Since I didn’t own a PC at the time, I completely missed out on the original Bard’s Tale entries. The last mainline entry hit the market in 1988 — that’s thirty years ago. That’s a hell of a long time for a franchise to lay dormant, but InXile have become known for resurrecting classic games and imbuing them with just enough of a modern twist. Now, following their successful Kickstarter campaign in 2015, that’s exactly what they’re aiming for with The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep.
Things aren’t exactly going well for everyone in the world of the Bard’s Tale these days. An order of knights called the Temple of the Swordfather are executing members of the populace at the drop of a hat and doing their level best to turn humans against the other races that inhabit the main hub of Skara Brae. Everyone’s a potential target to these zealots, including the protagonist of this story, and once they turn their beady eyes on the player it’s time to fight back and start uncovering just what the hell’s going on.
Mechanically, The Bard’s Tale IV is an old-school dungeon crawler. The way that the world’s presented is fascinatingly strange, however – everything feels like it’s on a grid-based system filled with ninety degree corners, but the movement within that grid is completely smooth. The player’s party doesn’t move in blocks, such as in more traditional offerings like Etrian Odyssey, Legend of Grimrock or Demon’s Gaze, but instead can move around without being forced to hop between strictly-regimented floor tiles.
As always in these types of games, putting effort into exploration is a great way to uncover loot and goodies by peeking into every nook and cranny. There are a ton of secrets squirreled away, as well as things like points to attach grappling hooks to, weak walls or broken debris that can be smashed in or magically repaired once certain traversal songs are learned. There are also save points that can be consumed for some additional EXP instead of creating saves if the party is feeling daring, though that obviously has the potential to backfire spectacularly if things go sideways.
The player’s party can eventually hold up to six characters, and for the purposes of this preview I stuck with the default protagonist, a female bard named Melody. Her skills largely revolve around buffing her comrades with songs, though there’s also an interesting quirk for this particular class – they have to get drunk to perform at their best, which directly ties into how many spell points they have available. However, overdo it on the devil juice and they’ll collapse and go from a swashbuckling, party-enhancing asset to an inert, vomiting lump of meat for enemies to stab. The rest of the classes are more standard fare, including speedy rogues, stalwart fighters and magic users.
Combat looks fairly promising in these early levels, as it’s based around interrupting enemy assaults and moving around the grid to either avoid incoming attacks or ensure that enemies are in the right place to get what’s coming to them. It’s a tactical setup that works well, and puts an interesting spin on standard RPG mechanics.
One thing I wasn’t really expecting going in was just how many puzzles would be scattered throughout Skara Brae and its surrounding environments. They’re absolutely everywhere, from placing certain items on pedestals to open nearby locked doors to things like spinning cogs around in a nearby panel to… open up locked doors. There’s a lot of locked doors that need opening up through the completion of puzzles, and honestly, I found it all a little excessive. The riddles were fine for the most part as they required at least a little brainpower, but flipping switches or rattling cogs around wound up feeling like busywork.
Graphically, it looks fairly decent with a fantasy design based in Scottish medieval culture, identified by things like battering enemies to death with a kilted maniac wielding bagpipes in one hand and a shillelagh in the other but things are clearly still being optimized at this stage. This early build had notable performance issues including stuttering and excessive loading times on a rig that should have been able to handle the game fairly well. I can only assume that this will improve closer to launch, but it was substantial enough to be worth mentioning.
Also, I also have to give InXile credit for the excellent voice acting. As a native from the north of Scotland who’s well-practiced in confusing everyone with a Doric dialect, I’ve heard some feeble attempts at Scottish accents in my time. With one minor exception, pretty much every voiceover in the Bard’s Tale IV sounded authentic, so InXile have done a good job selling the authenticity of the vocals.
The demo lasted somewhere around five hours and left things on a cliffhanger, and I think I’m in for the full game at this point The storyline’s showing a lot of promise, the writing’s pretty good so far, and I’ve always had a weak spot for well-designed dungeon crawlers. Assuming that the final build of The Bard’s Tale IV doesn’t try to melt my PC, I’m looking forward to seeing what else Skara Brae has to offer when it launches later this year.