The old-school charm of The Bard’s Tale 4 can’t mask its performance issues and annoying design decisions.
In this world of peppy game studios bringing back old-school properties or taking them in new directions – Larian Studios with Divinity and Harebrained Schemes with BattleTech – inXile Entertainment has always been an odd one for me. The studio struck gold with Wasteland 2, the successor to the cult classic Wasteland, which properly channeled the appeal of post-apocalyptic tactical turn-based combat of old. While I enjoyed Torment: Tides of Numenera, itself a sequel to Planescape: Torment, many took umbrage with the overall story-telling and quality control. Now we have The Bard’s Tale 4: Barrows Deep, a true-blue follow-up to The Bard’s Tale 3 but taking place a good hundred years later.
"If there’s one thing The Bard’s Tale 4 is capable of, it’s inspiring the feeling of an epic story unfolding."
So on the surface, it’s telling a brand new story in an established and beloved universe, with thematic similarities and the same classic role-playing. Meanwhile, it’s all presented in contemporary graphical fidelity with today’s technology providing other benefits like improved animations and character design, a larger scale, more in-depth combat and full voice acting. However, regardless of which side of the fence you sit on – whether it’s the jaded old-school fan who thought the classics were better or the unfamiliar RPG aficionado – The Bard’s Tale 4 as a whole fails to really build upon its few strengths.
You’re the hero, starting in Skara Brae as fanatics roam about hunting Adventurers and other non-human folk like Elves, Dwarves and so on. Encountering Rabbie, a fellow Bard, you venture into the depths of Skara Brae Below to find out what’s going on. Of course, with the set-up of two immense evil deities called the Famhair seemingly waiting beyond the veil to claw their way back to dominance, there’s clearly more afoot than just a few zealots.
If there’s one thing The Bard’s Tale 4 is capable of, it’s inspiring the feeling of an epic story unfolding. Though the pre-menu cinematic helps set up the world and current day setting, the main menu features a literal bard keeping his rapt audience up to date with your journey. It may come across as slightly odd but it’s a neat, unorthodox and somewhat fitting way to segue-way into your saved state.
To be honest, even when entering Skara Brae, the mood and overall aesthetic feel delightfully authentic and down-to-earth. Characters quip about with modestly amusing dialogue when they’re not gravely whispering about the wrongdoings of the zealots. Oddities roam about entertaining you about cabbages and the soup that only the “worthy” may taste. Even the loading screen notes are delightfully written. “Don’t be afraid to hire mercenaries. Sure, they smell bad but they can fill critical gaps in your party,” says the game irreverently. The Celtic and Scottish dialects, the various songs that passers-by will sing and even the excellent vocal tracks during battles help ease you into an apparently epic odyssey.
"Once you descend into Skara Brae Below, cracks truly start to appear. If the initial escape didn’t alarm you enough, the game’s graphics are severely wanting."
Though the characters of The Bard’s Tale 4 are well-voiced, they’re nothing exceptional. It’s not that they suffer from terrible writing or less-than-stellar designs. As a whole, they’re fine but I didn’t find myself too horribly invested in Rabbie saying I’m a hero that will eventually abandon him. Dalgiesh’s struggles to prove his innocence or Wringneck’s overall roguish demeanour didn’t really hook me either. The Green Lady’s introduction offered promise but that was mostly down to my general interest in Elven culture and her role as a Practitioner than in her ordeal.
Maybe the characters could have used more interesting lines or had better chemistry with each other. Whatever the case may be, they’re serviceable and little else. That goes for the various NPCs dotting the world, each with their own motivations and personalities that did a decent job of making settings feel lived in. As it stands, the world comes as barely having more personality than its denizens.
Once you descend into Skara Brae Below, cracks truly start to appear. If the initial escape didn’t alarm you enough, the game’s graphics are severely wanting. For all the attention to detail, the graphical details themselves seem shabby. Character models are plain with facial animations ranging from average to awkward. I’m not usually one to hound on a game’s graphics but the performance in The Bard’s Tale 4 is pretty worrying as well.
Stutters when turning corners or advancing forward, stutters during battles – it’s one thing if the game is poorly optimized. But when it looks as underwhelming as this, even at High settings when my system meets or surpasses most requirements? It feels jarring and even less acceptable. Even worse is the fact that dialing down the graphics doesn’t help – aside from making the game look worse – and this is after two big post-launch patches.
"Once again, this is all serviceable but it also feels surprisingly simplistic. Raising core stats is mostly reliant on loot acquired, which itself is pretty limiting."
The Bard’s Tale 4 starts you with a pre-created character named Melody but upon reaching the Adventurer’s Guild underground, you can create your own custom Fighter, Bard, Practitioner and Rogue. Customizing one’s race (which confers different bonuses), voice, temperament and portrait is all very much par for the genre’s course. However, it lacks the more nuanced approach that games like Divinity: Original Sin 2 or Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire take. It’s by no means terrible but it’s only the beginning of things that could have been handled much better.
Stats-wise, you’re given skill points to assign to different trees. Each class has a different set of trees so the Bard has Music, Attack, Defense and Brewing. The Practitioner is your magic user and has Spellcraft, Defense, Meditation, Bladecasting, Crafting and so on. Each level-up brings a new skill point which can be invested almost anywhere across these trees. You could also place points into improving core stats like Strength, Constitution, Intelligence and so on.
Once again, this is all serviceable but it also feels surprisingly simplistic. Raising core stats is mostly reliant on loot acquired, which itself is pretty limiting. I can handle items offering a few small boosts here and there but in The Bard’s Tale 4, getting better gear feels like the only way to really significantly upgrade your stats especially when such small bonuses are offered early on.
