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The Bard's Tale

(inXile entertainment; US: Jul 2007)

Coinage & Cleavage

A few months ago I wrote a review of Champions of Norrath, arguing that “in Western culture, the most successful of our heroes are the ones holding most of the gold.” In essence, I contended that RPGs and the fantasy genre in general contain a master narrative of a hero who develops chiefly through material goods (weapons, armor, and the gold that buys them). Indeed, developing a character—a hero—in games like Champions of Norrath, Baldur’s Gate, or Diablo is largely based on improving the statistics of their equipment and less on character itself.


Loading up The Bard’s Tale was a strange event for me, then. It almost felt as if Brian Fargo and the folks over at inXile had generated a game just to prove my point.


The Bard’s Tale is ostensibly an homage to the classic PC RPG of the same name, but it is more of a satire of the aforementioned games (borrowing much of their top down dungeon hacking game style and play) and the fantasy genre in general.


Its premise is simple: our hero, the titular musician and rogue, must save the world by banishing a great evil and rescuing a trapped princess. If this sounds familiar that’s because it’s supposed to be. As noted, the game is satire and thus its narrative depends largely on skewering the clichés of the genre.


The story begins with such a skewering as the Bard is asked to skewer rats in a tavern cellar (yup, a la Baldur’s Gate—you’re even sent on the mission by a buxom barmaid) that begins many such adventures. Our Level 1 character must begin his career inauspiciously taking on less than terrifying vermin to prove his worth and begin his ascension towards more legitimate heroic levels.


As the Bard descends into the dimly lit “dungeon”, he stops cautiously to save at a conveniently placed save point, then begins exploring the labyrinth. Inside, he locates a rat and kills it in a single blow. Striking a victorious pose with sword held aloft, a voice booms “quest complete”. As a player, I giggled and was immediately sold on the cynical premise of this tale.


This cynicism is also reflected in the attitude of the Bard and returns me to my earlier cynical take on the genre. When asked to take on the quest to save the princess, the Bard is hesitant until he sees her and realizes that she’s a hottie and is assured by her that both her body and her wealth will serve as rewards for her rescue. The Bard’s motivations are simple—he quests for coin and cleavage.


Even the gameplay supports this pragmatic approach to heroism. In one of its more elegant features—one that cuts like Ockham’s Razor to the heart of the hero’s drive for treasure in the genre—rather than looting bodies by collecting items from your vanquished foes, examining them to see if they are an improvement on your own equipment, and then selling the “junk loot” at a nearby town, all the loot you pick up that isn’t better than what you currently have is immediately converted into gold. Forget the combat or magical properties of said objects (which range from the typical stuff like swords and shields to more amusing loot like family pictures and swim trunks)—it’s their more basic value as currency is all that matters to the Bard. Although I did briefly long for the sort of shopping mentality that is intrinsic to these hack, slash, and grab games, in which you get that opportunity to consider an item’s properties and whether or not it really is better than what you currently have, my longing evaporated quickly when I realized that I wouldn’t have to backtrack to sell goods or manage an inventory, and I could get to the business at hand—maiming, killing, and otherwise making a nuisance of myself to the armies standing in the way of more coinage and cleavage.


Unfortunately, not all of the game’s “features” so neatly fall in line with the pragmatism of the narratorial approach, though. Interminably long load times when entering buildings and especially having to reload a game after a cheap death is really frustrating in an RPG. The game is fairly difficult for standard hack and slash RPG fare and death is never fun when you’re trying not merely to advance the story but your character as well. Death means the loss of gold and experience prior to the last save, so you’re not just covering old dungeon ground but old development ground.


The combat is initially slow going and unlike the previously mentioned hack and slash games, the Bard has to be a bit more crafty and selective when he chooses his battles. Those accustomed to wading into a horde of monsters and unleashing waves of chain lightning to watch as bodies pile up on dungeon floors will be a little surprised by this game. Engaging smaller groups, summoning allies (the Bard’s chief musical and magical power), and especially back stabbing (this is not an ability by the way, it’s a strategy I found successful in most combats—literally getting behind my foes to heroically slay them from behind while my allies kept their attention up front) has to be done in a more strategic manner than is usually the case in these games. At the same time, while the slightly more challenging strategy of combat may be a refreshing change for Diablo vets, cheap deaths usually facilitated by the poor AI and pathfinding of your companions makes some battle’s outcomes seem more a matter of bad luck than poor planning.


These gripes aside—the combat grows on you despite its limitations and more frequent than usual deaths. It is especially once you gain the ability to summon more allies at one time and develop some of your combat skills that the game becomes more fun and challenging with only the occasional need to swear at the gaming gods for their poor design of healers who always prioritize the Bard to heal (even when he has only a sliver of health gone) as opposed to other more severely injured allies.


It is the narrative, though, that really shines and seems the dominant focus of the development of the game. While it contains a few groaners, it’s still fairly consistently witty if not laugh out loud funny. It’s hard to fail to enjoy clever moments like when the game instructs you to “press square to loot the Chosen One” or you have to face off against a boss monster named “Ornery Old Horse” (and that’s a literal description of the “ferocious” beast by the way).


You are given some choices in steering the story in the form of options to respond to NPCs in a “snarky” or “nice” way (notably snarky is the first option among the binary options) and the game’s multiple endings are fairly fascinating and also left up to you to decide.


In the end, as the story’s less than subtle twist is revealed, you can choose to fight on behalf of the princess, her captor, or just walk away. That final choice strikes me as the one most in touch with the game’s sensibilities (and, indeed, it is the one that hints at a possible sequel for the game). Before the Bard walks away, he tells both the princess and her captor that he isn’t choosing either one of them. Confused, the two want to know who he does choose then. The Bard puts it quite simply, “I choose me.” And, indeed, if nothing else this game shows what may really lurk in the hearts of most heroes—the hero himself.

G. Christopher Williams is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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