No genre takes itself as seriously as the fantasy-RPG. Games like The Elder Scrolls, Baldur’s Gate, and Ultima offer up grand tales of dragons, goblins, and helpless maidens, all delivered in a completely straight-faced fashion which is entirely oblivious to the absurdity of the subject matter.
Taking this into account, it’s refreshing to play a title like The Bard’s Tale. A portable conversion of the 2004 PS2 and Xbox game (which in turn was a spiritual update of a dusty old computer RPG), this knockabout romp gleefully pokes fun at the fantasy gaming subset, taking every available opportunity to mercilessly stick the boot in - with predictably amusing results.
Instead of being the archetypal fresh-faced hero on a mission of justice, the titular Bard is a opportunistic, womanising lout who has low morals and a high libido, and he provides the bulk of the game’s belly-laughs.
Laughter in the best medicine
Voiced by British actor Cary Elwes (Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Saw, The Princess Bride), The Bard is hands-down one of the greatest video game characters ever created.
His cutting remarks, pithy observations, and expertly delivered dialogue add immeasurably to the game’s appeal - although it goes without saying that many of the gags are only going to hit home with seasoned RPG players.
Elwes - who also contributed to the script - really does bring The Bard to life with his roguish accent, and this makes up for shortcomings elsewhere in the game’s presentation.
Granted, the fact that the developers have succeeded in cramming a PS2/Xbox game into the iPhone is commendable (with a download size of 1.34GB, you’ll need a wi-fi connection), but The Bard’s Tale is hardly what one would describe as a good-looking game, even by 2004 standards.
Characters are well-modelled (especially the numerous buxom females that litter the bard’s path), but suffer from curiously jerky animation. Locations are often slightly bland and featureless, too.
Despite its visual hiccups, The Bard’s Tale is packed to bursting with quest-based goodness. The game is massive, offering hours and hours of entertainment, not to mention plenty of secrets to discover along the way.
Although it takes perverse pleasure in highlighting the shortcomings of the fantasy-RPG lineage, The Bard’s Tale ironically adheres to many stables of the genre. You explore, fight, and indulge in side-quests - all pretty standard role-playing fare.
Combat is handled a little differently, though, with the bard using his musical skills to summon allies and turn the tide of battle.
Play us a tune
Possibly the game’s most significant weakness is that it was never intended to be played on a platform like the iPhone. While the designers have done a reasonably successful job of taking a console title - which previously benefitted from a proper pad with a multitude of buttons - and porting it to a touchscreen device with no physical input, the interface presents several issues.
Many of the menu buttons are tiny, making them hard to tap. During particularly tense moments, it feels as if you’re all fingers and thumbs as you try and move, summon allies, and avoid the unwanted attention of your foe.
If you have access to an iPad then we’d recommend you play The Bard’s Tale on that platform, as the larger screen size is a real blessing.
For all of its irksome problems, The Bard’s Tale is still a highly worthwhile purchase for iOS RPG lovers. The entire game is drenched in an epic atmosphere, and Cary Elwes’s stellar vocal contribution is legitimate justification for purchase on its own.
Converting a large-scale console RPG to iOS was a bold move, but on the whole The Bard’s Tale is a success. Its winning humour and epic quest combine to make its minor shortcomings seem less problematic, and it’s sure to keep fans of the genre busy for weeks to come - as well as offering more chuckles than a omnibus edition of You’ve Been Framed.