The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep is a bit like a story told by Abe Simpson; you have no idea where it's going, it's referencing obscure events from aeons ago, and you suspect it might actually never end. You laugh and nod at the odd snippet, but mostly you're thinking, "I hope someone calls me with terrible news so I have an excuse to leave." Add in so many bugs that the game's own rules seem to change on the fly, and you have The Bard's Tale IV.
The Bard's Tale is a classic RPG dungeon crawler franchise with a bit of a history. The first three games came out between 1985 and '88. After that, the series went dark until 2004, when InXile developed the reimagining titled The Bard's Tale, which was very different from its predecessors in both tone and gameplay. Fast forward to today, and The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep is once again completely different from any of the previous games.
There's a dissonance between The Bard's Tale IV's mix of modern and old. The elements taken from the "box of old-school" all end up harming the final product. The save system, graphics, story, inventory, and details like not being able to refund your skill points - all these things feel like a pointless return to the past. The only things I liked were the puzzles and the turn-based combat, which were marred by the huge amount of technical issues.
I've experienced The Bard's Tale IV in three distinct stages now. Pre-release, release, and post-patch one. The release patch fixed most of the incessant crashing, and the first patch fixed a bunch of bugs. This latest patch was a bit like cleaning a filthy, greasy table by sweeping it with a bare hand. Sure, all those questionable lumps are off the table, but there's a long way to go before you remember what color that top used to be.
The tooltips are wrong so often that I'm not sure whether I've just misunderstood how they work. Sometimes a skill will alter the effects of an ability or the damage of a spell. It's completely haphazard whether the UI shows this change or not. When you hover your mouse over an enemy with an attack, it shows how much health they will lose from that attack. By the end of the game, I didn't trust that indicator one bit. In fact, I didn't trust most of the numbers the game gave me, resorting instead to going by feeling.
The beginning of the game is a chore to get through, due to the eternity I spent in a large and dreary cavern. It essentially amounts to the infamous sewer level of every old-school RPG. Ironically, I think this is exactly the kind of thing the 2004 version of The Bard's Tale would poke fun at, being a bit of a spoof of traditional RPGs at the time. When the game finally releases you into the world, it opens up, but only a little.
As you explore, you'll discover that the music of The Bard's Tale IV is nothing short of amazing. Authentic Gaelic songs sprinkle the world, haunting, beautiful, and joyous. Unfortunately, rather than elevate the experience, they feel apart from the game itself. It's like plonking a big shiny basket of delicious fruit on top of that filthy table I mentioned earlier. The dwarves, elves, and humans all have the same Scottish accents and sing the same kind of songs. These supposedly separate and distinctive cultures all melt together into a big homogeneous blob.
The narrative design feels dated, but not in a nostalgic way. The NPCs have animations but never move from their spot. You won't see someone just walking, except for patrolling enemies. Huge walls of text plague the dialogue, which often comes across as something you'd hear at a renaissance fair. The player is mostly driven through the story by Rabbie, a bard in the adventurer's guild. With quite a few eccentric characters inhabiting the world, I don't understand why Rabbie must be so bland. His name may as well be "Quest Giver". There's nothing to invest you in the story, besides "or else evil wins". The world feels like it was constructed around the player, making it static and boring. If you could just get on with it without thinking about the setting, I wouldn't mind, but you're constantly halted by bloated descriptions and exposition.
In my first impressions, I said that The Bard's Tale IV has a personality crisis. I can now clarify this. After the first fourteen hours, the game does acquire its own personality, but it's not a personality you want to spend fifty hours with. The game is like a slow, rattling, screws-falling-off Disneyland ride with the shiny plastic faces of chattering puppets all around you.
The banter between companions is the best part of the writing, in my opinion. It's funny and it reveals things about the world around you in a more natural way. Even the player character has a collection of completely different lines for the banter, which is based on what voice you chose in character creation. This is again hobbled by technical issues, such as voice lines cutting out when overlapping, or all sound in cut-scenes disappearing - cut-scenes that you can't skip.
