Gaming on a Timer

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

This Friday saw the end of my Bard’s Tale IV playthrough, taking more than two weeks’ worth of streaming to see it through with 100% completion (approximately 40 hours or so, with some minor content skipped due to accidentally progressing past the “point of no return”). It’s been quite the experience, to put it mildly.

First things first: you can find the VOD’s of the entire thing by visiting my YouTube channel (arranged in handy playlist form for your convenience) – there are 8 VOD’s, one for each stream, unedited and running the full duration of each session (so around 4-6 hours apiece). Everything that is described below can be seen directly in those VOD’s, so feel free to check them out as companion material to this post, if you’re curious to see what I’m talking about in action.

Additionally, this post follows up from my “First Impressions” post from two weeks ago, which you can find on this very blog – I’d recommend giving it a quick look as I’ll mostly be building up on it for this post, as well as referencing it occasionally.

With that out of the way, let’s talk bards.

Cabbage Knight, Onion Knight’s distant (and lesser-known) cousin.

As I mentioned numerous times while chatting with viewers on-stream and in the 100Pals Achievements Discord server, Bard’s Tale IV has all the “right stuff” to be considered for my favorite game of 2018. Over the course of my streams, several elements stood out for me, such as the clever puzzle design; an amazing soundtrack; nuanced combat that encourages experimentation and forward planning; interesting exploration elements; and the general use of Gaelic/Scottish themes, which I’ve always felt are under-represented in gaming.

In no particular order, let’s have a closer look…

Elegy of Exploration

Getting around Skara Brae and the world of Caith is one of the major aspects and probably the lengthiest activity you’ll be doing in Bard’s Tale IV. Exploration is done in first-person view with semi-open map design, which borrows certain elements from the Metroidvania sub-genre. The player steadily gains access to several “Exploration Songs” used during exploration to access previously-blocked areas, such as Grandfather Sky Sees All which removes brambles and vine walls or The Stone Remembers, used to rebuild broken stone structures such as bridges and pillars.

The environments themselves are more or less decent in variety and size, with the game being broken up into three major semi-linear “hub” areas, each with its own distinct visual design, and a plethora of puzzles, enemies and challenges to overcome. The almost-open-ended level design makes exploration quite enjoyable for me – especially when returning to previous hubs and noticing that I could now access new parts of the map that I had previously thought inaccessible (and which usually housed secrets or elements that tied into that area’s more complex puzzles).

Beautiful vistas await your fearless party to explore and plunder.

On a side-note, I noted in my First Impressions posts that a fast-travel system might have been a good addition to the game and perhaps I should elaborate a bit on that since the game does eventually unlock such a feature. However, I still feel that it perhaps not sufficient as it not only becomes available after the first ten or so hours in the game (which are spent mostly backtracking in the same area to access different main story quests) but it also only serves realistically as a level transition between the game’s three hub areas.

I would still have loved to see something geared more towards in-area transportation (such as being able to return to an area’s tavern or inn from your current location), as maps do not repopulate enemy groups once cleared, making backtracking (in the course of progressing quests rather than when exploring newly-available paths) a mostly lifeless and boring affair.

Speaking of which, how does the combat stack up?

The Battle Ballad

The combat system in this game is quite unique for a CRPG, in that it relies just as heavily on positioning and skill selection as on raw stats and equipment. For any given character, you are allowed to equip a maximum of four active skills (learned via equipment and spending your level up currency, skill points, in the game’s talent trees), which you can then use in combat.

The field itself is split into a 4×4 grid, with the bottom half containing your party and the top half containing the enemy party. Combat itself is carried out in turns, with whoever initiated combat getting the first go. Where the game deviates from traditional turn-based fare is that each team is further limited in what they can do by three factors – opportunity points; positioning; and cooldowns. Each one of a character’s equipped abilities has an opportunity cost, a specific area of effect (thus being affected by its user’s position on the grid) and a cooldown coming into effect both at the start of combat and after each successful use of said skill.

Exploration Songs and the party’s half of the combat grid.

Rather than the usual “one-move-per-character” fare, this system allows you to customize each turn exactly as you need to – want your warrior to use three abilities in the same turn, while your other party members just take a time out? Assuming you have enough opportunity points and your positioning is correct, you can! Want to set up chain reactions with the Falkentyne’s Fury song (adds a mark on all enemies, which explodes when taking damage) and then blow up the entire enemy party with a mage’s Flame Breath? Go for it! Given the amount of skills, both active and passive, and the varying areas of effect each one uses, the whole system seems built around figuring out as many fun combinations as possible with whatever characters you have available at the time.

