Reviews

Not ready for showtime — The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep review

The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep was always in a precarious position. Spanning from 1985 to 1988, the three original Bard’s Tale games were classic dungeon crawlers, filled with challenging combat and devious traps. Since then, the series has mostly languished, with the exception of a few nebulous reboots and spinoffs. Still, The Bard’s Tale series is one most people are familiar with, at least as a name they heard in passing at a vintage game store once.

With such a long gap between installments, developer inXile had a lot of decisions to make about which aspects of the game they should modernize and which should remain untouched, as monuments to a bygone era. And well, they certainly made some decisions. To be blunt, The Bard’s Tale IV is a ragged, janky mess. While it brings some interesting innovations to the dungeon crawler (most notably its clever turn-based battle system), none of them outshine what’s being done by other games in the genre’s recent renaissance. They’re certainly not enough to overshadow some of the bafflingly old-fashioned parts of the game’s design, like its limited save system and terrible, unsortable inventory. And even if the game’s high points weren’t already completely outweighed by its flaws, the legion of sometimes game-breaking bugs that infest it would dash any hope of enjoyment for even the most nostalgia-crazed fan.

The Bard’s Tale IV does offer a lot to like, at least for a while. You can read our impressions of the game’s first eight hours for a more detailed look, but suffice it to say that the game starts out as a mostly fun journey through an underground city full of secrets and side quests for the player to discover. Playing either as Melody the Bard or a self-created character (made with a very limited character creation system), you explore the city of Skara Brae from a first-person perspective to discover why the local church has suddenly launched an fantasy-racist Inquisition and burned down your favorite bar. To do so, you’ll assemble a fairly bland adventuring party to get into fights and solve the innumerable puzzles that the people of this world have inexplicably scattered around. After retreating to the sewers of Skara Brae to plot your escape from the city, you’ll travel through elven forests, cursed ruins, snowy Nordic-ish villages and even the obligatory lava level in order to — well, frankly I lost track of what I was doing about halfway through. Though its environments often look great, the levels are always just a series of tight, linear corridors, even when they’re painted to look like a wild forest or snow-capped mountain.

The story is pure fantasy fluff, serving as little more than a shove out the door to get you on your way. You’re on the trail of an Ancient Evil, who turns out to be controlled by a different Ancient Evil, who is protected by worshippers of another Ancient Evil, but then — imagine my shock — yet another Ancient Evil turns up to thwart you when you get too close! Despite the plot being impossible to maintain interest in or even remember, the writing itself isn’t bad. You’ll read and hear plenty of clever or clever-ish dialogue from townsfolk — often far more than you want to. Though the background characters usually look like they were rejected from The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion for excessive lumpiness, their dialogue is accompanied by voice acting that’s lively and performative enough to distract you from the bits that aren’t particularly good. Your own party members are more henchmen than characters. When they speak up, it’s mainly to snipe at each other in a way that’s meant to approximate witty banter, but just made me question why this group of people who absolutely hate each other stick together at all.

Fortunately, murky motivations have never been enough to stop video game heroes from a righteous killing spree, and that’s where The Bard’s Tale IV most consistently succeeds. When you encounter an enemy in your first-person exploration, you’ll have the chance to initiate a sneak attack, but they’ll get the same opportunity if they see you first. Combat is difficult, sometimes frustratingly so, and letting your enemies get the first strike can immediately shatter any chance of coming out of the fight alive. When a battle begins, you’ll shift to a third-person view behind your party as they line up on a 4×4 grid with their opponents across from them. From there, the two teams take turns thrashing each other until one comes out on top. On your turn, you use a pool of opportunity points shared between your characters to move and attack. The pool is quite limited to start, giving you only one or two chances to attack per turn, but it grows as you progress through quests and gain skills. You also have plenty of ways to conserve or recover points through abilities or equipment that grant free movement or attacks. Casters also have their own pools of spell points that they gain either through meditation (for the Practitioner class), or getting shit-faced (for Bards). Wisely using your opportunity and spell points is key to combat, and it’s thrilling to set up a combo with characters granting each other free attacks and playing off debuffed enemies to stretch your turn as far as you can.

