The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep

Oh, to have my heart broken so many times. And by a videogame, no less. The Bard’s Tale IV is an exercise in unfulfilled promise and unmanaged expectation. Time and again I expected more and got less. It’s an ambitious game and not a bad one – at times it’s a very good one – but it’s a piece of a software that’s distinctly amateur, unpolished and as a result, wholly overpriced. Bear with me on this one. I find it’s impossible to avoid being unkind to The Bard’s Tale IV for what it gets wrong. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t get just as much right. It also makes it hard to talk about it without going on at length, so strap in for a long review.

And here we go. A stylised intro cinematic introduces some interesting – if not exactly inspired – fantasy backstory, mostly regarding an ancient war waged against some evil gods. So far so generic, but what’s kind of cool is that humanity was explicitly created, from apes no less, to be said evil gods’ worshippers and slaves. Humans being inclined to evil because of eldritch intervention in their evolution is a decent hook for a fantasy story as far as I’m concerned. For the record, I’ve not played any of the previous Bard’s Tale games so I’ve no idea how this lore factors into those, but this little intro piqued my interest. Then, of course, the elves and dwarves turn up and we’re back to Tolkien by numbers. I am inclined to give the game a bit of a pass for this rote fantasy shtick considering that it’s a more jovial take on the formula than you’ll typically find and it’s not without its unique spins on the familiar tropes.

Most of all, it’s fun how it eschews the High Middle Ages England of most fantasy for a world more closely resembling early medieval Scotland. Many buildings resemble something like Highland crofts and the landscapes themselves are a sort of exaggerated Highlands. Most everyone talks in broad Scots, or some approximation thereof. English accents, where present, are mostly reserved for sneering villainous types. As a Scottish lad myself, I couldn’t help but be endeared by that.

Even the soundtrack features a host of Scottish folk musicians and compositions inspired by traditional Gaelic music. It’s all very Celtic and mysterious. Which brings us to the main menu track, a great example of just the mood it’s going for. It’s a fun, but sombre little tune that sets a perfect tone for beginning the game.

And then the game begins.

It’s immediately obvious that if this game could be described as ‘rough around the edges’ and it certainly can, then one could be forgiven for assuming it’s all edges. There’s nary an effect, texture, or 3D asset in the whole thing that meets modern standards, or even feels finished if we’re being honest. Not in itself an issue but galling considering the problems with performance. More on that later. Before being dumped into the game proper, there’s another cutscene, this one far ropier and not just because it’s depicting a group hanging. Before that too though, there’s this weird and disorienting few frames of the game proper, like the in-engine stuff got confused about its cue. Cutscene over and we meet Rabbie, a sort of mentor figure for the opening hour or two; and Melody, our player-character. Having introduced these two, the game cheerfully informs you that while Melody is the default player avatar, you’ll be given the opportunity to make a custom one soon if you so please. This is very strange: “Hello! Meet your protagonist! If you don’t like her you can trade her in for one more to your liking soon!” Note this for later, because while it’s a decidedly odd choice, my mind was set racing with all the Very Good Reasons they’d have to pull something like this.

Anyway, Rabbie informs you that you both ought to run along to the Adventurer’s Guild, and this being a party-based RPG, he joins your party. This is as good a time as any to introduce how the game actually plays. Despite looking directly through your player-character’s eyes, it is a party-based RPG. It has some key differences but will be familiar enough if you’ve played any turn-based game. Probably the best example of a first-person party RPG that most will be familiar with is Legend of Grimrock. Where that game opts for a sort of pseudo-real-time approach, here there’re essentially two states of play: doing fighting and not doing fighting. The former is turn-based and on a grid, and the latter played in free-form real-time, although it generally might as well not be aside from the fact that when you run into enemies, you can get first turn by charging into them. While this only amounts to clicking on them before they spot you, it is a decent idea… that goes basically nowhere.

At the Adventurer’s Guild, some bad paladin sorts who’ve been persecuting the elves, dwarves, mages and so on bust in. And here, I thought, was their very good reason for having you start with Melody, who’s a bard, one of four available classes. There’ll be a little tutorial battle that lets you feel out Melody’s playstyle alongside the various other classes, with members of the Guild stepping in to flesh out the roster. You’ll lose the fight of course, be forced to flee, and if you decide to play your own custom character, what better place to find our new protagonist than in the Adventurer’s Guild. It’s a smart, if inelegant, way of getting around the common problem of character creation in RPGs – that is, not having a bloody clue how any of the classes work before you pick one that you’ll be stuck with for the rest of the game.

