Bards in fantasy gaming have an undeservedly bad reputation. Sure, they sing and play instruments (often poorly), are nigh-useless in a fight (unless you’re trying to damage a monster’s eardrums), and tend to seduce everyone (and everything) around them, but otherwise … er … well, maybe it’s not that undeserved.

Even with that baggage, it’s clear to me that the bard class that’s coming to Neverwinter in its Jewel of the North update rocks – and I’m not just saying that because Cryptic Studios let me try the class out prior to its release next week. The bard I got to try out offers a rich and entertaining experience, and – as befits its class – might even let you bring your creative side to the game in a way that’s it’s never had.

Lead Designer Randy Mosiondz was the bandleader in my ear as I navigated a max-level bard through a short dungeon on the game’s test server. I was playing as a songblade, the Paragon Path that specializes in a DPS-heavy “swashbuckling” style of play, as opposed to the more support-based minstrel. I buckled my swashes and entered the dungeon, hunting for a green dragon that was doing typical green dragon-type things. Oh, and there was a talking green sword because of course there was.

I had all the usual skills you’d expect from a Neverwinter character, and pressing Tab pulled up my Perform bar, a clef that let me various sequences of notes using number keys that would trigger special abilities once I completed them. If that would trigger special abilities. The songs would require between six and eight button presses, and while I did, and still have, memorized one of the simple ones (686686), others were less intuitive. Fortunately, you can bind one of your songs to the Q button for “quick play” – and no, Jenny, there is no 8675309 song.

You’re limited in how much you can play by your performance meter, a purple gauge to the center-left of the screen that fills as you engage in combat. There are six songs in total, some performing damaging attacks, others for healing or buffing, and so forth, and Mosiondz told me that more would be coming in future updates.

Out of combat, you can hit F12 to bring up a “free play” Perform bar that has nothing to do with combat but simply lets you strike keys to play whatever tunes you wish. (Mosiondz told me that one problem they’d had with testing the bard was that they weren’t getting enough combat feedback from testers because they’d been spending too much time standing around and just belting out tunes!) While there are a few different instruments you can play, they all resemble, and sound like, the classic bardic lute, but Mosiondz said he hoped that more could be added in the future. As someone who’s played a lot of The Lord of the Rings Online and been amazed by the musical variety provided by devs, and creativity by players, I hope that comes to pass.

For someone who hasn’t played Neverwinter in about seven years, I found myself quickly adapting to the bard’s style of play and ripping off many a righteous tune to slay the monsters I was fighting. As I said, I was playing a max-level character and only managed to memorize one song. I imagine that the learning process would be a little easier if I’d been at it for several hours, starting from level one, so experienced Neverwinter players looking for something different should find plenty to like.

Speaking of leveling a new character, Cryptic Studios has – as every single MMORPG without exception does at some point in its lifespan so why don’t they do this when they launch smh – realized that its leveling process for Neverwinter is too long. Some games address this via max-level boosts while others, Neverwinter included, go the “level squish” route.

When the next update goes live, Neverwinter’s max level will be 20, down from 80. Mosiondz told me that, by the time you reach that 20th level, you should have all your character’s powers and know how to play your class. There still is vertical progression, in the form of item levels and boons, which grant you various passive bonuses, but it shouldn’t be too severe of a ramp-up, and you’ll have more options for deciding what kind of content you want to play.

I asked Mosiondz about how he thought players would react to such a sudden change in the core progression of the game, an oft-contentious issue. He acknowledged that while there will always be some “I ground out my levels and everyone should have to do it” players, the experience has been well-received by those who have tried it on the test server. And, as a long-lapsed player myself, I like the idea too, and it might be enough to get me to check out the game again (he said for the 14th time …).

Finally, I asked Mosiondz about the effects COVID-19 had had on Cryptic and Neverwinter. In April 2020, we learned that a new class – eventually the bard – was in the works, but that the development roadmap had been altered due to the pandemic. He said that while some of the team had already been working from home, that “ramped up” in early 2020. It took “a month or two” to adjust, but once that was dealt with, things proceeded pretty smoothly. In fact, many employees, especially those in the Bay Area who lived far from the office because, well, that was the only way they could afford housing, preferred the arrangement. Now Cryptic is an entirely work-from-home operation, and the company even has some remote jobs around the country.

You can check out the fruits of that labor – both the bard and the new progression – on July 27, when Jewel of the North goes live for PC players. Console players will receive the update sometime in the fall.

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