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The RPG Files: The Bard's Tale 4: The Director's Cut Review

By Randy Liden on September 18, 2019 | Editorials | Comments

The Bard's Tale 4: The Director's Cut Review

The Bard’s Tale 4: The Director’s Cut is an epic tale of corruption and evil, suffering and loss, of lessons learned too late and and the bitter consequences. It’s also a story of hope and triumph and perseverance. It’s a game that challenged me and a story that tugged at my heart.

The Bard’s Tale 4 had a rocky start last year. We checked out the new changes and got a feel for the performance changes in our Initial Impressions piece a couple of weeks ago. Additionally, combat, enemies, puzzles, and many other aspects of the game were reworked and polished. Those systems felt good in the initial chapters, but a lot of games start strong and finish weak. How well would these hold up over the entire game? I spent the past two weeks working my way through the story. Read on and we’ll see if InXile put as much effort into the finish as they did the beginning. There are some minor spoilers ahead so be warned.

Combat and Character Progression

The core to any RPG is character progression and how well skill growth weaves into game play. Stats are important in BT4, but equally so are character skill and party synergies. Early on I was concerned party building would devolve into gimmicks or tricky copy-pasta builds scraped from the internet. However, as my characters grew those concerns evaporated and were completely gone around level 10.

Freedom to build characters and a party how I want to is very important to me and BT4 offers a great deal of flexibility. There are some essential mechanics that need to be handled, but there are a lot of different ways we can build our parties to do so.

Fortunately there is no hard level cap to worry about in BT4. Our characters can progress and level until we finish the story. My characters were level 25 by the end and still had room for progression had I more time for side missions and the new dungeon Haernhold. Respecs are possible but cost tokens. Those are a limited resource, but I still had several left unused when I finished and I had gone through and retooled each character to fit my play style.

Key mechanics include, channeled skills, armor, and reactive skills among others. These can be leveraged by the party to demolish your foes. Parties also must be equipped to counter these tactics as enemies will bring them to the table as well.

My party is entirely composed of story characters that I picked up along my adventures, but then completely customized their skill set and gear. My lineup consists of 2 Fighters, 2 Rogues, 1 Practitioner (mage), and Melody the Bard. For me, this party has a great balance of damage and defense. Melody I have setup as a classic jack-of-all-trades bard with strong attack, defense, and support.

The fighters and rogues are built with melee reactives so anytime they take a hit damage is dealt to the attacker. The backline rogues have a passive that keeps the entire back row (practitioner, rogue, rogue) in stealth for the first turn allowing them to buff up. They are my “mental damage” dealers and can interrupt enemy channels early before they can wreak havoc on my party. Meanwhile Melody the Bard adds an additional reactive to the front line defenders so enemy melee hits set the attacker on fire.

The Bard’s Tale 4: The Director’s Cut lets us build and customize the entire party how we want. Progression is solid, satisfying, and fun to play around with. Combat consistency struggles at points. On easy difficulty it can become predictable. Combat difficulty on normal difficulty feels inconsistent with some battles being faceroll easy, while others impassable for without changing difficulty or retooling the entire party. Progression and Combat are solid and enjoyable, but tactical variety is lacking and by end game, top tier gear is everywhere. This can make end-game combat encounters feel predictable.

Puzzles

Combat isn’t the only obstacle we face on our adventures. Throughout BT4 there are many puzzles and traps to trip us up and hinder our progress. Puzzles range from easy to brutally complex and I found it very satisfying and refreshing. When I couldn’t do a puzzle, I used the new “Struggler’s Lament” feature which opens doors blocking story events. One thing I like about the feature is that it just opens the door. It didn’t show me the puzzle solution so I could come back to it on a later play through and do it properly.

There are several different puzzle types intended to challenge our spatial, logic, abstract reasoning, and dexterity. InXile didn’t take shortcuts and it shows. BT4 introduces each puzzle type mechanic to us in a simple manner and then slowly starts adding layers of challenge and it doesn’t stop until the game finishes.

In addition to map puzzles there are Elven Weapons and Offering Shrines. Offering Shrines are a throwback to the days of yore when printed code sheets were included with games. True to old-school form there is a PDF of the codewheel. InXile also provides a neat digital version on their website.

