The Bard's Tale E3 2004 Preshow Hands-On Impressions

We have a newfound appreciation for bastard swords after getting a go with the latest build of this upcoming irreverent action RPG.

If you've been around long enough to remember the original The Bard's Tale, then you'll appreciate knowing that industry veteran Brian Fargo, founder of Interplay and overseer of many of that company's classic games, is now at the helm of a new development studio working on what's sort of a remake. The Bard's Tale will be an action RPG in the vein of games like Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance (in fact, it uses a version of that same time-tested graphics engine), but it promises to distinguish itself through its nonstop barrage of irreverent humor. The developers admit that you've probably played games like The Bard's Tale before. So they're injecting the game with an unhealthy dose of self-referential, cynical humor to give it an edge. And you know what? It all seems damn funny, and like a lot of fun. What other game lets you brandish an obnoxious, singing "bastard" sword in battle?

The titular character in The Bard's Tale is a summoner/swordsman who will constantly be getting harangued by the local populace to do everybody's dirty work. The game will have a basic character interaction system in place, inviting you to be nice or snarky, depending on your whim--but watch out, because the niceness or the snarkiness might backfire in unexpected ways. For instance, being awfully rude to the buxom barmaid at the beginning of the game will get her to reveal a side of her personality that you probably wouldn't expect. These either/or choices will lead to some branching points in the game, and should make for some good replay value, especially since what we have heard of the dialogue was pretty much all flat-out hilarious.

The very first quest in the game involves ridding a local tavern of its rat problem--which turns out to be a single rat in the cellar. In an amazing moment, once you slay the rat, the game zooms in on and does a 360-degree rotation around the triumphant, heroic bard. This sort of thing is representative of the overall tone of The Bard's Tale, which will take every opportunity to poke fun at role-playing clichés and conventions, and it will carve its own unique personality by ridiculing that of other games. What a plan!

As far as gameplay goes, this is going to be some straightforward, action RPG business for the most part--but you'll readily be able to switch between different weapons and spells on the fly, and also summon computer-controlled critters and servants to fight alongside you. (Actually, while The Bard's Tale is currently expected to be a single-player game, the developers are experimenting with letting a second player control the summoned characters, which seems like it could be a neat idea.) The action has a good look and feel to it already, since it's reminiscent of the excellent Dark Alliance. What remains to be seen is how well balanced and well paced it will be.

We know that The Bard's Tale features 1,000 pages worth of dialogue, and it promises between 30 and 40 hours of gameplay on the first romp through it. The game is scheduled to ship this fall for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, and in the first quarter of next year, a PC version will follow suit (but with various, new features to make up for lost time). We only got a chance to play the PS2 version at Vivendi's pre-E3 event, but we were told to expect the Xbox version on display at E3. The game has already won us over with its charm, so we're hopeful that the gameplay will live up to the character. We will bring you more on The Bard's Tale as soon as possible.

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