Review-in-Progress: The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep

Pull up a chair and hear the tale…

I don’t have any experience with the Bard’s Tale games, yet I found myself excited when I heard that a fourth title was Kickstarted. I think it’s gotten to the point where anything Brian Fargo gets behind has me anticipating greatness.

I do have a fondness for bards, though. Whenever it’s an option in an RPG, you bet I’m picking up the instrument and giving it a go. I just always found them so cool — using the power of music to help others? What’s not to love?

The Bard’s Tale IV (Windows)
Developer: inXile Entertainment
Publisher: inXile Entertainment
Release Date: September 18, 2018
MSRP: $34.99

Despite this being “The Bard’s Tale,” players actually have the freedom to create whichever character class they would like when beginning the game. Well, actually, you start as a female bard (who seems to be fully voiced?) but then are given the option to do whatever the hell you want after a brief introduction section. Given that I love bards, I stuck with that class but still created my own character just to stick it to the man.

The first thing I noticed about The Bard’s Tale IV is just how piss poor the visuals look. This is a game built on Unreal Engine 4 and hoo boy is it easy to tell. This isn’t a slight against the engine itself; there are some stellar-looking games out there using UE4. But games that are made in Unreal 4 that didn’t manage to avoid the ugly stick all have the same look and style to them.

Character models look amateur, and so do the animations. Character animation loops will often jerk back to their starting spot as I sigh and rest my head in my hands. At times things seem to have a certain stylized look to them, only to have the player turn around and be face-to-face with a butt-ugly NPC that has some serious clipping issues. As much effort as the lore and dialogue put forth to suck the player in, the visuals quickly remind everyone that they have better things to be doing.

As if it weren’t bad enough to be staring at bland visuals, the PC performance is also sub-par. Framerate dips and stuttering are present immediately, which makes little to no sense given the aforementioned lack of quality visuals. I tried playing around with the settings but saw little to no difference. Plus, why the hell am I turning down the graphics on a game that looks the way The Bard’s Tale IV does?!

Okay, so what? Plenty of games don’t look all that great and are still awesome experiences. Gameplay in The Bard’s Tale is an interesting mix of first-person exploration and turn-based combat. The former is filled with small puzzles and secrets (some of which I have no idea how to even approach) and the latter focuses on using limited resources wisely and not getting too drunk.

I feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface of the puzzle aspects, and the ones I have come across certainly have me intrigued. The combat is solid, as players will balance two different resources to best optimize their damage output and mitigation.

The combat takes place on a grid. The characters controlled by the player are represented by their portraits while the enemies are in their full 3D “glory.” Bards can drink alcohol to be granted Spell Points, which lets them do bard-y stuff like sing songs for buffs. Magic users can generate Spell Points in various, non-alcoholic ways to do magic-y stuff like light everyone on fire. Everyone shares “Opportunity,” and this resource is required for most other attacks and abilities.

It feels great to properly utilize everything in a turn and be confident that everything went as planned. Often times I’d find myself remembering that the two resources (Spell Points and Opportunity) are separate and look for cunning ways to utilize both effectively. The animations in combat can lag behind, however. I’ll often plan out my entire turn and then go ahead and push all the appropriate skill icons, but the turn still takes forever to complete because all of the animations are systematically playing through. Once or twice I didn’t think the battle was over yet, when in fact it was.

It may go without saying, but holy cow I love every piece of music that comes out of my speakers while playing The Bard’s Tale IV. It would be a complete failure if a game with this title didn’t have stellar music, but even still, I find myself just stopping to listen to some of the ambient music. The Gaelic-themed score is breathtaking — I know for a fact I’ll be seeking out the soundtrack as quickly as I can.

I don’t have any nostalgia for the series, but this has been a rough entry point so far. The plot, dialogue, combat, and mysterious puzzles keep me invested, but it feels like wading through a swamp just getting past the bleak visuals and performance. Hopefully some of the later areas have more care and attention paid to them.

[This review in progress is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]

Patrick Hancock
During the day, he teaches high school kids about history. At night he kicks their butts in competitive games like Rocket League, Dota 2, Overwatch, and Counter-Strike. Disclosure: I've personally backed Double Fine Adventure, Wasteland 2, Dead State, SPORTSFRIENDS, Torment: Tides of Numera, STRAFE, and The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls. I have previously written for and continue to support them whenever possible (like HumbleBundle).