The combat system is far from perfect, though. Outside of battle, you choose a deck of abilities that you unlock by leveling up. You can only take four such abilities into combat, and you can gain a few more from certain pieces of equipment. If you want to use items such as healing potions, they’ll also take up a gear slot. It leaves you tightly restricted in how you build your character, as certain abilities become absolutely necessary later in the game. You’ll need to equip armor-breaking abilities and attacks that can interrupt casting just to stand a chance, and healing items are near necessities, as there are very few other recovery options. Spellcasters are particularly hurt by this system, as you’re forced to choose just four abilities from their much larger collection of memorized spells. Oddly, my Bard was the one who had it the worst. Bard spells are focused on buffing and debuffing, and most are fairly situational. In order to have even half of the options I wanted at a time for my Bard, I had to leave her without any attacks at all. Bards can only gain spell points by drinking booze, and drinking too much stuns them for a turn, leaving them always feeling at a slight deficit. Working around these limitations can be fun, but it often feels like the game is laying out a bunch of fun toys for you to play with, then sneeringly pulling most of them away. While the game’s early combat challenges you to improvise your way through varied fights, in the end you’ll likely be stuck using the same loadout each time just to get around your enemies’ defenses and pull off the one strategy that always works.

Similarly, the game’s puzzles start off compelling and eventually become little more than time sinks. There are only about six basic puzzle types you’ll find throughout the game, with a few additional one-offs scattered throughout. Some are inspired, like rotating bird totems to frighten or entice fairies through mazes, but they grow old through sheer repetition. If you liked a puzzle the first time through, I hope you like it the 10th time, because you’ll be going back to the same well a lot throughout the game. There are hours-long chunks of the game where you’re solving increasingly complex versions of the same puzzle cut with breaks for combat, and at a certain point it just gets exhausting. One interesting thing about the puzzles is that you’re largely left to figure them out on your own. In a few instances, you’re given in-game signs or tutorial prompts that teach you the ropes, but usually you’ll just wander into a room with a bunch of weird contraptions in it and have to figure everything out for yourself. It’s a bold move that sometimes left me feeling a little lost, but having to figure out how the puzzles work rather than just how to solve them made me feel a lot more invested in them at the end. The game is also stuffed with entire dungeons worth of non-essential puzzles and riddles that you can skip completely over if you want to, though they’re usually worth investigating.

I certainly have quibbles with the combat and puzzles, but if those were my biggest problems, I would still call The Bard’s Tale IV a pretty damn good game. Unfortunately, the whole thing sits on an incredibly shaky foundation that’s just waiting to collapse. While the developers have put out a “patch roadmap” (straining the line between retail release and early access to its breaking point), the game in its current state is just riddled with problems. On the relatively minor end, it can’t maintain a consistent framerate if you’re doing anything more than looking at the ground no matter what graphics settings you use. More severely, the game is packed with bugs that can hobble you in combat. I’ve had armor pieces fail to apply their stats to my characters, items in my inventory not show up in combat, damage-over-time and delayed attacks refuse to trigger, and abilities that cause self-damage reduce characters from full health to one HP regardless of how much damage they’re supposed to do. Early on, I had to restart several times when battles just didn’t end when the last enemy was slain. That hasn’t happened since the retail release hit, so it may have been fixed, but it’s been replaced by full crashes mid-battle, when walking through certain areas, and once during a loading screen.

To make matters even worse, The Bard’s Tale IV clings to an archaic save system. You can only save your progress at designated shrines scattered around the map, and you can’t re-activate a shrine you’ve saved at once until you first use another shrine. This is bad enough when you get one-shotted in an unexpectedly difficult battle after a long series of puzzles, but it’s reason enough to uninstall the game when you’re forced to backtrack because the game crashed or you got stuck in a wall.

Stacking The Bard’s Tale IV’s many progress-erasing bugs with its inadequate save system, you get to the game’s core problem: it simply doesn’t reward you for the time you put into it. Even if you don’t have to replay sections because of a crash, you may still have to do it because you lost a battle with enemies 10 times tougher than the rest in the area, or because the abilities and equipment you spent in-game resources and real-world time to earn don’t work right. It’s a game that takes 30 to 40 hours to complete, but doesn’t offer any compelling reason to finish and often asks you to repeat slight variations on the same task for hours on end. There is a good game somewhere at the center of The Bard’s Tale IV, with exciting combat and challenging puzzles, but it’s lost under layers of drudgery and instability.

50

Mediocre

The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep

Review Guidelines

The Bard’s Tale IV could be a fun — but seriously flawed — game if it weren’t hamstrung by technical problems. Its frequent framerate drops, bugged combat abilities, and crashes are compounded by an archaic save system that makes it far too easy to lose progress. Though it features some great combat and challenging puzzles, they’re not without their own flaws, and become extremely repetitive over the game’s 30–40-hour playtime.

A committed indoor kid, Bryan moved from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles for a prettier landscape to ignore. He can be lured outside with promises of taco trucks and film festivals, and enjoys trawling through used book stores for works on the occult. Bryan has been gaming since the SNES era and is a sucker for good pixel art.
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