The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep Review
Bards. Poets, musicians, drunks. Back in ye’ olden days – when your only life choices were farming turnips or dying from tuberculosis – Bards were the superstars of their times. The Britney Spears' of Brittany, the Kayne Wests of West Avalon. Roaming hither and thither, they spun wild tales, bringing song and dance to the taverns of the land.
Just like the eponymous Bards themselves, Bard’s Tale has a unique history. Back in the darkness of the eighties, when Spandex was acceptable workwear and cocaine was one of your five a day, a studio called Interplay Entertainment started making games. Helmed by Brian Fargo, Jay Patel, Troy Worrell and Rebecca Heineman, the studio would go on to create pretty much every game you really love (seriously, check out the Wiki page), but it all started back in 1985 with the release of The Bard’s Tale.
The game was a smash success. A punishing and unforgiving dungeon crawler, it sold in excess of 400,000 units, and even inspired a series of novels of the same name. The studio created two more entries in the series, culminating with The Bard’s Tale III in 1988. And then… nothing. A new game was never made, and it seemed fans would never again venture into the world of the Bards.
Fast forward to 2015, and Brian Fargo appeared on Kickstarter. “Give me all of your cash,” he whispered, “and I’ll make a new Bard’s Tale.” Fast forward again to 2018 and Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep was released.
I’m feeling fairly lucky to have picked this one up late, as the game was beset by a number of bugs, glitches, and poor design choices (looking at you, no menu save feature) at launch. There have been a number of patches and updates since then, so it seems like the perfect time to grab my lute, a tankard of mead, and dive into the world of The Bard’s Tale.
Broadly speaking, this game is pure cheese. If you’re expecting a grand and dark adventure ala Skyrim – this isn’t it. But, if you’re a fan of dialogue so cheesy it has a rind, and a bright and colourful world full of booze to drink and goblins to kill, there’s something for you here. Think less Braveheart, more Highlander.
At its best, there’s genuine fun to be had. Your main character, the Bard, can gain skills such as “hock an empty mug at an enemy’s head when you drink”. There’s a general air of silliness pervading the game, from the abundant dad jokes down to the enemy taunts during combat, where heavily armed professional soldiers waggle their bums at you while insulting your musical abilities. It’s a nice change of pace from grimdark fantasy worlds, and keeps proceedings generally quite light.
The first Bard’s Tale was noteworthy for having what players considered groundbreaking 3D graphics for the time. In the latest incarnation, the game was created using Unreal Engine 4. Considering other titles made with the same, or even older, engine, it’s a tad lacklustre. Everything looks vibrant, but there’s a certain depth lacking from the overall art direction. Character models can be quite janky, and the world in general feels flat. I’ve never considered myself a graphics snob, but I’d put this game firmly into the “meh” side of the graphical camp.
Sticking with the art style, it’s quite uneven throughout the game. Cutscenes are a jumbled mix of in-game modelling, screenshots with filters, hand-drawn, and even live action. Oh, and they are mostly unskippable. Not cool. That said, every time you load into the game there is an intro scene of a bard around a fire regaling an audience of your party’s progress. It’s more hammy than the meat counter in a Spanish supermarket, but I thought it was a neat touch, and a clever homage back to the cover of the original game.
Combat is solid. There’s an element of problem solving which permeates the combat, making it feel more cerebral than a simple hack ‘n’ slash. It’s a turn-based system, and you have a limited number of actions each turn. As damage and actions are based on a fixed system of numbers, you rarely feel like you lost a fight simply because you got unlucky. A few hours in and the synergy between characters starts to become apparent, allowing you to unleash devastating and satisfying combos on your enemies.
A large part of the dungeon-crawling outside of combat also revolves around solving puzzles. These range from the innocuous right up to the “oh my God, if you make me spin this goddamn wheel around one more time...”. In a game which can take anything up to forty hours to complete, they fall foul of some repetition, but most are cleverly designed and satisfying to solve. I’m a sucker for a decently designed riddle.
In terms of stand-out parts, the sound and music are excellent. Genuinely, absolutely excellent. The environments are alive with atmosphere, combat crackles and clangs, and the music is bloody fantastic. I often found myself deliberately stopping at parts of the game just so I could listen to some incidental music that was happening. The world is alive with music. Groups of woman sing a Gaelic chorus as they work, lone singers hum and croon ancient songs to themselves, drummers pound out rhythmic patterns around campfires. It’s an auditory feast I’ve never experienced in any other game, and it works to elevate the overall experience of the world. The voiceovers are pretty good too, although there are a few rogue performances on par with Sean Connery’s Russian ‘shubmarine’ commander in Red October.
Unfortunately, a lot of good stuff is buried under a myriad of less than sparkling design. There’s a sense the developers have tried to stay true to the retro vibe of the original Bard’s Tale games. But listen, there’s a reason why people don’t ride Penny Farthings anymore. They made you look stupid, and you were one mistake away from falling twenty feet and exploding like a ripe melon on the pavement, spattering nearby pedestrians with your juices.
Take the inventory system. It’s bad. So bad. Rubbish bin on fire bad. I cannot see how it could have been made this bad any way other than intentionally. There’s no filtering system, it’s difficult to move anything around, and it’s buggy to the point of not being able to click on things properly. I was literally fighting with a menu. I’m meant to be fighting evil monsters, not hearing the Final Fantasy VII battle music playing in my head whenever I need to click on an apple.
I found most of the other menu systems, like crafting and the skills tree, to be an experience akin to walking in a room and not knowing why I was there. I often found myself opening and closing them multiple times to check what it was I actually wanted to do.
The story is… meh. Evil undead wizard. Unexplained cultural racism. You’re the hero that saves us all. Blah, blah, blah.
But. Despite all of this, it’s a very charming game. Helped in no small part by the music, once I got into the swing of things I found hours slipping away. It’s unassuming, and there’s no real urgency or tension. It’s a great game to play at your own pace, and if you look past some of the more obvious failings, there is plenty of fun to be had. The team clearly poured a lot of love into it all, and it clearly shows throughout my time with the game.
It’s worth wrapping up by saying the studio are still working on it. A massive, free update has been teased on the devblog. With a focus on balancing player and enemy abilities, and the long requested inventory filter (praise god), I’ll definitely be coming back to The Bard’s Tale when those new features are available.
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