The puzzle offerings in The Bard’s Tale 4: The Director’s Cut are interesting, challenging, varied, and prolific. The puzzles have an old school charm to them, like the rest of the game, but they are intricate and test the seasoned gamer. The puzzle system in each map feels well thought out. They live in context with each other as part of the map and not just little speed bumps to slow us down. Mastering them is as important to achieving success as a well built party.

Performance

InXile has been meticulous with The Director’s Cut in many areas including performance. After finishing the Initial Impressions piece I ran into some serious performance issues with the SteamPlay + Linux client. It was frustrating and disappointing. And then a “golden” patch hit and most of those issues evaporated.

Since the last patch my game runs even better than it had during the impressions piece. Not only that but texture and display issues were sorted out and visuals look good again. God Rays didn’t cause any issues, but Depth of Field and Motion Blur still added to the occasional freeze or slog when panning the camera around fast. Combat encounter decisions are where I noticed slow downs most often. Sometimes it would take the AI several seconds to calculate combat results or make a tactical decision. It’s not bad, but it’s present and sometimes detracts from flow.

Some puzzle types could use another UI pass as they are clunky to interact with. In some situations it can be easy to misclick during a puzzle or combat. This can mean having to start a fight or puzzle over again which is annoying. Performance is generally excellent except for slow combat decisions.

Story

There is a lot to be said about the story but not without spoiling it. So, I’m not going into details about characters or plot lines, but there are some spoilers ahead so be warned again.

The story seems familiar at first glance. There is some bad guy driven by some evil force. Bad guy has army and the forces of darkness to fight for him, and so it starts like might be expected.

There is an evil paladin and he’s cleansing Skara Brae of undesirables. Innocent people are being hung in the streets. The visuals are serious and gritty. It’s a disturbing event that’s treated with gravity. It seems simple on the surface. We should be able to uncover this agenda and set it right, but as we adventure through the story layer upon layer starts peeling away revealing new truths. There are bad people behind the bad people. There are ancient evils, new and familiar.

Events become more serious and grave as we progress through the plot. Each enemy defeated is one step closer to success but also reveals new subplots. In between these events the party banters, revealing their back stories and personalities and this small detail is one aspect where the game shines. The companion dialog and voice overs are very well done. By the time we came to the final fight I felt a connection to my characters like I do in a favorite book, movie, or pen and paper campaign. I was attached to their quirky personalities and silly battle comments and it was hard to say goodbye to them at the end. That is rare for me.

Here is a small spoiler. When the game ends, it’s done. There isn’t a new game plus or adventure mode. I would have preferred the option to finish some side quests after the main event ends, but it doesn’t work that way so make sure you clear out your quest log before settling the final score.

Haernhold is an old dwarven stronghold and crypt. There are powerful undead, trolls, cultists, and other horrors packed within its walls. The fights are tough even on Easy difficulty. The puzzle challenges are difficult and nuanced. This is the additional dungeon InXile added with the Director’s Cut and it’s meant for players to bring a well thought out part and our “A-Game”. One great aspect of Hearnhold are the dwarven weapons which don’t require intricate puzzle rituals to unlock like the elven weapons do. It does play into the changes in the storyline, but it’s also a tough dungeon on its own.

The Bard’s Tale 4: The Director’s Cut grabbed my heart at the end and squeezed hard. Not many video games or interactive novels do that for me. The dialog and narrative are well written and compelling.

Conclusion

The Bard’s Tale 4: The Director’s Cut is a dramatic improvement from the initial release over a year ago. More than that, it’s an incredibly solid dungeon crawler and respectable entry in the franchise. It weaves puzzles and RPG character progression into a captivating story of love, loss, and triumph.

This copy of the game was provided by PR and played through Steam on Fedora 30 using the SteamPlay + Linux version of the game. The overall score is an average of each section.


 

Overall Score: 8.9/10

 


Pros

  • Excellent story
  • Satisfying puzzles
  • Flexible character and party building

Cons

  • Occasional performance or UI issues
  • No adventure mode or New Game Plus

Editor's note - We have updated the score of this review to better reflect the improvements made on the Director's Cut versus the original release of The Bard's Tale 4. As an improvement over the previous game, we wanted to ensure our score reflected this to avoid any confusion with our readers.