25th Sep2018

‘The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep’ Review (PC)

by Phil Wheat

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Although aware of the legacy of the previous The Bard’s Tale games which span over thirty years, the only game that I’ve played in the series prior to this was the 2004 title featuring Cary ‘The Princess Bride’ Elwes and didn’t find it particularly memorable. It’s unfortunate therefore that this new, ‘proper’ sequel (funded via Kickstarter) and also developed by InXile Entertainment again feels like a missed opportunity, albeit for different reasons.

The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep is presented from a first-person perspective and is set once more in Skara Brae, a land in which the old ways (Dwarves, Adventurers and Trows – goblin-like creatures) are being swept away under the ever-burgeoning fanatical rule of The Fatherites, who pursue and envisage an all-human future for the world. After choosing your character type (Bard, Fighter, Rogue or Wizard, I chose Bard because I’m a musician myself and that way seemed to lead to a lot of drinking, good)and gender, you are led to an underground adventurer’s guild where you meet Rabbie, who essentially acts as the sage and guide for the early stages of the game.

I had problems pretty much straight from the off with the appearance of the game. The visuals never seemed to be ‘right’ no matter how much I fiddled with the options, always seeming blurry and indistinct with the text remaining too small to comfortably read. For a while I honestly thought there was something wrong with my eyes focusing due to my contact lenses. Beyond this, the graphics themselves are quite bland with repetitive, unmemorable landscapes marking your way around the game world. Character models are OK when in combat (more on that later) but when engaged in conversation seem dead-eyed and wooden, not an issue for me personally and to be expected at the game’s budget but I felt it was worth mentioning, nonetheless.

The sound design is also a mixed bag. The sound-track rollicks along with flutes, whistles, bagpipes, lutes and mandolins with a heavy focus on song in spell-casting and when using abilities during exploration to uncover hidden treasures and knock down walls, etc. (forget the power of rock, this is the power of medieval folk!) and the in-game dialogue is well-voiced and written, rich with expansive lore and delivered with thick Scottish accents, lending authenticity to the harsh, ravaged lands and general ambience but the combat dialogue from enemies is just mind-numbing and repetitive. It also doesn’t help that pretty much every enemy in the game spouts inanities during battles, every single one of them just comes across as whiny and annoying.

The turn-based combat in the game is functional but nothing exceptional, your characters, along with which ever group of enemies you are involved in a fracas with at the time occupy spaces on a grid and your opportunities (action points) and spell points dictate what you can do on your turn. There is a deep RPG skill system in place here which did make me take care in what I was unlocking and how I wanted each character to progress, along with a crafting system that allows for lots of cooking, weapon-building and potion-swilling. Of course, the aforementioned issues with text size made these aspects a chore as I strained to read the tiny font next to each item. I did like how each group of enemies is colour-coded to show difficulty, green meant that the fight should be a walk-over, yellow lets you know it’ll be a tough one and finally, red tells you to not bother unless you want a sound kicking in the horse and cart park behind Ye Olde John Menzies.

As I made my way through the game, I was enjoying myself but that enjoyment was hampered by the various technical issues and lengthy loading times (there was a few moments when I genuinely though that the game had crashed). Menus would take a few seconds to respond to key presses, audio would crackle and drop in and out (including conversations, on rare occasions) and weirdly, the keyboard and mouse would sometimes lock for a second (I thought it may be the batteries but I tried other games and the issues weren’t replicated). Along with the seemingly loose optimisation when it comes to the visual aspect of the game, it adds up to feel like a game that’s a few patches away from feeling smooth and truly playable. That said, even if the game ran like a dream, the relatively linear paths in the game, standard plot and basic combat may fall in the middle of two camps, not adding enough for hard-core fans (and therefore probably backers of the Kickstarter campaign) whilst also feeling too generic for newcomers. For me, I tried to enjoy my time with game and whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the rich, Scottish voice acting, the lore of Skara Brae and the separation of exploration and battle tactics, the technical issues weighed heavy on my bard, like a mandolin case filled with bricks.

If you like first-person adventure games, after a few patches, The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep could be a fun, music-filled trip but it probably won’t be making any year-end best-of lists in its current form.

P.S. The introduction screen, which replicates the original games artwork, showing live actors sat around a bard as he regales them with updates of your tale so far is cringe-worthy with the vast array of fake beards, plastic ears and seemingly cardboard props. It sticks out like a sore thumb when compared to the rest of the games loading sequences which are much more in-tune with the in-game graphics, I winced every time I saw it.

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