The Bard’s Tale is a well-regarded trilogy of RPGs that came out in the 80s. The Bard’s Tale is also a 2004 game from InXile, which happens to include the original three games as a bonus after Brian Fargo did some savvy maneuvering to secure the rights.
Today, we’re going to be talking about the 2004 incarnation of the game.
I received The Bard’s Tale after supporting Wasteland 2’s kickstarter, and frankly I’m surprised about this bit of promotion, because I don’t think anyone would play The Bard’s Tale and get excited about InXile’s ability to do Wasteland 2 justice.
This game appears to be lauded in some circles, which must be down to the tongue-in-cheek writing, the surprisingly good voice acting and the music, because it certainly isn’t for any of the technical or gameplay aspects.
The game is ugly, which on its own wouldn’t an issue (some of my best friends are ugly games), but it doesn’t perform well either. It is plagued by loading screens, with transitions between any and every area requiring more time than should be necessary for a 9 year old game running on a decently powerful laptop.
To draw a comparison, Dark Souls is famously poorly optimised for PC, yet you could theoretically get through the game without ever seeing a loading screen, provided you don’t die and are never summoned. Even then, when you do see a loading screen it never lingers long enough for you to read all of the item text that it displays. The Bard’s Tale, on the other hand, needs a loading screen when you’re simply entering a small house in a village, and this loading screen appears for 5-10 seconds… to load a “level” that is approximately 3m x 3m.
It’s a cross-platform game, appearing on iOS and Android as well, and if you want to use that as an excuse go right ahead, but it seems to me the game should run and load fantastically fast on PC if it runs on a phone. I don’t know what kind of load times our mobile brothers need suffer through, but I feel for them, I really do.
The Bard’s Tale is ugly and it’s riddled with loading screens, but even those two things can be forgiven if the game feels good while you’re playing it. It doesn’t.
The animations are both terrible and extremely drawn out. When the Bard runs the screen lurches as he goes step… pause… step… pause… step, and watching him awkwardly move into place for a conversation is as frustrating as it is unnecessary. The player doesn’t care where he is standing, and I’m sure the player wouldn’t care if he was automatically repositioned without need for the animation if it helped to make the game move along smoothly.
Attacking is just as bad as the running, removing any sense of reactivity from the controls, and it feels as though they deliberately dragged out the length of the magic animations in order to show off their (rudimentary even by 2004 standards) effects. The “Quick Heal” for example, triggers a 10 second animation of some magic lady coming down from the sky (or the roof, if you’re indoors) to restore your health. “Quick” this is not.
The writing and the voice acting are the two best things about The Bard’s Tale, but that’s not necessarily saying much. Cary Elwes and Tony Jay provide the voices for the Bard and the Narrator respectively, and they do a good job with what they were given, but overall the script is pretty weak. Taken on their own the jokes are ok, but in the broader context it quickly grates. Yes, we know that RPG tropes are ridiculous if you stop and think about it for half a second. Yes, the main character looking up to the sky to speak to the narrator is very meta. Do you have anything else to say, or are you just going to repeat those two gags?
And I know it says right there on the tin (where ‘the tin’ is the Steam store page) that the Bard is on a quest for coin and cleavage, but focusing on the breasts of the poorly modeled and animated female NPCs is painfully juvenile.
If I wanted to look at low-res breasts I’d go throw money at strippers in Duke Nukem 3D; at least there the actual gameplay is enjoyable.
I’m sure there could be some worthwhile commentary to be made on the busty bar wenches of many RPGs, but The Bard’s Tale – despite the meta-commentary elsewhere – isn’t bothering to attempt that here.
If The Bard’s Tale was fun to play then the writing and the humour would be a welcome addition to the game, but it isn’t fun. It could be the most well-written game (it isn’t) or the funniest (it most certainly isn’t that), but if it still feels like a chore to play then you made a terrible game.
And that’s exactly what InXile did; The Bard’s Tale is a terrible game.