One year ago the Bard’s Tale 4 launched to much fanfare. It also launched to some criticism and was hindered by performance and polish issues. Since that time InXile Entertainment has been working on polishing the rough spots into a gem. Bard’s Tale 4: The Director’s Cut is the result. This is the show we’ve been waiting for.
The Bard’s Tale first launched in 1985 when PC gaming was in its infancy. Each game in the series has added to the legacy and expectations of what it means to be a Bard’s Tale game. When Bard’s Tale 4 was launched last year it was criticized for performance issues. It also met with some disapproval from long time fans for abandoning what they felt were core features like grid movement. With the Director’s Cut release of the game the studio has added more feature options and streamlined performance issues. I can’t say the game is perfect yet, but I can say it has improved remarkably and feels solid like a triple A title should.
InXile has spent the past year refining game visuals, lighting, and optimizations that hindered performance in the original release. Lighting and reflections were inconsistent in some map areas making them appear too shiny, bright, dark, or poorly textured. With Bard’s Tale 4: The Director’s Cut there have been dramatic improvements to these elements, leveraging the power of Unreal 4, giving it a much stronger visual consistency. In short, it dialed up visual immersion to 10 and I think it shows.
One neat new technical feature is hardware auto detection that presets the graphic settings to suggested values. These can all be tweaked later and offer a high degree of customization to suit your needs and hardware. This is the laundry list of video options for the curious: Fullscreen and Borderless modes, Field of View scaling, Sharpness, and Gamma Correction. Additionally there are dropdown menus for Texture Quality, Effects, Models, Foliage, Shadow Resolution, and View Distance. Anti-Aliasing options include TAA and FXAA. Finally there are checkboxes for Ambient Occlusion, Depth of Field, Motion Blur, God Rays, and Water Reflections.
My GPU is an nVidia 1660Ti paired with an i7/4790 and 16GB RAM and settings were preset to Ultra with all post processing features enabled. With this rig and the suggested settings, performance was good overall with a few exceptions. Bard’s Tale 4 now runs smoother and more consistently on my setup than ever before. Load times and combat actions feel smooth. Dialog actions don’t lag any longer. Performance finally feels solid.
That isn’t to say that everything is perfect. There are some areas and times I would experience stuttering or freezing when panning the camera around quickly. Turning off God Rays, Depth of Field, and Motion Blur dramatically reduced this. The God Rays do look beautiful when they appear, but those are settings I nearly always disable anyway because I don’t find their effects worth any performance hit they incur. Also, combat decisions and actions would occasionally slog down a bit when there were a lot of enemies on the field at once. That happened in only two battles, but it was a little annoying.
Even though I experienced some issues, I want to point out that overall performance has been excellent and noticeably improved compared to the original release. These occasional performance dips were uncommon and didn’t represent my typical play sessions. While doing research, I reviewed a bug fix sheet 13 pages long consisting of issues and performance improvements over the last year. The list of fixes is impressive. In my opinion, Bard’s Tale 4 now runs like a well rehearsed band.
Bard’s Tale 4: The Director’s Cut now comes with partial controller support designed for Xbox One. I have PlayStation DS4 that I connect through BlueTooth. My controller mostly worked good, but not all of its buttons mapped to their appropriate XB1 counterparts.
The controls that did map correctly felt great and movement was responsive and fluid. Some of the default control scheme mapping felt awkward though, like Left Stick Click in order to sprint. Unfortunately I didn’t see a way to remap the controller within the game client itself. I’m hoping to configure the DS4 in Steam in an effort to resolve the issue.
Windows And Steam Play
The Director’s Cut now offers a game client for Linux and Mac users. This is great news for those of us using other operating systems. My OS is Fedora Linux so I got a little excited at the idea of reviewing Bard’s Tale 4 using the Linux client. Unfortunately the Linux version couldn’t be published until a couple days before launch and had a few issues so I didn’t get to spend much time with it. The great news is that the game runs really well using Valve’s Steam Play Proton tool.
Many Linux gamers are probably familiar with Steam Play Proton and using WINE to run games. For anyone just hearing about this, Steam Play is Valve’s branding for buying a game once and playing on multiple platforms. It’s been around since 2010 but in the last year has seen tremendous development progress. Proton is a collection of technologies, developed and compiled by Valve, to make Windows games and programs run on Linux and other Unix like operating systems. Steam users running Linux can configure Steam to enable this Proton compatibility layer to play Windows games.
