It begins with a hanging. The dominant Fatherite priesthood has rounded up heretics and pagans and put them to the scaffold. Elves, dwarfs, magicians and bards are all fair game to the fanatics. I must find my way through the town of Skara Brae to join up with my friends from the banned Guild. From there, we will delve into the ruins of the old town.
This is the opening scene of The Bard’s Tale 4: Barrows Deep, setting up a tale of persecution, prejudice, warfare and magic that runs through its 30 hours or so of role-playing adventuring. Early backers and pre-order customers of the game will be playing its first few chapters in the days ahead, many having waited three years or more since it was first announced.
Like its three 1980s predecessors, The Bard’s Tale 4 is a faux-medieval fantasy of good versus evil, in which a party of allies traverses enemy-infested dungeons. Backed with more than $1.5 million in Kickstarter funding, it’s a modern-looking game of pretty locations populated by walking, talking nonplayer characters.
I played the opening hour and found it to be an engaging turn-based combat game, with plenty of nonlinear exploration, peppered with puzzles, item collection and characters. It’s being made by InXile Entertainment, which has a good handle on midbudget RPGs, having successfully delivered the likes of Wasteland 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera.
Unlike those isometric-view games, The Bard’s Tale 4 is a first-person adventure. In this regard, it harks back to the much-loved original game, designed by Brian Fargo, who is now the head of InXile.
The Bard’s Tale games feature all manner of potions and spells for the player to use. But they also feature songs, wielded by bards, which have various defensive, offensive and augmentative powers.
When I come up against a set of enemies, I make use of these songs to debuff their most dangerous weapons, while also buffing my allies. Songs are cast by drinking alcoholic beverages, brewed by using a deep crafting system.
So it’s pleasing that InXile has made a major effort to focus on The Bard’s Tale 4 as a rich auditory experience, from character barks to songs. The score was recorded by Scottish musicians, who deliver a more satisfying tonal backdrop than the sometimes perfunctory tinkly-tinkles of many medieval games.
The voice acting was also recorded in Scotland, offering an enormous relief from the phony accents that are so often a disagreeable feature of quasi-European fantasy worlds. Still, the writing cleaves closely to genre roots here, with dialogue feeling more ren-faire than genuine article.
All my characters have their own particular abilities. Along with bards, the classes consist of magicians, warriors and stealthy rogues, which can also be slotted into various human and nonhuman races. There’s no shortage of complexity when it comes to character personalization.
And this tartan tapestry extends throughout the game, which demands more than merely hurling spells at enemies. In combat, an array of gems, spells, buffs and weapons demand attention and calculation, extending their powers according to criteria that I am bound to discover through common sense, trial and error, or long experience with RPGs.
That’s the game on offer here. It’s about observation, tinkering and learning. The strengths and weaknesses offered by various combinations extend from the makeup of my party to the clothes I wear to the items in my inventory. This game is for people who love the essentials of role-playing. There is, of course, a big, fat upgrade tree for each character.
Logic puzzles offer a break from serial combat scenarios, bringing forth the usual shapes, lines and channels, demanding to be aligned. There’s also a good deal of discovery, including plenty of secret areas, moving doors and hidden dungeons. I zipped through my gameplay session, missing lots of item pickups and secrets that might have extended my powers.
The story world is linear, but within unique sections, different narrative arcs can be followed, depending on personal taste and individual risk calculations. Even in the early segments, there are options to drift away from the well-trod main path and take on more challenging battles.
The Bard’s Tale 4 feels like a work of love, celebrating the basic tenets of RPGdom, while providing a pleasing visual and auditory world appropriate to modern gaming. It demands a commitment to detail, and a taste for turn-based combat. But that’s what we all signed up for. I doubt those early access players will be disappointed.
The full game will be released Sept. 18 for Windows PC, with Linux, Mac, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions scheduled to launch “later this year,” according to a news release from InXile Entertainment. You can find out more on the game’s website.
Update: We’ve added information about the release date and platforms for The Bard’s Tale 4: Barrows Deep to this article.