Want to really piss off the D&D geeks in your school, dorm, office, or extended family? Then try this: the next time they're planning a rousing game of pen and paper, ask politely to join in the festivities. Don't worry " they'll let you come along even if you're a total D&D newbie (a new party member IS a new member, after all, which at the very least means there will likely be a dead, lootable body in the immediate future). Obviously, you'll show up unprepared and will have to create a new character.
Here's where the fun starts and your newfound relationship comes to an abrupt end. When the DM asks you to choose a class, smile like a jerk and say, "Why, I'll be a Bard, gov'nah! Huzzah!" Then be sure to dodge the bag of Cheetos aimed at your head.
See, the reason everyone hates the Bard isn't because he's inherently worse, it's that he sings and plays a lute. Except when "he" sings and plays, "you" get to actually sing and play! And everyone hates that, and will try over and over again to accidentally drop a vial of poison into your mead or something.
The Bard hasn't always been a hated D&D character. In fact, some twenty years ago, a Bard starred in one of the most influential RPGs ever, The Bard's Tale. I played the heck out of it on the Apple II and loved every revolutionary second of it. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for the limp version available for the PS2 and the Xbox. This new Bard's Tale tells lots of jokes, but the punchline of repetitive gameplay and bad design will have you singing songs of sorrow.
Unlike the original game, you don't control a party of characters, just the Bard, a man of inaction and irreverence. You lust for wealth, women and wine " in that order " and will go to any lengths that don't require much physical labor to achieve these ends. Obviously they had to make this into something of a video game, so eventually your meanderings lead to a quest to save a damsel in distress'although she's certainly not the only thing distressing about The Bard's Tale.
Take, for example, the derivative gameplay. The Bard's Tale is wedged firmly into the mold of games like Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath, unsurprising when you realize that the game's engine was licensed from Snowblind, the developer behind those better action/RPGs. You hack and slash your way through hordes of mindless enemies, gaining experience and leveling up along the way. If you've played any other games of this kind, then you already know the drill.
Well, almost. In the game's one interesting twist, the Bard can summon allies by playing tunes on his lute. You'll gain new songs over the course of the game, allowing you to summon in a few different melee and ranged buddies like the brutish Mercenary, the nasty Vorpal Rat and the healer Witch, by far the most useful of the lot as she constantly heals you and other allies whenever damaged. Better lutes allow you to summon more allies at a time, so that eventually you'll form small, temporary parties. When an ally goes down, you can always just summon another to take its place provided you have the mana and enough breathing room.
The idea is decent, but you have very little control over your cohorts beyond simple "attack' or "fall back' commands. Often they just wander up to bad guys and do the A.I. version of button-mashing, which actually works because that's pretty much all the enemies do, too. They'll block from time to time, but mostly they just stand there getting whacked.
Where The Bard's Tale carves out its niche, however, is in its attempt to poke fun at RPG conventions. Your very first task is to slay the evil rats in a bar's cellar, as hackneyed a gameplay concept as there has ever been. So you run into the basement, kill exactly one rat, proclaim victory, and laugh out loud at the dry humor. Remember that laugh, because it will be your last.
Over and over again the game breaks the fourth wall as the Bard and the narrator point out the silliness of the Bard's predicaments. This leads to lengthy bits of sarcastic dialogue that do little to further the plot. After a few hours, it becomes tedious listening to the Bard's rude comments and quips about how stupid it is that he constantly has to run ridiculous errands for NPCs.
What's more ridiculous is that you have to run them for him. The Bard's Tale points out classic RPG flaws only to fall prey to them itself. The game decries the practice of bashing barrels, and then proceeds to reward you for bashing open every barrel you see by including an NPC who pays for bashed barrels. It makes fun of the fact that slain enemies mysteriously leave behind coins, and then goes right ahead and does it. It is content merely observing its foibles rather than actually trying to solve them. The Bard seems genuinely unhappy having to deal with his world of clich's and thus passes his misery on to you, since you're the one who has to actually play this thing. Sucker!
But that's not the worst of it. Perhaps the most addictive quality of action/RPGs is item collection and weapon creation, and astonishingly, you'll find neither here. You will find new weapons once in a blue moon and will find almost zero variety at the few in-game shops. In an act of gaming blasphemy, you have no inventory. Instead, when you find items during your travels, they are immediately converted into silver. Find some candles? They're now 4 silver. Diamond? 200 silver. Enemy clothing, swords and items? Silver, silver and silver.
This is supposed to streamline the game, and I acknowledge the fact that managing four billion items can be time-consuming. It turns, out, however, that it's also exactly what makes button-mashing worth the effort. Don't just yank out the whole inventory system without giving me something better in its place. You don't get items to restore health or mana. You don't sell anything, you don't equip anything, and you don't create anything.
So what, then, do you do, exactly? Hack, slash, and grimace at the lame humor, mostly. This is a pretty long game, but only the most dedicated will want to play past about 4 or 5 hours because there's just not enough depth in the gameplay. You can only play as the Bard, so don't expect to replay it as a magic-user (there's no magic, by the way) or thief, and there is no multiplayer whatsoever. There are numerous locales, but killing swarms of enemies one after another grows tiresome considering there's no real payoff in terms of cool items or weapons. Even the combat itself isn't handled very well. You'll often get knocked down, at which point you slowly try to get up while enemies take free potshots at you. It's incredibly cheap.
Not only does The Bard's Tale feel like a slimmed down version of Dark Alliance, it looks like one, too. Given, the engine is a good one, particularly in its colorful environments, with cool lighting and a smooth framerate. It's nothing new, but it gets the job done.
There's a ton of speech and the voices are done well, thanks to great performances by Cary "My Dear Westley " Elwes as the Bard and Tony Jay as the droll narrator. You are occasionally given the option to control the cut-scene dialogues by choosing to reply in a pleasant or snarky tone, but alas, all roads lead to linear plot progression.
As a fan of the original Bard's Tale and of other console action/RPGs, I am profoundly disappointed by this imitative stand-up routine. Its sardonic take on typical conventions is thwarted by its own weak design, and its tongue-in-cheek humor fails more often than it succeeds. Laughter might well be the best medicine, but a bad joke is the worst ailment. Huzzah!