In light of the legacy created by its namesake and the previous landmarks in the genre, The Bard's Tale is a disappointment.
The Bard himself is pretty proficient with melee weapons, and you'll pick up swords, flails, axes, and bows over the course of the game. If you have a proclivity for magic users, this may be a little disappointing, though The Bard's musical talents do allow him to conjure up fighters to aid him. You'll pick up tunes to learn how to summon a total of 16 different companions over the course of your adventure, and each serves a fairly unique purpose. You'll occasionally come to a point where you'll need to summon a specific companion to move forward, but for the most part, it's up to you to choose who fights alongside you. At the beginning you can summon only one companion at a time, but by the end you'll have a full-fledged fellowship to help you cut a swath through the forces of evil. Though these companions have trouble avoiding traps and navigating the occasional narrow doorway, they're quite competent. This companion system is easily the most unique thing The Bard's Tale has to offer, and it's done pretty well.
There's no proper inventory, so The Bard doesn't have anywhere to keep any sort of healing potions, which leads to one of the more ham-fisted parts of the game. You have two options for regaining health. One is the crone, a companion you can call upon who will periodically cast healing spells on The Bard and any companions who are in need. The other is Princess Caleigh, the very princess you are trying to rescue, whose spirit you can call upon to restore all party members' health. The problem with both of these options is that neither is a particularly good choice for instantly healing yourself when you're in a tight spot--which is, arguably, the time that you need healing the most. Summoning Princess Caleigh requires a series of three button presses, and the action doesn't stop while you're accessing this on-the-fly menu, which can create some frustration. In addition, once you've actually summoned her, all the action comes to a halt while an overly long and unskippable sequence in which she floats down from the sky and heals you plays out. It's an interesting idea, but it just wasn't thought all the way through.
The Bard's Tale makes pretty good use of the Snowblind engine, though it doesn't look quite as clean as Snowblind's own Champions of Norrath, which came out on the PlayStation 2 last year. The game covers a great variety of environments, from light, breezy forests to dank Viking tombs, and the scenery changes up often enough so that there's always something new to look at. One of the more unique touches in the graphics is the way that the taller trees feel like they're almost brushing up against the camera, which adds some depth to the gameworld. Everything animates pretty well while you're in the actual game, but the characters look jerky and mechanical during the cutscenes. The overhead camera seems locked onto the Bard's running gait, which makes for a somewhat sickening lunging motion. The lighting and particle effects in the PC version of The Bard's Tale take on an especially pixelated look, due largely to the higher resolution.
There are quite a few cutscenes in The Bard's Tale, and during these sequences, the game's voice acting--arguably its biggest strength--is allowed to shine. Cary Elwes (Hot Shots!, Robin Hood: Men in Tights) does a fine turn as The Bard, a real devil-may-care scoundrel. He affects a thicker British accent than you might be used to hearing from him, which is fine, though it might have been more fun to hear him as The Bard with his full-on The Princess Bride level of upper-crust pomposity. Tony Jay has a perfect voice for a medieval fantasy adventure, and he does a good job as the antagonistic narrator for the game. The background music kind of comes and goes as you play, usually relying on lots of lutes, flutes, and harps, ultimately sounding like something you'd hear in an Irish pub, which isn't entirely unfitting. There are also several full-on musical numbers, some of which pop up multiple times. Musically they're fine, but they often go on for too long, and their humorous elements aren't as funny as the game seems to think. The in-game sounds of hacking and slashing are OK, but most of the death knells for the monsters sound a bit too much like regular guys using some weird vocal filters.
The Bard's Tale has some genuinely good ideas, but much of its execution falls short. The funny stuff isn't as funny as it needs to be, and the humor at its apex is just kind of amusing. The straight high-fantasy stuff it employs is actually pretty good, and the game might've even been better if it had played it straight all the way through. The core hack-and-slash stuff is solid, and the changes it makes to the genre's formula, though not entirely successful, do help give the game a bit of its own personality. It's certainly not an out-and-out failure, but in light of the legacy created by its namesake and the previous landmarks in the genre, The Bard's Tale is a disappointment.