In fact, it often felt extremely satisfying to figure out a “line” which would allow me to emerge victorious and relatively unscathed, clearing an entire enemy party in one or two turns. In some ways, this was not wholly unlike solving a puzzle (something I’ve again mentioned constantly on stream), which segues nicely into…

The Rhyme of Riddles

Puzzle design is yet another aspect of this game that I adored – Bard’s Tale IV is positively loaded with all manners of puzzles, from simple logic problems to spatial awareness puzzles to code ciphers and so, so many more. Often used as both gating mechanics and optional content, you’ll seldom go for more than twenty minutes without encountering one.

Special mention should also be given to a specific puzzle category in the game, puzzle weapons. This is a very cool idea where certain elven weapons have puzzles built into them, usually in order of pommel, handle and hilt and which, once solved, imbue that weapon with additional properties. I found this mechanic to be interesting as a whole, since puzzles are usually cycled between two or three different variations per weapon part, which is enough to keep things fresh – while at the same time, the incentive for solving these puzzles feels more immediate and substantial (since you’re actively improving your weapons by being good at solving puzzles).

Cog-moving puzzles are one of the most common in Bard’s Tale IV.

What I found most interesting about puzzles is that, for the most part, the designers manage to strike a balance between quality and quantity. You’ll seldom feel that any of the puzzles outstays its welcome (with the possible exception of one or two “end-of-dungeon” mega-puzzles that become tedious to solve), which is often hard to design for in games. Even more impressive to me, after getting some way into the game, I was actually beginning to feel excitement at encountering a fresh puzzle, rather than my usual reaction of exasperation and dread which lesser games have trained me to have over the years.

Finally, allow me to geek out for a moment with some miscellaneous favorites of mine.


Indeed, there’s a lot of little touches that made me love this game, a multitude of minor cool moments such as realizing that the player-made characters’ voice presets all have custom interactions with one another and with the “named” party members, or the tons of references to previous games in the series (which somehow never quite manage to get into shameless nostalgia-exploiting territory, thankfully), or how certain combat animations (especially movement) are different depending on what armor or passives you have equipped, or so many other minor features that are too numerous to list here.

Invisible NPC’s aren’t even the worst of it…

As a final aside, I’d like to mention in passing the crafting system in this game, which is more or less functional but not fleshed out enough to merit much discussion. It’s mostly standard fare: collect materials from the game world, combine them into useful items, ranging from curatives/foods to utility items to puzzle weapons – not a very interesting system but to be honest, it doesn’t need to be.

So, if Bard’s Tale IV has so many things going for it, why did I introduce it in such a lukewarm manner? Well, about that…

The Troubled Troubadour

The unfortunate thing about Bard’s Tale IV is that, despite all of the design effort and thought put into it, it ultimately left me with a kind of bittersweet mixed feeling – not because of having an abrupt, “rocks fall, everyone dies” ending (I’m looking at you, KotOR 2), but rather because of a series of bugs, glitches and errors which, during the entire 40-hour-long playthrough, slowly became increasingly annoying and disheartening.

Make no mistake, this is a great game (perhaps my game of the year, even), but in its current state I would be very hesitant to recommend it without the additional qualifier that it takes a lot of patience.

First and foremost of these problems is the performance – even on an i7-6700 running on an nVidia GTX 1060 6GB, the game couldn’t run smoothly at anything above Low settings (and even then, in certain effects-heavy sequences, it would choke up numerous times). While this by itself wouldn’t be too much of an issue – and to inXile’s credit, they’ve already put out numerous patches to try and address the issues, even if they still haven’t quite managed to get everything sorted – there is also an inordinate amount of loading going on with each area transition, often taking as much as a minute of loading (and keep in mind that you are expected and sometimes asked to go through multiple level loads for some quests).

…though invisible area transitions probably are.

Compounding this are a number of glitches, from disappearing NPC’s to event triggers not activating properly and even the occasional crash or three (and my personal pet peeve where, as of writing this post, the game does not have an option to select which monitor it displays on for multi-monitor setups, which means that resizing/repositioning the game’s window manually must be done every single time the game launches).

The worst of these, however, happened during the penultimate quest – requiring that I locate a level exit in the first hub area, which would take me to the final area and the game’s ending. The problem was that, as it turned out, the ladder I was meant to use to trigger that level change had popped out of existence, meaning I had no clue or idea of where I needed to go to actually finish the game. Eventually I got lucky and noticed that doing a mouse-over where the ladder was supposed to have been (and which I had no idea was even there), the level change prompt appeared.

I wish I could have given a much more glowing recommendation here, I really do. Bard’s Tale IV was one of the very few games of 2018 to get me to obsess that much over it (the only other contender being possibly Monster Hunter World) and there is a lot to love here but the truth is that, currently, the game still needs a lot of fixing. While not a dealbreaker for me (even with all the complaints I just leveled at it), I’d still wait for a few more patches to straighten things out before recommending this to anyone else.

Have you played Bard’s Tale IV? Seen it on mine or other streams? What are your thoughts on it? Share below in the comments!

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