The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep is the latest turn-based dungeon crawling RPG from inXile, and it’s an odd jumble of a game. It looks like an Unreal 4 version of modded Morrowind , yet it somehow still runs poorly. I didn’t have any particular expectations going into The Bard’s Tale IV but having played inXile’s other games, such as Wasteland 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera, I thought it would at least be decent. Fourteen hours in, and I haven’t made up my mind. I have a lot of issues with the game, but I’m still occasionally having fun leveling up my party and exploring the world. Also, the bard class has to get drunk to cast spells, which never gets old.
The third game in the series was developed by Interplay Systems and released in 1988. The Bard’s Tale always had a fairly traditional good vs. evil fantasy setting, with some comedy thrown in. Dwarves and elves are the original good guys, who had to band together to defeat evil alien gods that corrupted humanity. This is all in the past now, and humans are just your average jerks.
My biggest gripe is the technical issues, which manage to influence almost every other part of the experience. Performance lags, game freezes, crashes, and bugs are very common. In combat, the animations sometimes take a while to trigger after I’ve selected an action. I’ve had to redo long stretches after crashes due to the odd save system. I spent around half an hour on a puzzle that ended up broken and unsolvable, forcing me to restart from my last save.
Speaking of, the save system only exacerbates the technical problems. You can only save your game at certain stone pillars, but if you’ve used one you can’t save there again for some reason until you interact at a different pillar. Except when you can. I still don’t know why you can save repeatedly at some but not others. You can also choose to consume a pillar in return for a lump amount of extra experience. When you click a pillar and the choice between saving and consuming pop up, your mouse hovers over consume by default. That’s a very unhappy accident waiting to happen.
I think The Bard’s Tale IV has a bit of a personality crisis. Similar games like Legend of Grimrock went all out on the old-school aspect. The Bard’s Tale IV aspires to be a more modern mix, but things just aren’t mixing. Like an underwater flute. Or… just any underwater instrument, really. Ironically, following this metaphor, the best thing in The Bard’s Tale is probably the authentic Gaelic music. With music being such an integral part of the game, it’s odd that the music related to gameplay (such as when a bard plays a song in combat) sounds so awkward and cheap in comparison. The songs pop up throughout the world, but the sound design feels at odds with it. Contrast the bard’s ability sound effect with some of the music: The sound effects just don’t reflect the wealth of great music it has at its disposal.
The branching skill trees and flexible class system of The Bard’s Tale are clearly a modern design. On the other hand, the labyrinthine maps and corridors feel archaic. As if it’s not already easy enough to get lost in the starting area (Skara Brae Below) the map doesn’t clearly show which areas you’ve yet to explore. This effectively makes it almost useless as a tool for exploring new areas. The dead ends of corridors you’ve already been in look like half-explored fog of war. As a result, you forget you’ve been there and end up returning again and again, expecting new areas.
The turn-based combat plays out on a 4×4 grid. Two rows hold the enemy and two contain your team of up to six. I’ve enjoyed the combat quite a bit, with positioning and timing being important. It’s a shame then that the poor UI, performance, and feedback tarnish it. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which tile an enemy is standing on. Other times I’m trying to buff one of my own characters but the tile I’m hovering my mouse over isn’t lighting up or responding.
The narrative design and writing feel quite dated. The voice acting is great, but the setting and writing are traditional to a fault. Anyone who has played a fantasy game before probably shouldn’t expect any surprises. Sometimes I’m not even sure if it’s meant to be ironic: every single dungeon (so far) is a tower. Are you underground? Doesn’t matter, here’s a tower. The farther in I get, the more humor seeps into the dialogue. Some of the jokes have been genuinely funny and it’s definitely a strength in The Bard’s Tale IV. In fact, it reminds me a bit of Divinity: Original Sin.
Except for patrolling enemies, NPCs all stand rooted to the ground, arms gesturing and doughy faces working, like dolls in a Disneyland ride. It’s as if they all freeze right as I enter an area. Only when I leave do they go on about their business. It’s outright eerie. There are conversation options for the player, but these only serve as a way to deliver exposition. It surprised me then, that thirteen hours into the game I suddenly had a choice in a quest (help a guy or don’t). This has yet to show up again.
I’ve had some glimpses into interesting environments though, such as a brief visit to an otherworldly dimension. This and the combat are the reasons I still retain an inkling of hope that The Bard’s Tale will find steadier footing later on. But until then, it’s more weird, rattling, is-this-going-to-break-down Disneyland ride action.
The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep is being reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher.