The Wheel of Dubious RPGs Episode 015-016: The Bard's Tale (2004) and Stonekeep

The Bard’s Tale

Games you could be playing instead: Literally any other video game of note from 2004
Games you could be playing instead: Literally any other video game of note from 2004

Developer: InXile Entertainment inc.

Release Date: October 26, 2004

Time Played: A little over two hours

Dubiosity: 2 out of 5

Mediocrity: 5.5

Would I play more? Only out of morbid curiosity

It’s only fitting that following the release of Wasteland 3, an honest to goodness non-dubious RPG that I highly recommend, we take a look back at InXile’s roots. Well, sort of. Founded by Brian Fargo after his exile from Interplay (ha, get it?) the first big project from the studio was a revival of the storied Bard’s Tale franchise. Well, storied in the sense that I think The Bard’s Tale trilogy probably rates as the fourth string Dungeon Crawler behind Wizardry, Ultima, and Might and Magic while still being historically relevant. Similarly, I mean revival in the sense that it uses the same name and has some of the same vague themes as those old CRPGs, but uh, in most senses The Bard’s Tale 2004 is probably one of the most 2004 RPGs I can think of. Probably makes it even more baffling that it’s been ported to pretty much every console you can think of (including the Ouya,) but I guess this is better than Hunted: The Demon’s Forge.

The blacksmith's extremely dry, extremely scottish attempts at sales pitches are maybe one of the few times I chuckled during my time playing.
The blacksmith's extremely dry, extremely scottish attempts at sales pitches are maybe one of the few times I chuckled during my time playing.

The Bard’s Tale 2004 has the grand misfortune of being a “comedic” send-up of RPGs and video game tropes in general; something I’m already not fond of. There’s a sneering quality to The Stanley Parable’s “Hey you dingdong, look at you, playing a video game, doing video game things” style of commentary that I’ve always found a little insufferable, so I was expecting the worst from BT 2004. If nothing else in its favor, it has a pretty impressive voice cast, featuring Cary Elwes as the titular bard (doing an inexplicable, but not unwelcome cockney accent) and the late, great Tony Jay in one of his last roles as the narrator. That said, for as much as I’d love to talk about how poorly comedy ages, especially the comedy of the unfortunate era that was the mid-00s, to be perfectly honest the comedy in Bard’s Tale isn’t nearly as terrible or cringe as I was anticipating. Oh, it’s got some T-rated edge to it, and it certainly goes after some low-hanging fruit with its “lol video game” humor, but most of it reaches a bare minimum level of competence to merely be “mildly unfunny” or “vaguely chuckle-worthy” rather than something I can earnestly rip into.

It’s probably doubly unfortunate that The Bard’s Tale 2004 wants its writing (and frequent musical interludes) to do most of the heavy lifting. As a video game, it’s running on the Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance engine and is a pretty standard console hack-n-slash from that era with some acceptable RPG character building. It has ideas, like having the bard’s magical repertoire consist exclusively of summoning spells and forcing the player to time their parries, rather than hold down the block button, but I sure did spend two hours of my life lightly tapping X on my controller in service of middling jokes and middling, streamlined loot. It’s genuinely one of the more boring things I’ve played as a part of this feature, but it’s far too competently made to be truly bad. I know that’s a ringing endorsement if you’ve ever heard one, but maybe give this one a skip?

Stonekeep

SKELLYTONS
SKELLYTONS

Developer: Interplay

Release Date: Nov 8, 1995

Time Played: A little under two hours

Dubiosity: 3 out of 5

Contains: FMV

Would I play more? Wouldn’t be opposed

That’s right nerds, it’s a “Video games produced by Brian Fargo” double feature today. This was entirely unintentional, but it makes for good theming, right? Stonekeep is a first-person dungeon crawler that isn’t quite a deep turn-based meat grinder like Wizardry, nor is it exactly a “Side-Stepping, Square-Dancing, Puzzle-Solving Real-Time Panic Management Sim” in the vein of Eye of the Beholder (or for those of you under the age of 1000: Legend of Grimrock.) It is, instead, a product of a delightful period of game development where the CD-ROM was just starting to come into fashion. Basically, it’s a dungeon crawler but with a whole hell of a lot more digitized sprites and FMV than its contemporaries.

It's a lot of this
It's a lot of this

Unfortunately, the extremely goofy, extremely “good” use of Full Motion Video and digitized sprites is about the only thing in Stonekeep I think is especially remarkable. As a dungeon crawler, it’s going for a little more streamlined, simplified approach, with “Elder Scrolls-style” skill progression and intentionally obfuscated numbers. While you eventually do get more characters than extremely “dude we found hanging out in a coffee shop in LA” protagonist Drake, I didn’t encounter any of them during the two hours I spent putt-putting around the first floor. Instead, I mostly spent my time throwing rocks at ants and not really encountering any big interesting puzzles or mechanical concepts. It seems entirely playable, and I’m to understand that there’s more high-quality FMV later down the line, but honestly there are far more interesting dungeon crawlers sitting in my backlog and judging me. Did you know that a sequel to Vaporum comes out next week? I still need to finish the first one!

A bit of a short one this week, but that’s what comes from two “one-stream” games in a row. Next week’s offering is something a little more meatier, and one of the biggest inspirations for this feature in the first place. I can’t talk more highly enough about it and its dubiosity, and I highly recommend you tune in. I might also start doing non-dubious streams every once in a while, since my time with Berwick Saga was a lot of fun. Maybe just follow me on twitch, hmmm?

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