Poor Skara Brae. One hundred and fifty years after the events of the original Bard’s Tale trilogy, the bustling little seaside town is still beset by warring religious cults, political factions at each other’s throats, conflicted races and an undercity besieged by all manner of monsters. And here you come, a hero to save the day and redeem the good standing of adventurers such as yourself.
Most gamers know that The Bard’s Tale (1985) and a pair of sequels that followed in the franchise helped to give birth to the computer RPG, adding engaging animations to formerly text-based fantasy adventure and role-playing games. In addition to visually representing the characters, monsters and dungeons that previously only existed in the imagination, The Bard’s Tale was also one of the first RPGs with a real sense of humor and not-so-subtly skewered pretensions of the genre. The original Bard’s Tale trilogy has seen a number of re-releases and remasters as well as a Diablo-esque isometric offshoot ARPG in 2004, but The Bard’s Tale IV by InXile Entertainment’s is the first official sequel to the series. Although it isn’t a necessary prerequisite, anyone old enough to have played the 1985 original (or the recent re-release version) will feel right at home in The Bard’s Tale IV and its population of human adventurers, elves and dwarves and convoluted dungeons filled with treasure, monsters and puzzles. Though the series benefits from a thorough visual facelift and its battle system has changed significantly, the game brings the franchise into the 21st century with much of its snarky humor and wit intact. How many RPGs include combat powers based on drunkeness?
The original trilogy gave a large portion of its display over to text and stats, with its graphics confined to a small window. The Bard’s Tale IV is a full-on first person adventure RPG with beautifully realized towns, forests, icy landscapes, castles and dungeons and an impressive feeling of time and place. Thanks to effective sound design, top-drawer voice acting and, above all, the integration of its Celtic-influenced score, The Bard’s Tale IV is awash in the atmosphere of an ancient, mythic Scotland (albeit occasionally processed through a Monty Python-esque filter). Whether hearing townspeople sing as they work or more critically, the bardic songs that form the magical core of gameplay, music is a highlight of the game.
As effective as the music is, there are some aspects of The Bard’s Tale’s presentation that make it appear a little behind current-gen games. While the architecture of the towns and dungeons is colorful, detailed and interesting, the character models and especially their faces are rarely better than average or even worse in comparison to current standards. It’s disappointing because the characters — human and otherwise — are written and voiced extremely well. And while we’re getting the negative stuff out of the way, it needs to be said that load times can be pretty egregious and at least in the pre-release review code, there are still a number of significant bugs. Twice I had to replay boss fights due to crashes and a number of times my party was locked into a weird arrangement during fights where I couldn’t actually move or even see the enemy, making it pretty impossible to fight.
Also straddling the negative/positive sides of the ledger, the game’s save system is both clever and unfortunate. Luck Stone shrines appear and they may be used either as save points or to restore the party to full health and power. Like many spells, Luck Stones are on cooldown timers and as long as they haven’t been used as restorative, may be re-used several times in the course of exploring a section. Understandably, limited saves equal more tension and higher-stakes gameplay. While I appreciate the tradeoff of the risk/reward concept, a save-anywhere system — especially considering some of the deadlier and challenging dungeons, and the amount of replay that becomes necessary due to failed combat or worse, buggy code — would make exploration and combat less frustrating. Speaking of frustrating, The Bard’s Tale IV is absolutely chock-full of environmental puzzles and while these can be real head-scratchers and quite challenging/satisfying to figure out, they rarely felt unfairly obtuse. Although it hews pretty closely to the tropes of fantasy RPG storytelling, the game forwards at a good clip and is populated by an engaging cast of characters and even minor NPCs usually have something to say that’s worth listening to, if not always actionable.
One of the definite successes of The Bard’s Tale is its turn-based combat played on a 4x2 grid. When you figure in a full party of Practitioners, Fighters, Bards and Rogues and all their various stat-enhancing equipment and weapons, plus a deep upgrade system for each party member, enemy encounters — even the easiest ones — can be approached at a number of tactically and strategically interesting ways. The biggest, multi-wave boss battles are tense and protracted tests of party management. A couple of issues take the fighting system down a notch from truly amazing. One is the aforementioned bugs. Second, the game’s graphic design scales the player’s combatants to take up a very large amount of screen, cramping the visuals and making placement on the grid a bit difficult to read. Some minor movement restrictions — characters who can’t step over small environmental elements, for example — and lack of overall clarity about some mechanics either fade into the background or are made clear the longer one plays. My wish list for future Bard’s Tale games would include a better quest map and wider variety of character portraits, full controller support, and maybe a little less reliance on traditional RPG mechanics. Pity the barrel and crate makers of old Skara Brae, for their work is never done.
If you’re expecting The Bard’s Tale IV to be an action-RPG on par with some recent blockbusters, you may be disappointed. This is not a cinematic experience with bleeding edge graphics and breathless action and combat. However, if you approach the game as a super-enhanced, classic dungeon crawler that both fits into the legacy and moves the needle on a well-respected, beloved franchise, then you will be pleased by its story, puzzles, nuanced combat, excellent music and varied environments. With its return to Skara Brae, Kylearan’s Tower and other familiar locations, The Bard’s Tale IV serves as both a sequel and an introduction to some of dungeon crawling’s iconic landmarks and its intact sense of humor reminds us that not every adventure needs to be deadly serious.