Gaming on a Timer

First Impressions – The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep

Full Disclosure: I was a backer for the game discussed in this post, The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep, on Kickstarter during its initial campaign run in July 2015.

Note: A few clarifying statements should be made before this post, in the interest of avoiding misunderstandings.

Firstly – this article is being written from the point of view of a long-standing fan of both the genre in general and the Bard’s various Tales over the years in specific. While attempts have been made to keep everything as self-contained as possible,  a few comparisons to earlier games in the series were inevitably made – as such, I’ve done my best to explain said references whenever possible.

Secondly – Until time of writing, I’m only at around ten or so hours into the game (hence the First Impressions title), therefore the opinions expressed here are neither final nor representative of the entire game. I have streamed the entirety of these early sessions on Twitch, which you can find uploaded on my YouTube channel if you’re interested in seeing my time with the game “in person”, so to speak.

Nostalgia is a weird thing. In recent years, a growing subset of the gaming industry has come to the realization that certain demographics (mainly people between 20 and 40 years old) are extremely prone to nostalgia – thus, a near-constant stream of remakes, re-releases, remasters and repackaged collections have found their way into our collections and digital libraries.

It didn’t stop there, though. This heavy leaning into nostalgia eventually caught on in yet another recent trend: crowdfunding. Ever since the now-famous Broken Age Kickstarter campaign, a sizable percentage of crowdfunding campaigns (mostly on Kickstarter, more recently Fig and IndieGoGo as well) have been marketed and promoted with nostalgia in mind. This, in turn, has led to such success stories as Wasteland 2, Shovel Knight, Hyper Light Drifter and FTL (which has already been prominently featured in a multi-post Let’s Play in this very blog) – but does that success also apply to inXile Entertainment’s latest crowdfunded release, The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep?

I’ve always been a big fan of first-person dungeon crawler RPG’s. Be it turn-based or real-time, with grid-based movement or free-roaming, a good portion of my formative gaming years included the likes of Bard’s Tale, Ultima Underworld, Lands of Lore and so on and so forth.

There was something very appealing in the concept behind this sub-genre: the idea of creating a party from scratch, trying to have as many options as possible, then testing your mettle in giant multi-level areas filled with pitfalls, enemies and puzzles. Whether the whole endeavor ended in success or failure was usually only a minor, momentary consideration against “the journey“, all those steps taken up until that endpoint, all the traps avoided, all the enemies vanquished, all the mazes and puzzles navigated.

The art direction in this game is quite well-done.

The Bard’s Tale trilogy was always a standout within its genre. Having introduced the concept of buffing your party via bardic song (the concept of persistent buffs to your statistics was not generally in use prior to the first Bard’s Tale, as far as I remember), as well as offering save transfer functionality across the series (similar to what the Quest for Glory series would also do a few years later) made this a well-regarded series at the time, as well as one of my favorite titles of that period.

How, then, does Bard’s Tale IV measure against the original trilogy? To be sure, it’s quite a different experience altogether: combat is now grid-based and gives emphasis to party member positioning, while an increased focus has been placed on exploration, dialogues and puzzle-solving. This might feel slightly alienating to old fans of the series (as is evident in a small handful of reviews on Steam and the game’s forums), but in all honesty I found it quite refreshing and enjoyable, if perhaps a little poorly-paced in the first few hours.

Bard’s Tale IV takes place in Skara Brae, as with all previous entries in the series. Set around 100 years after the events of the original trilogy, the game opens with the city (rebuilt after its destruction in Bard’s Tale III) being under occupation by a religious group called the Fatherites, who facilitate a crusade of sorts against adventurers, outsiders and non-human races. The player is tasked with resolving this crisis, relying on their wits, strength and companions in order to survive, while looking for clues as to who or what is responsible for these events.

After a short introductory cutscene, where we witness the execution of several non-humans and outsiders, we are given control of Melody, a pre-made Bard intended to be used until the character creation option becomes available. We are also introduced to Rabbie, a bard acting as leader to the now-outlawed Adventurer’s Guild and given our first quest: reach the Adventurer’s Guild.

Unfortunately, this is also where a few of the game’s issues start showing. The game suffers from extremely long loading times, as well as frequent dips in frame rates. These performance issues appear to be commonplace, as a quick browse through the game’s forums and the related Steam Discussions page will confirm. To inXile’s credit, there have already been three major performance patches released (the last of which coinciding with this post’s initial draft) and there have been noticeable improvements over each one, although the overall experience is still not entirely up to spec.

The game’s audio, on the other hand, is spot-on. A series of lore-appropriate Gaelic accents give BT4 a rustic, almost rural feeling, while the various songs and poems heard throughout Skara Brae have been thus far quite charming and well-written. I would have preferred a bit more in the way of background music (such as having your party’s Bard sing while out of combat), but apart from that and a few minor discrepancies in dialogue volume, I was quite pleased with the sound in this game.

