mean. I like my anti-heroes with a bit of neutrality, thank you very much.
How ironic it is that The Bard's Tale can be filled with jokes, and yet is, itself, a joke. It's a funny game, but only in the same way that Doom 3 was scary – cheaply and at the cost of gameplay. The Bard's Tale made me laugh on occasion, but I'd rather take a serious, laugh-free RPG that's actually fun to play any day.
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