Developer: inXile Entertainment
Publisher: inXile Entertainment
Available On: Windows PC, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Version Tested: Windows PC
Official Site: https://inxile-entertainment.com/
Release Date: September 18, 2018
Where to Buy it: PlayStation Store, Steam, Microsoft Store
The Bard’s Tale series is one of those PC classics, revered as a legendary evolution for the roleplaying genre. The first game came out in 1985, and two sequels followed not long after. Since the third game’s release in 1988, however, the series has remained relatively dormant, other than a few spinoff titles.
That changed with the release of The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep. A direct sequel to the third game meant that this fourth iteration had big shoes to fill – would it be up to the challenge? The title screen of the game is a decent representation of what you can expect from the The Bard’s Tale IV: a picture that doesn’t look quite right with some excellent music playing alongside it.
The first thing you notice in The Bard’s Tale IV is the awesome music – fitting, considering the title. There is some really fascinating work on display here, with a strong variety of bardic performances to enjoy as you trek through the world. A distinct Scottish brogue decorates much of the language in the game, including the music. It’s really lovely to listen to, and was easily my favorite aspect of the game.
Unfortunately, much of the rest of the game is kind of a mess. Upon loading, The Bard’s Tale IV automatically detected my graphics settings and loaded some seriously ugly textures. Even after some manual adjustments, I was still stunned by the appearance of the game. The blank faces of Elder Scrolls: Oblivion came to mind as I watched glassy eyed portraits stare into my soul.
It isn’t just the faces either. The city itself looks… almost right. There are noticeable seams in the textures, however, and characters are pretty easy to spot – their hair generally glows a really bizarre neon shade. Overall, the look of the game is seriously off putting.
So – weak graphics and a strong soundtrack. That’s forgivable, especially for a classic RPG, if the story is strong and the gameplay can back it up. That just isn’t the case in The Bard’s Tale IV, however – even after putting quite a bit of time in, the game could never quite escape its own design flaws and come into its own.
At its heart, The Bard’s Tale IV is a dungeon-crawling, party based RPG. It’s a first person experience as well, and combat is entirely turn-based. Now, I’ve sunk a lot of time into turn-based RPG combat in my time, but I could not get over just how boring fights were in this game. There’re fairly traditional RPG classes (the only real deviation is the Bard character, who chugs booze to recharge ability points in the heat of the fight), and they step side to side to puzzle out how to defeat foes while taking as little damage as possible.
Turn-based combat can be extremely exciting, but the battles here just never click. The “challenge rating” system is a disaster – the game will inform you that you’re on par with the foes you are bout to engage with, only to see your team get absolutely stomped. Sometimes you will learn that your team is far outclassed, but you’ll make quick work of your opponents. This inability to see how you’re progressing makes the fights seem even more off balance than the battle system the game institutes.
The Bard’s Tale IV does a fairly poor job of explaining its various systems and making combat fluid and dynamic. Character stats and customization are minimal, and do not give you a lot of room to tweak your team to fill in weaknesses and play to strengths. Instead, you’ll find the move that works and do everything you can to abuse that technique. It doesn’t help that the fights look like a shooting gallery – as you throw axes at practically static foes.
The story is pretty straightforward nonsense. Big bad, you’re the chosen one, rag tag band of mismatched warriors, etc. The Bard’s Tale has always had a somewhat bonkers story, and that continues here. If you’re a longtime fan, you might be able to make more sense of it – as I am not a connoisseur, I found myself a bit uninterested in the lore aspects.
Besides the fights, there are also a great deal of puzzles to solve. At first, this was a welcome change of pace – a break from the monotonous battles. They lose their appeal when the same puzzle type is repeated multiple times in a row throughout a dungeon. Logically, having the same type of puzzle to solve multiple times in a castle, cave, or keep makes no sense. From a design standpoint, it seems like these puzzles are there to pad the length of each crawl. The are a welcome break at first, but tend to overstay their welcome.
There is a lot of good potential here – I believe that a traditional fantasy turn-based RPG can still thrive in modern gaming. That just doesn’t seem to be the case with The Bard’s Tale IV. Other than the awesome original soundtrack, there isn’t enough to recommend here to keep this tale going.
Verdict: Design flaws keep the game from finding its (ahem) rhythm, fights and puzzles get boring, and there is not enough customization available to let you feel in control. Only true fans of the series need apply – everyone else should just give the soundtrack a go.
The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep Review
- Direct sequel of the classic RPG series
- Excellent soundtrack
- Fights and puzzles get repetitive
- Graphics are... not good
- Lack of customization and deeper RPG aspects