The Bard's Tale, the highly enjoyable action role-playing game that launches today at the App Store, has a long, storied history — far longer and storied-er than your average iOS game.
The first Bard's Tale was a well-loved 1985 computer role-playing game, whose protagonist was, appropriately enough, a singing Bard. That alone set it apart from most other RPGs, which tend to feature protagonists in the more familiar warrior, thief and mage moulds.
In 2004, InXile Entertainment, under the guidance of one of the first game's creators Brian Fargo, resurrected The Bard's Tale as a top-down action-RPG for the Xbox and the PlayStation 2. This game was considerably different than its predecessor — in fact, it was a comedy, playing up RPG conventions as a bit of a self-aware spoof. That game has now been ported over to iOS devices entirely intact — it clocks in at 1.35GB, one of if not the biggest iOS games ever released.
The Bard's Tale's pompous, humorous narrator tells the tale of The Bard, a sardonic ne'er-do-well voiced by Cary Elwes (better known as the actor who played Wesley "As You Wish" Pirate Roberts in The Princes Bride). The Bard is a bit of a cad, and spends most of the game chasing ladies and gold rather than doing heroic things like, say, rescuing villagers and defeating evil. However, over the course of the game's lengthy story (it clocks in at 20-30 hours, just like the 2004 game), he is swept up on an epic adventure, facing off against huge monsters, deadly guardians, and of course, breakdancing zombies.
The game shared a lot of aspects with Peter Molyneux's Fable, which also came out in 2004 for the Xbox. Playing The Bard's Tale on iOS, I'm surprised at how much it feels like a Fable game. It shares Fable's dry british sensibility, and while it lacks that game's warm, original art style, it more than makes up for it by having a much more memorable protagonist.
The game itself is an isometric-view action RPG, which means that much of your time is spent exploring forests and dungeons, discovering new enemies, and thwaking them to death. Said thwacking is accomplished with a wide variety of weapons, from swords and other melee objects to bows and ranged weapons. In addition to standard weaponry, The Bard can fall back on his unique skill — singing songs.
Throughout the game, you'll learn all manner of songs that allow conjuration of enemies to fight alongside you. Between the close and ranged combat and the wide variety of summons (though I haven't unlocked nearly all of them), combat can be tackled in a lot of different ways. You'll also do a fair amount of simple conversation-making, which is handled by choosing either a "snarky" or "nice" button and having the Bard react accordingly. Decisions made throughout the game have repercussions (often unexpected or humorously illogical ones), and every person you please or piss off will most likely come back to haunt or reward you down the road.
The game's controls are a touch finicky, as is probably to be expected with any iOS port of a controller-based game (I've been playing it on an iPad2). Fortunately, it's not too annoying — navigation is handled via a single on-screen joystick, and the top-down view means that you won't have to move the camera around too much. Which is good, because the two-finger method for camera rotation is awkward.
But as fun as it is to play, The Bard's Tale's main attraction is its snappy writing. This is a very funny game, one of the first to dabble in the sort of self-aware meta-humour made popular by later Fable games as well as Ron Gilbert's hilarious Deathspank. Some of the jokes feel a bit too familiar — the Bard starts arguing with the narrator, or a random NPC begins to complain about how much it sucks being a random NPC — but that's mainly due to the fact since The Bard's Tale first came out, several other games have trod similar territory. It's still very funny, and exchanges like this are commonplace:
Narrator: Despite the Bard's warm and shining personality, people continued to run from him like the plague. Perhaps he would one day learn that in order to keep friends near, a man such as himself needed to keep them tied up.
The Bard: If only I could find a sock big enough to put in that mouth of yours.
The game is selling for $6.49 on the app store. It's a long, involved adventure, and certainly a lot of bang for the buck. In an interesting move, InXile has added a "store" to the game, which essentially allows players to pay a bit extra to upgrade their character and get through the game faster. They're priced at $0.99 to $4.49, and give bonuses like maps to guide you, extra levels for your character, and extra money. All of those things can be earned through the game, but this method allows you to go much faster.
It's true that many players might not want a 30-hour game on a mobile device, so the ability to level up and get to experience the story faster feels like a nice addition. That said, InXile's decision to charge for time-saving bonuses feels a bit gouge-y, despite the fact that all of those in-app purchases are entirely optional.
All in all, The Bard's Tale is a faithful, fun port of an often-overlooked (even by me!) gem. It runs smoothly and looks great — plenty of the textures are ugly on close inspection, but in general the gameworld is rendered very nicely. The gags and characters will make you laugh, and the game's surprising scope and ambition translate well to touchscreen devices. This one's a keeper.
The Bard's Tale for iOS [iTunes App Store]