The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep - First Look
Raise your hand if you've played The Bard's Tale. If you have your hand up in the air because you played the "old school" ARPG from 2004, put it back down youngster. I am talking about the original dungeon crawler trilogy from the '80s. Well, I was around back then, and I spent many a night after finishing my homework trying to save the town of Skara Brea from an evil wizard, an archmage, and even a god. Like real-world Detriot, it makes you wonder why anyone would want to live there, but they do. Once again evil has come to Skara Brea, and a new band of heroes is needed to save the day.
With The Bard's Tale 4: Barrows Deep (BT4), developer inXile Entertainment (original developer of the 2004 Bard's Tale spinoff) is bringing us more than just a remaster of the original trilogy, we are getting a true sequel. Originally funded through a Kickstarter campaign back in 2015, the Backer Beta was released on July 12. Pre-orders (and beta access) are still available, with the full release for Windows hitting Steam on September 18, and Mac and Linux versions to follow later this year. So let's take a quick look at what the game has in store for us.
Set a century after the events of BT3, this new installment in the series builds upon the original story. The opening cinematic ties everything together and even gives the reason why evil has repeatedly descended upon Skara Brae. Previous experience with the series isn't necessary (being 30+ years since the initial release leaves us veterans with little more than wisps of memories), but Bard's Tale 4 does come with the lore and flavor of the originals. In true fantasy fashion, you start with a lone adventurer and gather allies, gaining in power as you traverse all the twists and turns the story has to offer.
When making a game based on a series that started over thirty years ago, inXile has the daunting task of deciding when to stick to the trappings of the original and when to modernize components. First and foremost, BT4 is being made with the Unreal Engine 4, so inXile has access to all the modern comforts. They have wisely done away with the faux first-person view and grid-based movement of the '80s, and have moved to a fully 3D world with a full range first person camera. Combat is still turn-based, but the rigid 1-character, 1-action style has been replaced with a point system, giving the player much more control over what actions are taken each turn. While character creation and progression is very similar to the original games (limited classes to start, unlock the more powerful classes as you progress), the skill system has received a modern overhaul, and crafting has been added to the game.
At the start of the game you can choose to use the pre-made character, Melody (a bard of course), or create your own. If you create your own character (and who wouldn't?) you can choose from four basic archetypes - bard, fighter, practitioner, or rogue. After picking a class you will choose your race from a group of seven- Dwarf, Elf, Trow (think goblin), and four human variations. While most recent RPGs have shunned racial passive abilities, BT4 gives a nod to the original with each race having their own unique ability, and all of them are useful! All races have male and female options, though each one only has a few models to choose from. Finally, you will choose your starting skills and head off into the world.
Class selection and party makeup was a huge part of the original series. You had to create a well-balanced party capable of handling a wide array of adversaries, and BT4 is no different. Each class has their own skill trees, and while some abilities are available to multiple classes, each class comes with its own strengths and playstyle. There are plenty of skills available, so each class has multiple build choices. While you have full control creating the main protagonist, the rest of your party will be made up of characters you find throughout the story. You will still be able to reset their skill trees so there shouldn't be any worries about tweaking the party to fit your playstyle.
All of these choices definitely have an impact on how combat plays out. Combat takes place on a four by four grid, with your party occupying the bottom half and the enemy on the top half. During your turn, you will have a finite number of Opportunity Points to expend. These points are used up as you make physical attacks, move characters around the grid, or meditate to gain spell points. Some skills and spells don't use Opportunity Points, but you must manage cooldowns and spell points to ensure you have abilities ready when you need them most (Bards can even become drunk and pass out during combat). This flexibility means that a character can have multiple actions in a single turn, but one thing is certain, you'll never have enough opportunity points to do everything you want in a single turn.
One thing that hasn't changed much from the original is the limited save opportunities. The Bard's Tale had just one save point, the Adventurers Guild. You could easily lose an hour or two of progress if you died and hadn't recently made the trek back to save your game. This loss of progress may be a turn-off for many players used to the more modern "save anywhere, anytime" model, so BT4 has additional save points called Luck Stones. Located at key points around the map such as the Adventurers Guild and map transitions, these intermittent save spots are a good compromise between the two options. Another interesting mechanic of the Luck Stones, courageous adventurers can instead use some of the stones to gain a small amount of experience points. Once used this way they disappear, so you have to decide between the convenience of a recent save or a boost in XP. While each boost is fairly small, I can only think that repeatedly using luck stones in this manner will reward you in the long run.
inXile Entertainment has made a name for themselves of late by successfully using Kickstarter campaigns to breathe new life into classic RPGs with Wasteland 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera released in the last few years, and Bard's Tale 4 is looking to follow suit. They have done an excellent job of blending the old with the new, and fans of the original series, and dungeon crawlers in general, should be happy with the direction they have taken the genre. There are still some bugs to squash before the game's full release, but the dev team is actively hunting them down and destroying them as they optimize the code for release. I have spent several hours in the game and still haven't experienced everything the beta has to offer, but I have seen enough to know that I will once again be spending many late nights saving the town of Skara Brae from the evil that has once again landed at its doorstep. At least this time I don't have to complete my homework first.
Note: For anyone interested in everything Bard's Tale, I suggest you check out Bard's Tale Online. It's a great one-stop site that covers everything from the original series all the way up to The Bard's tale 4 and other current projects.