For over thirty years the Bard has been regaling us with with tales of heroism and adventure. Once again adventurers are called upon to save Skara Brae and the land of Caith from evils past and present. Take up your lute, gather your party, and adventure forth, but don’t forget to grab a pint to whet your whistle whilst in the fray.
Game Play Your Way
Bard’s Tale is a series that has inspired role-playing game design for three decades. Bard’s Tale 4 has big shoes to fill and I think it continues steadfastly in the tradition of its predecessors. It is a game of discovery and exploration; of puzzles, traps, secret doors, powerful monsters, hidden clues, ancient evil, and desperately frightened and oppressed citizens. The game play systems, design elements, and narrative are tightly wound together. They build and depend on each other to create a tight RPG experience.
Bard’s Tale 4 is about discovery and exploration, but the team at InXile recognizes people enjoy different things. Some people enjoy min-maxing characters and parties, developing elaborate strategies. Some people like solving puzzles, others do not. Some put games down at frustrating points and it is possible to put yourself into a frustrating place in Bard’s Tale 4. So, InXile decided to include a guidebook with the game. Every game comes with a digital PDF copy of the book at no extra charge so they can enjoy the game how they like and not get stuck trying to figure out how the various systems work.
Players start their adventure as Melody the Bard. She’s a Baedic human from southern Caith with an attitude to match. At a very early point in the game, though, you’re given the opportunity to keep playing with Melody or create your own character as one of the four archetypes - fighter, bard, practitioner, and rogue. Players can also chose play as one of the four human factions, dwarf, elf, or Trow, customizing their appearance and skills. It’s just another way InXile helping your create your own adventure.
As you progress through the story various characters will join you on your adventure. You will also have the opportunity to collect “Mercenary Tokens” from some encounters and create your own characters. The tradeoff here will be missing the handcrafted character dialog, but InXile still has main characters banter with the adventurers you create. The difference being the banter is a little more generic with created adventurers while the crafted dialog is more personable.
Adventure, Exploration, and Puzzles
Skara Brae is beset by evil. An insidious plot has arisen and threatens the entirety of Caith. This is the situation and events you find yourself caught up in and not by choice. The story and world is rather linear and at first this was a little off putting, but there is a lot of flexibility with how you engage content.
There are several different puzzle styles used in a combinations of ways. There are mechanical logic puzzles with gears that disable traps and open doors. There are secret levers that are akin to object pixel hunting (on a larger scale). There are magic songs you can learn that will allow you to engage with puzzle elements scattered throughout the world. InXile cleverly uses this to direct the story and present problem solving opportunities to the players. Some of these open up options or bypass dangerous precarious situations. For example, do you run the gauntlet of giant axes swinging from the ceiling in long pendulous arcs through flaming jets using your superior dexterity or do you find the puzzle bock and clues to solve the quandary, disable the trap, and open the door? The best option may depend on the situation you’re in. It’s your choice.
It was important to save often in Bard’s Tale “back then” and that is still true today. The game offers a lot more options for saving now than previous games. In typical Bard’s Tale fashion though, there are some twists and choices to make. It is still easy to find yourself without an available save stone or way back to town. Planning out saves (which also fully heal your party), resources, and adventure strategy is still an important aspect of game play.
The game employs classic turn-based combat with a dual resource system. There are actions of “Opportunity” and actions of magic that use “Spell Power”. Once all your opportunity is used and your spell power depleted, or you’ve concluded any actions you want then you may end your turn and let the NPCs have their go.
While numbers are an aspect of combat, the brute force approach is rarely the smoothest way to win the day. This is where party and archetype building comes into play. My party ended up with two mages, one rogue, and one bard, with no fighter because I was an idiot and sent my solitary fighter off on a task. I wanted to keep the story characters so I developed a strategy to deal with a softer squishier front line.
My approach was to buff the party in the first round and use magic to debuff the foe, one mage as crowd control, the other for aoe damage and debuff, and the rogue for massive spike damage. The bard played true support by throwing up low cost shields and resetting powerful cooldowns. Before I had sent my fighter off and I gained the second mage, I was using a completely different strategy that involved taunts and him as a damage sponge. The flexibility and variety adds a lot of fun to the combat.
Lore and Story
InXile did many things right with this game and the way they approached and tied lore, backstory, and character development together is nothing short of masterful. In the undercity of Skara Brae I walked down familiar streets, past familiar shops, and streets and even the main square. It made me feel like I was back in that same Skara Brae seeing it anew. It was more than nostalgia. It felt like everything was in its place and appropriate and it fit together in a way that made sense of the history and the current story at the same time.
Overall, the narrative and world feel cohesive and well assembled. The game isn’t asking you to believe in a new “rebooted” Skara Brae. It’s set in the same old town we’ve been playing in for thirty years only with a new story and modern graphics.
The Rough Spots
There are a few pointy corners here and there. The UI comes to mind first. Sometimes interactive objects get mouse fiddly. For example, when operating a mechanism it might move two ways and the UI will sometimes stutter between the two even when repositioning the mouse.
Sometimes the visual power of Unreal doesn’t mix well with some stylized elements. An example that comes to mind are detail water reflections near a more stylistically presented interactable object.
The worst offender is the Review Board. This classic lore trope is the level up mechanism and is a core piece of the franchise. The implementation in Bard’s Tale 4 is crude and the voiceover is over done and a bit ridiculous. Also, it wasn’t quite clear what the review board wanted from me to advance at times. I would be at the point I should be able to advance, but I hadn’t completed something important. It was frustrating and detracted from the game flow. There should be a Review Board because it’s a core aspect to the Adventurer’s Guild. It just needs to be done better.
InXile has a few bugs and polish areas needing attention but they are minor annoyances in an otherwise excellent game.
This is your grandpappy’s old-school RPG, but it is made for the modern day. It’s made for RPG lovers of all types, ages, and experience. Bard’s Tale 4 follows squarely in the footsteps of giants without missing a beat. It has taken all those classic features and brought them into modern game play. It feels both fresh and true to its roots, at the same time. I highly recommend this to veterans and newcomers to the series alike.
If you’ve already started playing share your experience, but please use spoiler tags, when appropriate, for the benefit of your fellow adventurers.
Note: Our copy was reviewed on Steam with a code provided by PR.
- Interesting characters
- RPG game play your way
- Cohesive story with deep lore ties
- UI is occasionally clunky
- Design elements clash
- The Review Board