You could say that The Bard's Tale has a long and storied history, considering its pedigree and the fact that it's being designed by Brian Fargo, but we'll spare you the history lesson. The upcoming PS2 and Xbox game from InXile will be an overhead-view hack-and-slash role-playing game along the lines of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath, but with much more personality and humor. We recently had a chance to try the PS2 version of the game and have much to report.
Starting out a new game means creating a new bard and choosing his six "stat" scores: strength, vitality, luck, dexterity, charisma, and rhythm (which affects the bard's musical skills). You can also choose an additional "talent," a special skill that lets the bard do things like wield two-handed swords, automatically find additional treasure, or automatically perform a counterattack every time he successfully deflects an attack with his shield. This process, and apparently the rest of the game, is narrated by none other than veteran actor Tony Jay (the Elder God from Soul Reaver, Magneto in X-Men Legends, and so on), who not only provides explanations of specific menu items, but also alternately yawns with boredom or makes humorous complaints if you keep him waiting.
Jay will also jaw with the bard at several points in the game, acting as a dignified straight man to the unscrupulous (and mouthy) minstrel. As you may already know, The Bard's Tale tells the story of the nameless bard, a vagabond adventurer with very little moral fiber and no real ambition, beyond having a beer and maybe a quick fling with the nearest maiden. In fact, the bard begins his adventure outside of a tavern, where he uses his one and only magical song, which summons a rat. The rodent is then sent into the bar, to the horror of the barmaid, and the bard follows his creation, undoing the spell and fully expecting to receive the free beer he usually gets for his "services."
If you've followed our previous coverage of The Bard's Tale so far, you may already know that the bard instead gets tasked with finding another rat in the basement, only to find that it's seven feet tall and breathes fire. The tavern's patrons give him a good ribbing about it before a mysterious old man teaches the bard a "thunder spider" song, which summons a spiderlike creature made of electricity that makes short work of the giant rat and proves to be a good companion later on, thanks to its ability to briefly stun enemies. The bard eventually expands his adventuring party to include several other creatures summoned by song. Since you move the bard with the left analog stick, this leaves the D pad available to give quick commands to his companions, such as pressing up to order them to attack the nearest enemy, or down to order them to stay put.
Once the bard vanquishes the rat, he's off to explore the wide world. Or, at least, the town of Houton, a small hamlet bordered by forests full of wolves and other, less-friendly creatures. The bard can visit various houses in the village and talk to farmers who will give him side quests (like getting rid of a pesky bugbear monster hiding in the town's cairn for undisclosed reasons), and he can also arm himself at the local shop, which is run by what might be the most long-winded shopkeep ever to appear in a role-playing game. Consider buying one of his suits of leather armor or a new sword, and he'll go on and on about its construction. Buy his pricey treasure map, and you'll get a noticeably different reaction.
Once the bard leaves town, he'll face his first enemies in the form of angry packs of wolves and trow (forest spirits that resemble goblins). Every enemy the bard defeats drops loot, which glows with blue light for easy identification, and every time the bard picks up a weapon or armor that's better than what he has, he'll automatically equip it. And every time he picks up non-weapon, non-armor loot, it automatically gets converted into gold--a conscious decision made by Fargo, who has previously opined that it's often enjoyable to buy a bunch of new stuff in an RPG, but it's usually no fun to sit there and sell junk piece by piece.
While the bard has a simple selection of weapon attacks you can perform by hammering on the attack button, you can also use bows to fire on enemies from a distance, or hang back and let your song-summoned henchmen do the dirty work (henchmen have separate health meters that appear on the left side of the screen). Once you gain enough experience to gain a level or two, you'll also be able to learn additional talents that can help you in battle, such as a charging attack that knocks down enemies in the bard's path, so there's definitely some depth to the game's combat system.
Aside from its combat and summoned enemies, it's The Bard's Tale's sense of style that seems most memorable. Designer Fargo has already stated that the purpose of the game is to deliver a deep but fun role-playing game with "as much personality as possible," especially when it comes to satirizing tired old RPG conventions. You'll see this when the bard triumphantly raises his sword aloft after killing a tiny cellar rat and receiving accolades from the narrator, shortly before getting roasted by the "real" rat in the basement. You'll also see this when the bard uncovers another RPG convention--that of generic monsters dropping fabulous piles of loot from out of nowhere. The bard kills a nondescript wolf in the forest that drops a new sword, a new bow, and a whole pile of gold pieces and furniture, and narrator Tony Jay actually has to stop himself to see if he read that right--no, that wolf really did drop several piles of gold and various household items. The game has a slightly dark and gothic look, different from the brighter colors of Champions of Norrath or Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. Its musical score, which makes liberal use of the bagpipe, and its spirited voice acting and humor seem to recall some of the best movies that parody high fantasy, like The Princess Bride, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
The game seems to be coming along well at this point, and if InXile can succeed at everything it has set out to do, The Bard's Tale will offer just as much in-depth hacking and slashing as any console RPG, but with much more humor and personality. The game is scheduled for release later this year on the PS2 and the Xbox. For now, you can watch the bard make an epic decision in this exclusive trailer, linked to below.