In character creation, you pick between a number of races which each has their own passive ability. For example, dwarves can't move in combat. There are four classes to choose from: Fighter, Rogue, Bard, and Practitioner, which is a spellcaster. Each class has around four skill trees. For some reason, it's impossible to refund skill points you've picked. There's also no confirmation when picking a skill. If you misclick, that's it - you're stuck with it forever. By the time you get to grips with what's good and what isn't, you'll be halfway through the game. Despite not letting you reallocate points, the game will let you create an entirely new character. This will cost you a mercenary coin each time (earned by going through the main story). I don't understand why the player is forced to create a new character instead of just reallocating their points.
The classes feel distinctive enough in combat, which is tactical and exciting. It plays out on a 4x4 grid, which might sound small, but the complexity grows as you progress and acquire companions. The difficulty can catch you by surprise. Sometimes it's fair, but sometimes not. One issue I had with the combat was how quickly things could go to hell without my input. I played quite damage heavy, and I'm not sure playing defensively is viable. This meant that if the enemy team got their turn first, half my team would be dead by the time I got to act at all. Unfortunately, a lot of the remaining fun in the combat is sucked away by the sporadically slow response time after selecting actions, the difficulty of selecting certain tiles with your cursor, and the false information the UI displays.
The amount of backtracking and retreading of old ground was a source of great frustration. Most of it (but not all) was due to the save system. You save at stone pillars, and some allow you to consume them for a lump sum of XP. When you interact with such a pillar, your mouse will hover over "consume" by default, which will inevitably lead you to mess this up at least once. Since the difficulty can spike without warning, it often seemed wiser to go back to a previous save pillar than risk progressing until another one showed up.
The big issue here is that you can only save once at pillars you can consume. After that, you'll need to save at a different pillar, after which you can again save at the first one. I can't see any benefit to this incomprehensible mechanic. There is nothing good about that sense of anxiety and frustration that rises with the increased time you'll have to spend redoing puzzles or fighting the same enemies.
Another source of the backtracking is the graphics and the map design. Labyrinthine corridors are a hallmark of dungeon crawlers, but memorable locations and detailed environments can make this more enjoyable. In The Bard's Tale IV, the muddled textures often blended together, making it hard to navigate and remember locations, especially in the open world. I did really enjoy some of the dungeons' aesthetics though, which were similar to something by H.R. Giger.
The most disappointing thing about The Bard's Tale IV isn't that I haven't enjoyed it, because that's not true. It's that I repeatedly start enjoying it for very brief moments, only to have that enjoyment dropped into a black hole, inside a volcano, filled with tears. I'm never able to write it off completely, because it pulls me back, then breaks me down again.
For example: towards the end of the game, I started using the accompanying Guidebook. The developers thought that people might get stuck, or not like puzzles, so they made a free guide. Great, I think. Then, I start finding errors in the guide. Puzzle solutions which are straight up incorrect, and directions which are wrong. Why Bard's Tale? You had me! Another idea I liked was the puzzle weapons; rare items that, when inspected, contains puzzle mechanisms on the weapon itself. As you solve them, the weapon gains new abilities. Unfortunately, text that should have appeared often didn't, and some puzzles were hard to see because of the camera angle. Mistakes were irreversible, so you'd get stuck with a ruined puzzle weapon.
The same for the amazing music - I'm walking down a path, loving the lilting melody and mysterious sounding lyrics when I run into a guy who tells me he's about to sing me a song. This is going to be great, I think. It isn't. It's really bad, actually. It's not even a song, it's just mumbling, and I'm not sure if it's a joke, because there's no punchline.
The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep Review | Final Thoughts
The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep hides a few good moments inside a mess of a game. It feels dated not for its old-school inspirations, but for its execution of those ideas. The world and story lack flavor, despite having a couple of memorable and funny characters. If the combat didn't move forward in odd performance hiccups, it would be enjoyable in itself. For die-hard fans of dungeon crawlers and puzzles, I'd say this is only barely worth a try. I think how InXile is resuscitating old-school games is great, but unfortunately, The Bard's Tale IV is a huge swing and a miss for me. For what it's worth, at least they swung.
Techraptor reviewed The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows on PC with a copy provided by InXile Entertainment.
- Fantastic Music
- Some Funny Banter And Characters
- So Many Bugs
- Save System Is Distilled Pain
- Clunky UI
- Bland Setting