The Bard's Tale IV
Veteran PC gamers may remember skirting the streets of Skara Brae years ago, and the Bard’s Tale IV takes us back to those times of guilds, monsters, and adventurers. This title is absolutely a love letter to the RPGs of yesteryear, and a decent option for those looking for more modern titles faithful to that style. However, along with a thirst for battle, you need to have a hearty appetite for exploration and mind-numbing puzzles to appreciate this journey.
Combat shines in The Bard’s Tale IV, with position-based encounters that present new opportunities and combos. Your team has a pool of opportunity points to use each turn, with free spellcasting on top if you have the mana. Considering your positioning and ability use each turn is great, giving battles high stakes as you interrupt enemy spellcasters or move out of the way of massive axe blows. Fights allow plenty of freedom in terms of difficulty; you can take on fights far above your level and the victories and the rewards are satisfying. Between grid positioning, channeling, and various ways to make the most of each resource, combat is a joy and handled with finesse.
The systems behind combat are less compelling. Each character can only bring a handful of abilities into battle, and selecting your loadout is not interesting because your options are limited if you want a successful crew. Though you can technically experiment with group composition, you need to ensure you have a healthy mix of interrupts, damage, and resource generation. You don’t have the flexibility to take more more than the necessities, like a classic fighter/caster mix with a hefty frontline and magical barrage backline.
This streamlining feels needlessly restrictive, and it trickles down into character development. Skill trees are tiered, so your character needs to put many skill points into lesser skills to unlock higher tiers, which keeps them from becoming too powerful too early. While this constraint may protect players from irreparably screwing up characters, it feels more like linear progression than meaningful choice.
Your party makes its way through Skara Brae and to beautiful worlds beyond. Loot is everywhere and a satisfying crafting system allows you to create everything you need to keep going, from grappling hooks to steak. Your signature tool, however, is a selection of bardic songs used to uncover secrets and shortcuts. The list promises hammers to knock down walls, fanfare to illuminate hidden treasures, and melodic vocals revealing enemies. That sounds interesting, but in practice, you can just sing every song when you're faced with an impasse to see what works, rendering the variety of different tunes worthless.
You absolutely need a high tolerance for puzzles to enjoy The Bard’s Tale IV, which throws an absurd number of brain-twisters at the player, ranging from easy-to-solve dwarven gear doors to esoteric runic combinations. Some mandatory puzzles stymie progression and feel incredibly overbearing, especially in areas that present puzzle after puzzle after puzzle. I yearned for even a minor goblin to massacre after rooms of blocks, spikes, runes, and traps. These sections are frustrating and take much of the energy out of the excellent combat system by replacing it with tedious fiddling. Purists may love solving riddles spewed forth from disembodied wall-mouths, but the frequency in some areas is simply befuddling and detracting. Even though the game comes with a guide featuring all major solutions, looking up answers doesn’t make the puzzle gauntlet satisfying or fun.
The Bard’s Tale IV pays dutiful homage to its roots and offers an accessible way to experience the joy of the old-school RPG, but the enjoyable complexity has been sacrificed. Long puzzle mazes detract from the inspired combat system, and occasional crashes after a big battle can be discouraging. That said, if you’re looking for that vintage style with some enchanting new-age accoutrements, the endearing melodies of the Bard’s Tale IV won’t lead you astray.