So far my experience using Steam Play with Bard’s Tale 4 has worked well for me. If you’re a Linux gamer and having issues with the native Linux client, check out the game using Steam Play. Be warned though that the client version downloads are separate and can’t be installed at the same time. Also saves aren’t persistent across platform types so you will need to back those up if you’ve made progress in one version already.
Bard’s Tale 4: The Director’s Cut isn’t just about a performance improvements and technical stuff. There is a long list of new features, improvements, and content. There is a new dungeon (The Royal Necropolis of Haernhold), new bosses, new dwarven weapons, and master crafted gear just to name a few. I will cover those in the final review, so stay tuned, but for now let’s look at some excellent quality of life improvements.
Like many puzzle oriented RPGs, Bard’s Tale 4 has a ton of items to pick up and inventory can become cluttered quickly. Newly added is the ability to filter inventory items based on category (gear, quest, consumable, etc). This is a godsend when trying to find quest items for puzzle cairns or reviewing party gear.
While this isn’t a feature I used, it is one I think makes an excellent optional addition. This feature is a toggle setting in the game configuration menu. It lets us skip puzzle blockers to the story so a puzzle won’t stand in the way of enjoying the narrative. Optional puzzle items like elven weapons and offerings can’t be circumvented this way so it doesn’t let people cheat their way to super characters. The purpose is to let us experience the main story without getting blocked, frustrated, and quitting. I quite like that.
If you’re like me you probably cried for joy a little when you saw this bullet point. This could be a hotbed feature because it radically transforms game play. Historically Bard’s Tale games had very limited save options. Those saves were an integral part of the strategic game play. With this option enabled that becomes a non-issue.
My big concern was that it would gut the strategic feel from the game. Happily I found, for me, it was the exact opposite. It expanded my tactical options and strategies for game play. For one, those markers still provide a full health refill and those are important deep in a dungeon or the top of Kylearan’s Tower when you may want to conserve food. Secondly, it allowed me to try so many interesting solutions to combat and puzzles that I wouldn’t have before because so much progress was lost on a failed attempt.
If your heart is sinking right now because you’re old school and liked it neat that way, fear not. This is an optional feature and can be toggled at any point in the game. You don’t have to use it and the higher difficulty defaults disable it off by default.
Grid Based Movement
One common criticism I remember seeing for the original release was a lack of grid based movement. That is no longer an issue. For some strange reason the feature is labeled as “BETA” but it worked perfectly fine for me. This feature is a toggle setting in the configuration menu with some display style options such as enabling ground pointers.
Movement on the grid is fluid and about as quick as free form movement, only the party is locked to the grid square. What I noticed is that moving on the grid can help make interactive objects pop a little more often. On the other hand, it was much harder to peek around corners stealthily without being noticed. In the end I prefer free form movement, but I also feel the grid based movement system is very well done.
Balance Pass and More
In addition to quality of life features Bard’s Tale 4 skills, enemies, items, and combat have received a massive balance pass. Enemy skills and party composition have been tweaked for greater challenge and better flow. Mini boss battles with the sorcerers in Kylearan’s Tower were tough and some took me several tries. This is where the “save anywhere” feature came in handy and allowed me to learn from my mistakes and become a better strategist.
The intro experience has also been reworked. Upon starting a new game I was presented with one of 4 options to preconfigure game play defaults. I chose “Tavern Song” which sets the difficulty to Normal, Save Anywhere to On, and shows enemies on the minimap. These can all be changed later but provide a nice starting point.
There are also new character portraits for custom parties. The economy and cost of itemization have been adjusted as well to make acquisition flow better with character level and adventuring progression. New weapons and items have been added and old items were tweaked to improve game play flow.
Quests and puzzles have also been tweaked and reworked. While some seemed to be exactly the same others were very different. This really threw me because I’ve done some of them several times now and was stumped when my expected solution wasn’t present. I actually had to think through them again.
Impression and Conclusion
Revisiting The Bard’s Tale 4: The Director’s Cut has been a surprising joy. I didn’t expect such a thorough treatment of nearly every aspect of the game experience. InXile has put a lot of effort back into the player experience and like I said earlier, to me it clearly shows. All of these add up to a much more immersive and engaging Bardic experience. This is the show I was waiting for. How about you? Are these the changes you were hoping for?
Join me in a couple of weeks for the final review and we’ll see how it all played out, including the new dwarven weapons, bosses, and dungeon.