As you unlock more skills, you hit an appraisal goal. It’s time to head to the review board, which deems you worthy of being stronger and thus opens up some more skill branches. Perhaps this is a more organic way to gate progression but it doesn’t really make that much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. Then again, hitting that appraisal goal does incentivize you to take skills you might not think of using, so there is that.
"Though the use of four skills with some passives and only a handful of initiative points for the whole group sounds limiting, it’s actually handled pretty well."
As a dungeon crawler, the core gameplay revolves around exploring different areas, solving puzzles, taking up side quests – of which there are many – and battling nefarious soldiers, beasts and cultists. This is where The Bard’s Tale 4 is supposed to shine and for the most part, its combat can be pretty involving. Each character can equip four different skills from their Mastery Book. They also have a set number of initiative points (three from the game’s beginning with more earned later) that dictate their actions.
Initiative points are shared among the entire party and it’s possible to move forwards or backwards when facing enemies, which determines the kinds of attacks and skills you can use. Some skill can time to channel but deal significantly greater damage. The usual modifiers to critical hits, spell damage, etc. also apply and can be acquired as passives from the skill tree. Other passives can also be equipped from different pieces of gear.
Though the use of four skills with some passives and only a handful of initiative points for the whole group sounds limiting, it’s actually handled pretty well. An example of a typical battle could be your Fighter drawing aggro and also increasing his armour to negate most attacks. Your Bard can then chug some ale, gain magic points and provide temporary health to an ally.
Meanwhile, your Practitioner can be stationed behind the Fighter, using one initiative point to build up her Spell Points before unleashing them as column-long attacks that damage multiple enemies at once in the next turn. Your Rogue can also slink about, hiding in the shadows and striking enemies from afar with his bow. Throw in different passives and strategies and there’s a good amount of depth to be had in fights. Enemy variety isn’t too extreme but they make for interesting scraps all the same.
"The problem is that neither of these two mechanics are implemented in exceptionally clever ways. In fact, the puzzles themselves are very straightforward."
The problem is that not every fight can be approached the same way. Enemies have different Power ratings – Green is weaker than your group, Orange is nearly as strong and Red is outright dangerous. So when confronted with overwhelming foes, you can sneak around them – which is mandatory in some sequences – or, in the case of certain quests, come back later when you’re stronger. However, the indicators and your own party providing hints aren’t one hundred percent reliable. A group with Orange outlines and multiple waves may seem like an even fight but it goes more swimmingly than you’d think.
However, face off against Green-level foes, being assured that they’re pushovers and you’ll soundly eat defeat. It’s just one of those things that needlessly complicates the exploration and combat. If enemies are indeed tougher, either balance the quests doled out at certain points or let them outright annihilate me. At least then I have some kind of baseline for how much stronger I need to get. As it is, second-guessing conflicts because I can’t trust the indicators is annoying.
Though the aesthetics of each area are decent, they’re fairly limited in terms of their actual design. Yes, I know it’s a dungeon crawler and to the game’s credit, it does mix up the exploration a bit. Different puzzles can obstruct the way forward and some even require special songs to cross. The problem is that neither of these two mechanics are implemented in exceptionally clever ways. In fact, the puzzles themselves are very straightforward. At times, especially when it comes to manipulating gears to open doors, they can be very tedious. I did appreciate the Elven Puzzle weapons and how you had to solve different components to unlock their full potential. That was neat even though again, the puzzles aren’t particularly crazy to solve in their own right.
"Even without its questionable gameplay decisions, many aspects of The Bard’s Tale 4 like the characterization, puzzles and environments rank as decent, maybe even slightly above average overall if you’re kind."
Another disappointing aspect of the game is how stingy it can sometimes be with its loot. The exploration, puzzle solving and combat should all work in unison to reward you. While there were times that I obtained a decent weapon from completing a side quest, other times exploring and completing a section with puzzles offered next to nothing. It probably wouldn’t have bothered me all that much if the core stats weren’t so dependent on how good your gear and weapons are.
Unlike Torment: Tides of Numenera, the dislike for The Bard’s Tale 4 isn’t a complete mystery. It has an old-timey feel to it, one that enraptures you with its music and aesthetic as you adamantly learn the ins and outs of combat, uncovering this massive world in the process. However, it’s also a contemporary mess, filled with strange progression and balancing decisions, bugs (like a character’s dialogue continuing to play even as I get to the next cutscene), low quality graphics and shambling performance.
Even without its questionable gameplay decisions, many aspects of The Bard’s Tale 4 like the characterization, puzzles and environments rank as decent, maybe even slightly above average overall if you’re kind. It’s not the worst follow-up to a beloved old-school franchise I’ve ever seen – there’s certainly a fair bit of charm to be had. However, inXile needs to put in some serious work if the execution behind The Bard’s Tale 4 is ever going to live up to the lofty scale of its ideas.
This game was reviewed on PC.
Some appealing parts of the aesthetic like the Celtic-inspired culture and singing. Once it opens up, combat has a good measure of depth. Voice acting is pretty decent and the overall tone has a kitschy charm about it.
Subpar performance with copious stuttering is one thing but subpar graphics don't really help either. Character customization feels simplistic and limiting. Combat indicators can be annoyingly misleading. Puzzles come off as simplistic, at times tedious. Stingy loot drops. Exploration is pretty ho-hum at best as well.
The Bard's Tale 4 has some positives and a whole lot of potential but it's also dragged down by a number of design and technical issues. Hopefully, a revamp and optimization helps it realize the full extent of its charm.