by Andrew Skelton (Outfoxed)
I recently previewed The Bard’s Tale IV wherein I found it charming with a few issues that needed to be ironed out. InXile has finally gone along to release the game in its entirety, and I was provided a copy of the game for review purposes. If you’re not in the know, The Bard’s Tale series has been around since the early/mid 1980s, and has a very dedicated fan base. It was known for its difficulty, unique puzzles, and party management systems. So how does a sequel that came out decades after the last official game fair? Can it live up to the lofty expectations set upon it?
Sing a Song To Be Proud Of
First of all, you don’t get to create a party right away like the previous three Bard’s Tale games. You start as Melody, a bard who bears witness to a public execution of suspected heretics, of which adventurers like herself are suspect of being. Right away you meet up with Rabbie, head of the Adventurer’s Guild of Skara Brae, and he leads you through the city to the hall itself. Once there, you can finally create your character. Yes, I said character — only the main character is created at this point.
You’ll have the option of six different races to create from. Three of them are different types of humans, each with different abilities to set them apart. You’ll also have the option to create an elf, dwarf, or trow (a sort of goblin-esque race). From there, you’ll select from one of four classes: bard, fighter, rogue, or practitioner. This is vastly fewer than the previous Bard’s Tale titles. The lack of races makes sense, due to the story, but while there are hidden classes in the game, unlocked far, far in the future, some popular classes being omitted is a step in the wrong direction to me.
Adventuring with a Song
The controls of The Bard’s Tale IV are simple enough. WASD to move, right mouse button to move the camera about, and left click to interact with everything. It works for a first person adventure RPG like this. In your inventory screen, right click can also be used to inspect, split, or discard items. Your various menus can be accessed via hotkeys (M for map, I for inventory, et al). All of these keys can be rebound, thankfully, to suit your needs.
Adventuring wise, things are also very straight-forward. In fact, this is one of my complaints — it’s too simple. Most puzzles I encountered are simple block pushing ones, or an easy switch style puzzle that can normally be solved with trial and error. As you gain more party members throughout the story, various other abilities are unlocked, such as the ability to find secret treasure stashes, or the ability to knock down flimsy walls, but it feels a tad too dumbed down.
You Gotta Fight For Your Right to Party
Let’s talk combat. Each of your characters can equip up to four abilities. You can have up to six characters in a party. That’s 24 active abilities across the party. Many have cooldowns associated with them, anywhere from 1-3 turns, so combat itself becomes strategic usage of abilities to maintain pressure on opponents. There is no hit or miss feature here; if you can target an enemy, your ability will always hit. Likewise if an enemy can hit you, they will.
That being said, you’re further limited by one huge problem: opportunity. You start the game with the ability to take three actions by default. You’ll probably play through most of the game with only the ability to take three actions by default. Sure, there are abilities that are free actions, like a rogue’s stealth or a practitioner’s magic missile, but you only have three actions across a party of six. Yes, there are ways to increase your party’s starting opportunity, but that won’t happen for a very long time. It’s an artificial limitation on a system that’s already gated by cooldowns, and adds a ton of frustration, especially when your full party encounters a group of enemies who have five or six points of opportunity to your one.
Secrets Galore, Treasures Untold
While most of the puzzles are simplistic, there are still plenty that can challenge you. For the first time in a very, very long time, I used a code wheel to solve a puzzle. Not one in game, mind you, an actual, physical, in-my-hands-turning-the-dials code wheel. Various shrines exist that have two symbols, and said wheel tells you two numbers. These numbers correspond to items you have in a journal you pick up in the Adventurer’s Guild, and giving up those items to the shrine grants you a very good reward in exchange. One early one was a torch that never goes out, and can be snuffed at will. An adventurer’s dream come true, that is!
In addition to the shrines, there are also Elven puzzle weapons to be found. These items require you to find places to interact when you inspect them, and solve a small puzzle associated with them. By doing so, and inserting a proper gem, you unlock more powers from them and another puzzle to solve. Most of the ones I encountered seemed to have three puzzles to them total, and the rewards for solving them were super helpful. Also, exploration is highly rewarded in The Bard’s Tale IV, with various chests, barrels, and crates scattered about. Sure, most have crafting mats or gold in them, but there’s satisfaction in searching a space knowing something has to be there, and it turns out there was.
Managerial Skills for the New Bard
Inventory management always seems to be some sort of issue in a lot of games. The Bard’s Tale IV tries to alleviate this by giving you multiple pages to work with, but also makes it cumbersome by not allow you to switch pages without clicking. A minor inconvenience, absolutely, but it’s there. The worst offender, however, is selling loot to NPC vendors. Your items take up space in their stock, and eventually you might not be able to sell to that specific vendor anymore because their inventory is clogged up with your useless detritus. There may be quite a few vendors in the game, but there’s also tons of loot to be found, and you’ll end up having to decide what you want to sell and what you just want to get rid of all around.
As far as equipment goes, characters have a weapon, off-hand, armor, helmet, boots, and trinket slot available to them. Outside of weapon specializations giving power to certain attacks, as a rule of thumb, the more of a stat the item has, the more value to your characters it brings. Strength is used for most damage calculations (yes, even magic). Constitution equals your hit points. Intelligence provides you focus for channeled attacks – taking more damage than you have focus interrupts your channel and can have detrimental effects on the character depending on what ability was used. Finally, armor class straight up negates a point of damage taken per point of armor class. There are also the aforementioned Opportunity points, and spell points, which function like opportunity points, but are on a character by character basis.
Final Thoughts: 3/5 (Good)
I was really hoping The Bard’s Tale IV would blow me away. It’s enjoyable at times, certainly, but there are design frustrations that left me scratching my head. The music direction is phenomenal, but the sound effects are lackluster at best. Combat is strategic and involved, but I also found myself bored with it. Classes are not balanced; rogues and practitioners have a serious advantage throughout the game. Races are not balanced; trow get one opportunity refunded every time they score a killing blow, for example, so why use anything but a trow when opportunity is at a premium?
It’s a game that wears the trappings of promise, but robes it all in mediocrity. There were plenty of issues with the game at launch, with optimization practically non-existent, and player feedback outright ignored. I found myself stuck on terrain not five minutes into the game as I went up a staircase, yet somehow couldn’t climb back down. It’s small things like this – things that were well reported during the beta testing – that really hamper The Bard’s Tale IV from being an exceptional title.
The Bard’s Tale IV Screenshots