Friday, 28 September 2018 16:48

The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep Review

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The Bard’s Tale IV is a fantasy RPG that combines first-person exploration with turn-based combat. Using a Dungeons & Dragons-esque combat system that many people will recognize, elements such as Armor class and differing damage types allow you to create a well-balanced party with healers, tanks, glass-cannon mages, and agile rogues. In this open-world game, some areas locked from the beginning, requiring you to defeat strong enemies or collect keys or tools to open the path forward.

At the outset of the story, you take control of a young Bard named Melody, who is being tutored by Rabbie, the leader of the local Adventurer’s Guild. You can choose very early on to either keep Melody as your main player character (PC) or to create your own from one of the seven available races (Elf, Trow, Dwarf, and four different Human cultures) and four available classes (Fighter, Bard [a Cleric archetype], Practitioner [a Mage/Sorcerer archetype], and Rogue). The dialogue adjusts with your choice.


You are quickly thrust into the fray as the savior of the city of Skara Brae from the current plight: overzealous and racist Fatherite priests who seek to cleanse the city of all outsiders and fair folk. During the first few hours of gameplay you will quickly realize that this isn’t a straightforward dungeon crawler like the mid-to-late 80s The Bard’s Tale I-III; this is an explorable world, with places to discover off of the beaten path and even outside of Skara Brae itself, where a few past entries wouldn’t allow you to travel. There are puzzles to solve, secret stashes to unearth, elven shrines with riddles to crack, and even an old-school code wheel that you will use in real life to help find some of these hidden treasures. Yes, you have the opportunity to cut out and pin together a paper code wheel — just like those included in your Cracker Jacks or cereal boxes when you were a kid — to help you find in-game rewards. This was a great feature that I haven’t seen in a very long time, and it made me feel like a kid again as I spun my wheel around to solve riddles.


The Bard’s Tale IV isn’t just about dungeon crawling, enemy slaying, and treasure hunting, though. The developers, inXile Entertainment, created hundreds of fully-voiced characters you can encounter. Most NPCs you can speak to have a unique story and many things to say about events happening in the world, their own troubles, myths, legends, and ways that you can help them. The world’s lore is fleshed out by these merchants, guards, retired adventurers, priests, and citizens as much as it is by quests and notes found in your travels. This is not Skyrim, with fifty guards and thirty peasants who share three voices between them.  You will feel like you are talking to unique individuals as you traverse the world, and you will miss many side quests if you neglect to do so. That being said, the open world is not quite like a Bethesda title, but more like the Grand Theft Auto franchise. There are many places to explore, but not every house can be entered at will, and not every person will have a full conversation with you as you pass through.


The turn-based combat system is easy to pick up, and the skill trees are not so complicated that you need to spend time preparing before you play for the first time (I’m looking at you, Path of Exile). You can jump right in, with skill-tree paths mapped out for you to follow, but flexible enough not to pigeonhole your character into one role. The in-combat menu is easy to navigate and allows you to have five skills available to choose from during battles for each character, giving you the ability to develop attack strategies and balance your party as you see fit.


The inventory system is easy to manage, with a large inventory capacity that allows you to hold on to things to sell or equip later without forcing you to drop or sell something that could be useful right now. Everyone in your party shares the same inventory bag as well. There is also a crafting element, allowing you to create potions, food, elixirs (to boost things such as strength and intelligence), grappling hooks, and lockpicks (which allow you to solve some of the in-game puzzles), among many other things.


With all of the good, there are a few hiccups as well. Combat can feel clunky at times, with characters occasionally gyrating on the ground a second or two too long after they die, and AI occasionally making some boneheaded decisions. At times, I would select items in my inventory to use (such as stew, to heal my party) and there would be a noticeable delay — never more than two or three seconds, but enough for me to be able to notice — before I could select another item. My game froze during combat on at least one occasion as well, crashing to desktop and forcing me to reload my last save. The Bard’s Tale IV developers are very active and are already listening to players and addressing some the issues found at launch, but there is some patching necessary to iron these glitches out. Additionally, this is not a terribly advanced game in the graphics department; think of artwork and set pieces more on level with the Fable franchise than something like Mass Effect.


The Verdict: Great

I had a great time playing The Bard’s Tale IV. If you love games with a depth of lore, role-playing elements, and a plethora of voiced NPCs, this title is for you. If you prefer more realistic graphics, rolling solo, and opening every door you find, this might be a title you won’t get along with.

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Michael Hatcher

Michael is an NC State University graduate with a degree in Biological Engineering. Starting with his first console (a Sega Genesis), he has had a gaming system every generation since, finally jumping into PC in 2015 when he decided to build his own. When he is not exploring his hometown of Louisville or walking his dog Chip, he is wandering the wilderness in one of his favorite RPG games or building an empire or business in one of the latest strategy titles. Although only in the PC gaming world for a few years now, he has dived right in and loves the larger, multi-generational community that PC gaming provides better than the PlayStation world he left behind.