But this never materialises. You’ve not had the chance to so much as wave a fist before Rabbie ushers you through a trap door. You’re then awkwardly asked if you want to change your character now. It’s completely baffling. What was the point of even introducing Melody beforehand? You don’t get to try her out in a fight, she’s afforded no significant introduction, given no opportunity to endear herself to the player or invest them in her character. She speaks a scant five or so lines of dialogue by the time you reach the Guild, and a couple of those can be missed if you go there straight. It’s just so completely, utterly weird. Perhaps I let my expectations get the better of me, but I really believe they must have planned something like this or else had intended to flesh Melody’s character out better but ran out of time to implement either. There’s no reason to ever make you play with Melody otherwise. This isn’t the worst introduction to a game, but it is totally bizarre, a sloppy half-measure of an opener that feels unfinished and confusing. Unfortunately, it also bears this much scrutiny, because it’s a sign of much to come.

The actual tutorial section that follows this oddity is pretty dismal; a dull dungeon-crawl through the hidden town that’s buried beneath the one on the surface. In itself a neat idea, but in practice a confusing slog through one of the ugliest environs in the whole game. I mentioned earlier that you can surprise a group of enemies to get the first turn in combat and perhaps there were plans to have a fully-fledged stealth system to really capitalise on that idea, but you can virtually guarantee a first turn in every fight by just mashing click as you approach baddies. Sometimes a hidden enemy will get the drop on you to score the first turn for themselves, but it’s rare.

Later, there’s a series of puzzles involving shooing fairies onto magic stones to activate a gate or some such. They react to birds, you see, being compelled to follow certain types and being deathly afraid of birds of prey like hawks. You manipulate various totems engraved with bird faces, as well as physically shooing the fairies yourself, to coax and frighten them into going where you need. Again, this is a great idea. It’s cute, funny, and tonally a perfect fit. True to form, however, the game muddies later iterations of this puzzle with vagueness and inconsistency. Sometimes it will let shoo a fairy in any direction, other times you’re limited to the four cardinal directions. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for this disparity other than one is not the way the designer intended you to solve this specific puzzle. Sometimes you’ll need to get a fairy to move diagonally by shunting them towards multi-tiered totems carved with more than one type of bird, but why this should make them move diagonally is not at all clear to me. As it stands, I often just had to muddle my way through until something worked and that is not the sign of a good puzzle.

The Bard’s Tale is absolutely riddled with technical problems to boot. At one point, you reach a gorgeous forest level and a majestic stag runs across the trail just ahead. Two minutes into the forest and I found another, except instead of skittishly leaping off into the undergrowth, this one was stuck running goofily on the spot. I later came across foxes, more deer, and even bears doing the exact same thing. Just running on the spot. It’s clear they intended to make the forest seem alive, by peppering brief little glimpses of wildlife throughout, but something somewhere messed up badly, and every single animal I came across after the first was just running on the spot like they were on some sort of leafy treadmill.

The game frequently hangs on animations, stopping and stuttering, never managing a stable frame-rate. To make matters worse, this doesn’t seem to meaningfully correlate with the graphics settings. I’ve fiddled around for hours to get it running well and looking good, because on lower settings it really does not look good, but it seems to run just as badly on middling settings as it does on ultra. And by that, I mean that while the visuals are notably worse, the performance seems to quite literally not change. I’m fully prepared to accept that my PC is partly to blame here. It’s certainly getting on in age and doesn’t meet the minimum specs. For most games, that would be on me, but I struggle to see how The Bard’s Tale is justifying such high specs. It looks easily five years out of date and I can assure you that my PC isn’t so old as to struggle with that. I’ve done some digging around and a lot of people are having performance issues, which gives me the impression it’s not just my PC that’s the problem, even if it isn’t helping. I’m not savvy with graphics tech by any stretch, but it seems that as a piece of software, it’s just abysmally optimised.

