The Bard's Tale IV
After a 30 year hiatus, a new Bard's Tale game is finally ready to grace the RPG world with its self-deprecating sense of humor and a new approach to combat that channels the turn-based strategy of digital card games.
Taking place 100 years after the events of the 1988 release Bard's Tale III: Thief of Fate, the fourth installment in the series wisely modernizes its approach to make it a natural jumping off point for the generations who didn't have to make boot discs to play the original games on DOS. The game preserves the series basics like dungeon crawling, party management, turn-based combat, puzzle solving, and exploration, but its modernized combat feels more aligned with Hearthstone and Elder Scrolls Legends than any other RPG game.
I got to go hands-on with a segment of the game about a quarter of the way through the 25-30 hour game. My party is on a quest to destroy a wraith that has dethroned the king and restore rule to the land.
While in exploration mode, you see the world through a first-person view and can freely move about to interact with the environment and characters around you. I approach a gate that requires us to solve a simple gear puzzle to move beyond the door. As I move into the next room, I stumble upon a circle of mages performing an arcane ritual on a man suspended in the air above them. Before I tap these guys on the back and initiate a fight, I click the right analog stick to check out my party. I've got a fighter named Dogleash, who can taunt to draw enemies forward on the battle grid or heal his fellow fighters with a potion; a magic practitioner who can conjure up spell points for a turn to unleash a massive attack; and a bard, an all-around fighter who can add force multipliers by drinking various magic elixirs with unique properties. If bards stack too many drinks they can eventually pass out and miss a turn, so you need to watch their intake.
The robed ritual participants eventually notice me and the action transitions into the battle grid. Turns are based on the opportunity rating for your party. At this point in the game, the party has four opportunity points to spend for each round, though this number will grow over time as they become more powerful and battles become more complicated. Character position is key on this grid system – those lined up in the frontlines are more vulnerable to attack, while those in the back will have to swap places with others if they want to land a critical melee blow. Over the course of battle, you may need to reposition characters horizontally as well to maximize your attacks.
Battles unfold like a DCG puzzle; trying to maximize your offensive opportunities, discover party synergies, and move across the battle grid without opening your more vulnerable glass cannons to attack. After I vanquish the baddies we save the hapless bloke being subjected to the ritual. Arthur, who has a dagger lodged in his eye, quips, "Can you believe this? The idiots didn't even kill me properly." We pull the dagger out of his face, putting him out of his misery, and inspect the weapon.
Similar to some of the devices you manipulate in games like The Room, these puzzle weapons offer some small challenges for unlocking their true potential. You can rotate and inspect the weapon, then properly align the markings. I properly align the Elvin script, which gives me a riddle to solve. If I chose the answer incorrectly the weapon will be cursed. I guess right and am rewarded with a boon; it's now an acidic weapon that can remove armor from enemies.
All of the abilities your characters have during battle come from the weapons you equip, giving the inventory a sort of deck-building quality. Making sure you find complementary weapons and armor for your party members can spell the difference between unlocking your true potential or failing the task at hand.
After equipping my new acid blade I venture forth into the temple. Before heading up the stairs in front of me I walk around the perimeter and spot a strange-looking stone wall. As you explore the world, you find songs of exploration that can help you maximize your experience in any given dungeon. You can raise the dead and interrogate them for clues, banish illusions to find magic loot, or you can do it the old-fashioned way and destroy weak stone structures with a magical hammer. We find one such vulnerable wall and smash it to cinders. I see a few enemies up ahead (there are no randomized battles – you always know what's coming and can try to avoid them if you want) but before engaging, I go into my inventory to eat some food. Rather than force you to heal your entire party one at a time, ingesting a meal automatically heals everyone in the party.
The next battle requires me to rend armor and do mental damage to vanquish the new enemies, revealing another level of strategy you need to be cognizant of when fighting harder enemies. One of the baddies starts conjuring a spell that I know will do massive damage if he makes it to the next round, so I concentrate my attacks on him to remove the threat from the equation.
I came away from Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep intrigued by its unique mixture of lane-based combat and exploration. The user interface is a little rough around the edges and could use a revision to make the movement options more legible, but the shortcomings I experienced hardly spell doom for a game that's still in the alpha phase of development.
The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep is scheduled to release on PC later this year. Inxile Entertainment says it's still looking into consoles but doesn't have anything to announce at this time.