by Andrew Skelton (Outfoxed)
For some, The Bard’s Tale series is a storied, treasured classic. First released in 1985, the game spawned two sequels and a construction kit to make your own adventures. However, there have been no new developments in the series since 1991, and it’s long been considered a forgotten gem. In 2004, InXile released a spin-off game titled, unsurprisingly, The Bard’s Tale, on PC and consoles, though it was connected in name only. InXile, however, successfully crowdfunded a proper sequel to the original title and has released a beta version of The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep. Being a long time fan of the series, I was curious and eager to see how it felt compared to the series of yore.
As you first enter the game, you’re treated to a grisly execution scene. Okay, that’s a dismal tone straight away, I thought. You then learn, through traveling the city of Skara Brae with an old man named Rabbie (he saw you in a dream once so it’s okay!) that these public executions are the result of the zealous followers of a priest of the Fatherite church. This bishop’s cult-like following has been on a rampage against all non-conforming groups such as the elves, dwarves, and trow, and even groups of humans labeled as outcasts. Modern political similarities aside, the game sets a tone early on that you’re in for a rather bleak experience.
Following Rabbie to the Adventurer’s Guild, you find out the church isn’t a fan of said guild, and wouldn’t you know it, mere moments after arriving the guild is on fire and you’re forced to flee into Skara Brae Below, where the real adventure begins. It’s also at this point where you can finally customize your character. See, you initially start as Melody, the Bard, as part of the initial narrative, but once you escape, you’re free to change that storyline. Creation involves choosing race (four human archetypes, elf, dwarf, or trow — goblin-like creatures for those not in the know), gender, class (bard, warrior, rogue, or practitioner, the mage of the group) and then what skills you want to master. I decided to go with Melody anyway, since it was obvious she was supposed to be the star of this show.
Exploration in The Bard’s Tale IV functions like it does in the first three games, rather than the spinoff. You traverse cities and dungeons in a first-person view and interact with people, places, and things using left click. In fact, left click can be considered the “do whatever necessary” button, since it’s responsible for so much of the gameplay. Right click brings up a character action menu, which becomes much more valuable when you get more party members.
Yes, unlike previous installments, you start out alone. You’ll recruit additional party members as you play, and as you gain more party members, your options in combat increase substantially. This is one of the complaints I have with the game, though. You can have up to six party members (eventually, not quite that in the beta version), but are limited to three actions total across the entire party. Not to mention the fact that characters gain access to a large skill tree but can only equip three skills at a time. It seems nonsensical and artificially limited to me. It creates difficulty only for the sake of difficulty.
Speaking of combat, this is a turn-based, grid-based system, but not quite like you might expect. There are no random encounters in the game, for instance. You either get the jump on enemies and act first (guess which mouse button you use!), or the enemies spot you and they act first instead. The previously mentioned three actions per turn rule does also apply to enemies, so there’s at least some form of balance. Once in battle, you execute your commands based on your character’s position on what’s essentially an invisible 4×4 grid — 2×4 for your party, and 2×4 for your enemies. Certain attacks can only hit certain rows or columns along this grid, so positioning can be very important. There are also special attacks and conditions that can be inflicted or prevented with other actions, so girding your characters appropriately and balancing their skills becomes half of the challenge, not to mention deciding which abilities to use from round to round.
The difficult combat aside, I definitely enjoyed the exploration and puzzle solving aspect of the game. Most of the early puzzles seem to be figuring out cog placement to open doors, but there’s some clever use of environment in play too. For example, there’s a puzzle that involved getting onto a rooftop to fetch a treasure chest nearby. In order to access that chest, however, you have to push blocks below in a particular arrangement first. I’m a big fan of spatial puzzles like these, especially ones that make use of the environment so well. There are several sidequests I found along the way, too, but I never managed to complete any of them, sadly. From what I understand, some require further progression than the game currently offers, and some are just challenging to complete at this stage.
Overall, The Bard’s Tale IV is showing a lot of promise. InXile is doing a good job of listening to complaints and fixing reported issues, insofar as I’ve witnessed. There’s certainly a lack of polish that can be expected with a beta, and the game is most assuredly not optimized at all — the minimum requirements currently call for a GTX 970, for example. Still, I think the game definitely harkens back to the series of yore. Sure, there’s no Cary Elwes delivering snark as was the case in the 2004 spinoff, but as mechanics get polished and gameplay gets expanded, hopefully The Bard’s Tale IV will have its own tales to weave for everyone.
Note: A game key was provided for preview purposes.
A Bard’s Tale IV Preview Screenshots