All this is a crying bloody shame, because the game is absolutely capable of being really quite beautiful. The opening two hours or so see you languishing in the town of Skara Brae, a dull, spartan environment that does little to show off the considerable chops of the level designers, but as soon as you escape from there, there’s gorgeous vistas and lush forests galore. There’s also a lengthy first dungeon with some inspired visuals packed with fun little puzzles to tide you over until you do leave. Despite being a series of strictly defined paths even when outdoors, the levels manage to disguise this fact admirably, as well as conveying the sense of a far wider world just beyond the boundaries.

Having said all that though, for every poorly implemented system, for every dodgy bit of visuals or broken animation, there’s something really good to be found. Combat, for example, is outstanding. Played out on a grid, battles are a delicious stew of interacting spells and abilities. Every usable skill intersects with others in fiendishly clever ways. You can throw caltrops onto squares that enemies need to occupy, forcing them to take damage when they do so. You can move them onto those squares yourself if they prove hesitant. You can channel a wall of helpful wind that blocks half of all ranged attacks, but that will prevent you from channelling other, equally useful buffs and debuffs. You can taunt enemies into standing together to maximise AOE damage or isolate them to better pick them off individually. These are all shallow examples of the various skill combos you can pull off. Truly inventive play can lead to Rube Goldberg murder-machines of hilarious complexity. The options are staggering.

The standout class is, of course, the bard. They gain spell points from getting drunk. Get too drunk and you pass out, but not before getting a turn of doubled attack strength. You can even design a bard around this mechanic, because how much they can drink before keeling over is determined by stats, letting your build define how easy it is for them to go into a drunken rage.

Better yet, where most party RPGs will track the action member by member, either by giving each character a single turn or by giving each a set amount of initiative; in The Bard’s Tale, the whole team shares a pool of available actions, here called ‘Opportunity.’ This means that your whole squad won’t necessarily get to act every turn and it’s up to you to decide how to best use your limited pool of actions on a round by round basis. You might find that one turn is completely dominated by the damage-dealing abilities of your rogue, only to find your fighter using up all the Opportunity to absorb enemy damage in the next. Spells use a separate resource, which doesn’t affect your amount of available Opportunity. However, mages need to meditate to really build up spell points quickly, a move which itself requires Opportunity, and while bards can drink booze for free, you’ll only have so much plonk to go around. I could go on but I’m sure you see how complicated this can get. It’s a genuinely brilliant combat system, especially in a genre as stale as turn-based RPGs. Each fight is a lethal puzzle, with a huge variety of acceptable solutions that only increases with your expanding toolkit.

In many ways, this is an excellent game. I know I was down on that fairy puzzle, but most others are well-implemented and clearly readable. The core gameplay of exploration, puzzling, and combat is compelling enough to keep you coming back and challenging enough to make you work for it. It’s just that everything else about it seems to be trying it’s hardest to push you away. It’s an unbelievable slog to sit through the overlong load times, frequent stuttering, the infestation of bugs and glitches, the dodgy character models, the… well just about everything that isn’t the core gameplay. That’s not strictly fair to the solid level design and decent, if patchy, writing, but these aren’t saving graces like the combat is. Normally I wouldn’t go into such detail about its many issues; I absolutely love an unpolished gem. Some of my favourite games of all time are those dodgy little indie games that are held together more by passion than by technical skill. I find most hand-wringing over performance as dull as it gets mostly, but The Bard’s Tale IV costs £28. Just under thirty quid for a game that barely even works properly. It’s impossible to overlook these issues given how much they’re asking for it. I don’t want to say that it shouldn’t be so expensive. People obviously worked hard on this game, just like they do on any other, and those people deserve adequate compensation just as much as any developer does. But I have no idea what this cost to make, or who’s getting paid what. For all I know, they could sell The Bard’s Tale at half the price and make their money back just fine. What I do know is that I’ve played games at half the price that run better, look better, and play better than this. As much as I do like this game, I just can’t say that I’d be a happy customer if I’d paid £28 for it.

In the interest of fairness though, before we wrap up, the team are working to improve that. There’s already been a couple of big performance and quality of life patches, with more on the way, so who knows how well it will perform in the future.

Whether you’ll enjoy The Bard’s Tale or not is highly predicated on your tolerance for bullshit. If you give it the chance it deserves it can be a bloody good time. It’s just a shame that in its current state, it’s tough to justify spending what they’re asking for it.

★★

Keiran Burnett

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