The Bard’s Tale IV

Before I begin I should note where I stand on these sorts of games. I’m not, in general, massively into dungeon crawlers – I played my fair share back in the early 80s including the original Bard’s Tale. I loved Ultima Underworld although, to my shame, I never did complete it. More recently, I enjoyed Legends of Grimrock 2 although, again, I never completed that either.

I think my issue is that, in the past, something like Ultima Underworld represented the best that videogames had to offer. Nowadays, videogames have moved on, and so have I. I began to get my RPG kicks out of things like Morrowind, Bioware’s stuff such as Knights of the Old Republic and the Mass Effect series, and CD Projekt’s The Witcher.

The idea of returning to something like The Bard’s Tale, although it interested me in a nostalgic sense, wasn’t something I was particularly clamouring for. I was, however, sufficiently interested to back it on Kickstarter – mostly out of curiosity to see how inXile would go about adapting it. You can’t, after all, just essentially re-make the original game with flashier graphics and expect it to sell more than a handful of copies in 2018.

I didn’t actively follow the development of the game, didn’t use my Kickstarter tier rewards to get involved in the community, nor submit feedback on anything other than a PC configuration issue I had with the alpha. I played the alpha just to see where the game was at, out of curiosity. It looked good – the simple combat grid was more tactical than it initially looked, it was graphically impressive and had some lovely 2D art on the title. Of course, I would expect a demo like this to showcase the very best they had at that time, so whether that production quality would translate into the rest of the game remained to be seen.

I have since read a number of reviews, some positive, some negative – and player opinion seem similarly polarised. It seems to me, that the more negative opinions (particularly amongst players) seem to focus on performance, their own opinion on what a Bard’s Tale game ought to be like (often akin to, “exactly like the original please”), or very specific complaints such as that it uses save points or that you can’t re-spec a character. That’s all fair enough, it’s their opinion – but I also want to give mine.

I’ll get some of those common criticisms out of the way first.

Checkpoint saves in 2018? Actually I think this system works very well in this sort of game. If anything I think the number of save points is actually a little too generous, in general. Early on playing, I wrestled with whether I should use a totem to save, or consume it for XP. Later I realised that the game offered enough short-cuts to open up that you were rarely far from an unlimited save point at any time, so these either/or totems became a no-brainer to simply consume for XP every time. I really liked that brief moment I had of trepidation and I really wish it had persisted for longer. It’s a feeling I don’t often experience in videogames nowadays and I realised that, in some way, I missed it. Checkpoint saves, to me, only becomes irritating when it’s past midnight and you’re extremely tired, badly want to go to bed, but are unable to save. The Bard’s Tale IV will save automatically on exit, so it really is a ‘save anywhere’ style of game, just one which by design prevents save-scumming. That’s fine by me.

Performance-wise, while I haven’t experienced load-times as egregious as mentioned in reviews the frame-rate on my mid-range PC isn’t exactly silky-smooth. But, to be honest, this style of game is the sort of game in which a consistently high-frame rate is of the least importance. A fast-paced twitch-shooter, this is not. While I would prefer it, were frame-rate higher, it doesn’t harm my enjoyment of the game in any way.

As far as the inability to re-spec characters go, this is also I guess simply a point of preference. In many ways, you really can re-spec in that, at any time, you can spend a Mercenary Token to build a new character from scratch knowing what you now know about where you really should have spent those skill points. Functionally, it’s really not that different and logically makes a lot more sense. Taking a character with you on a journey and having them suddenly lose all their skills to be replaced by a whole new set of new skills sort of breaks the character of that party-member. Having a party member instead become redundant and be whole-sale replaced, to me, feels more like what RPG games like this ought to do if they want to remain true to the Role-Playing bit.

Right. Well. I’ve written quite a lot there and I haven’t even begun to touch on my actual thoughts on the game beyond responding to other people’s thoughts. I will be succinct.

I’m tremendously impressed. The puzzles are interesting and varied – the increasing complexity curve feels about right. Early puzzles introduce concepts and they get expanded upon over time. There are Sudoku puzzles (very easy ones if you’ve ever done a Sudoku puzzle), puzzles involving memorisation, lateral-thinking. In general, I would say that none of them are particularly challenging so far (I am, according to Brian Fargo, at around the mid-point of the game) but they provide variation in gameplay and I’m enjoying them very much.

What surprised me the most, was the amount of variation in environment design. Upon entering the below Skara Brae area I fully expected the entire game to be set here with the odd dungeon sprinkled around. I was not expecting to be visiting thatched villages, golden towers, icy domains, a corrupted forest, and more. The Bard’s Tale IV is a massive departure from its fore-bearers in this regard and it’s wonderful. It’s a very beautiful game in its environments (both in design and in lighting, atmosphere) – I would say the weakest aspect is in its (especially human) character models which have a sort of claymation look to them. That said I wouldn’t call it bad since it feels appropriate and a deliberate stylistic choice – it makes the whole thing feel somewhat like a tabletop game come to life. In a way, I’m reminded a little of Battle Chess.

To end on what is, in my opinion, the very strongest aspect of the game I should mention the music. It’s beyond appropriate that this should be the strongest aspect given it’s called The Bard’s Tale. The amount of songs in the game is startling – I love that rather than simply being a music track, they’re integrated into the world such that you’ll hear singing emanating from inside a building as you pass and, without fail, the songs are beautifully sung and perfectly set the tone of the game. As an extra flourish, I love that the title screen’s Bard recounts the tale of your adventure a segment at a time as you progress. It’s an extremely charming game.

All in all, The Bard’s Tale IV is a delight and an incredibly well realised update. As much as I loved Wasteland 2, it’s this game which feels the more successful in terms of updating and expanding upon a 30-odd year old game (Wasteland 2, in my opinion, succeeds more due not so much to what it is, but to what the Fallout franchise now isn’t). I very much hope it leads to a Bard’s Tale V.

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