On the subject of songs, I particularly liked how the developers implemented a sort of Metroidvania-esque system in BT4 and tied it to the Bard’s repertoire of songs. The level design follows a much more open-world philosophy, where you are expected to backtrack after acquiring certain songs and abilities in order to gain access to previously blocked paths or secret areas.

Within the first few hours the player is introduced to a series of songs that can be used for a variety of environment-altering actions, such as demolishing cracked walls; revealing hidden loot stashes; gaining the trust of fellow adventurer NPCs; and detecting enemies and secrets. In turn, this gives the game an air of exploration (as opposed to the original trilogy, where progress was much more linear) with frequent rewards for the observant player.

One of the earlier forms of puzzles in the game, cog puzzles.

Complementing the exploration aspect is a heavier emphasis on puzzle-solving. There are various small but clever puzzles to be solved within the game’s first few hours, ranging from tests of the player’s spatial awareness (manipulating their immediate environment to create paths to otherwise inaccessible locations) to simple mechanical puzzles (such as mechanical puzzles where the player moves cogs on a board, in order to power gate mechanisms), to more difficult logic-based ones (like a series of Elven shrines, which require the player to decipher cryptic poems in order to find out what items to place on each shrine) – these provide great contrast and a much-needed “quiet time” in between the more hectic combat segments, something that the original trilogy’s combat-heavy design lacked.

Speaking of which, combat is another area where the game slightly deviates from the original designs. While it is still very much a turn-based affair, thanks to the addition of a positioning grid and character placement system, it now requires a good deal more thought put into every turn.

Within each combat scenario, both the player’s party and the enemies are placed in two opposing halves of a 4×4 placement grid. Abilities, spells and attacks all have specific ranges, depending on where each character is placed upon their side’s 2×4 grid, requiring careful consideration in placing each party member. This is compounded by the Opportunities system, a resource spent on moving, attacking or using abilities each turn.

This combination of limited actions within a rigidly-defined field leads to a lot of interesting tactical choices – especially when you gain access to abilities and passives that allow you to manipulate positioning and Opportunity costs. Even in the early stages of the game, these abilities and limitations presented some quite clever problems to be solved, almost puzzle-like in style and quality.

The aforementioned grid-based combat system.

As an example, Fighters (built as a tanking character) gain access to the To Me! ability which, when activated, allows the rest of the party members to get refunds on used Opportunity if they moved towards the Fighter’s grid location horizontally or laterally. Similarly, the Trow Thief’s racial passive ability (which refunds Opportunity if a killing blow is made, once per turn) allows the player to neutralize weaker enemies and still keep applying pressure to their more powerful teammates.

Ultimately, this system allows for some very satisfying combat scenarios where combining abilities like the above-mentioned and pulling off advanced strategies utilizing them gives a great sense of accomplishment, not unlike solving a puzzle.

However, not all of my impressions were as positive as the above. The game sometimes has pacing problems – both due to the aforementioned backtracking* (which might have been less noticeable with a more in-depth fast travel system or a small number of respawning enemies) and the heavy reliance on dialogue trees in order to convey backstory and lore (something that might have been better relegated to an in-game journal or glossary), which tend to slow down the game noticeably.

*As a brief aside, I realize that backtracking is sort of a hallmark of the whole Metroidvania-esque design, but even the sub-genre’s granddaddy Symphony of the Night had certain systems in place (such as teleportation chambers and powers that increase mobility) to cut down on the annoyance of retreading familiar locations. As such, there’s no excuse to not have something like that in BT4 – perhaps utilizing the game’s save points as a sort of fast-travel target.

Similarly, some of the party’s voice lines become annoying over time, especially voice cues informing the player that an enemy you’re about to engage is way beyond your current power levels, which are repeated every time you face said enemies – there is an option to disable these but I would have preferred a middle-ground solution, perhaps some way to tweak the frequency these exclamations occur at.

A sample of the constant nagging when the player so much as looks at high-level enemies.

Another, lesser complaint is also the large amount of typographic and syntax errors present in the game, with several instances of the in-game text not being capitalized properly; words being used in the wrong context (e.g. affect vs. effect); typographical errors (alter instead of altar); and so on and so forth. These, however, are easily fixed (which I fully expect to happen within the next couple of months, based on inXile’s response to the more serious performance issues displayed in the initial releases) and therefore I wouldn’t consider as more than minor annoyances.

Finally, a few minor nitpicks. The inventory system would benefit greatly from a sorting or filtering option (especially as you get multiple pages of items as early as the second major area); the save points system could use a revision, as certain areas are either too sparsely or too densely populated with them; and an option to reallocate spent skill points (perhaps at a price) would do much to encourage experimentation in building characters.

In the end, despite a few issues encountered in the first few hours of the game (both technical and otherwise), they were not enough to distract me from how clever and rewarding the combat and exploration aspects of the game feel. Assuming no major design missteps further on in the game, I can easily see myself having a very pleasant and enjoyable time with it in the foreseeable future.

What are your thoughts on this game and its genre? Did you play Bard’s Tale IV? Love or hate this genre? Feel free to discuss it in the comments section below!

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