Questing for Lutes.

Title: The Bards Tale 4: Barrows Deep  
Platform: PC (Reviewed)
Developer: inXile Entertainment
Publisher: inXile Entertainment
Price: £30/$25
Release date: Out now
TL;DR: Turn-based RPG set in the Bards Tale Universe.
Family Focus?: Click here for more information

It’s been a while since I’ve played a deep fantasy RPG featuring turn-based combat, so it’s with a fair bit of excitement that I delve into the world of the Bards Tale, to hopefully lose myself in its magic and mystery. I’m afraid I’ve never played any of the previous incarnations, although I do remember it being advertised for the Commodore Amiga in the early 90s. Originally a dungeon crawler, what has Bards Tale IV got in store for us?

From the offset you can tell that this game has been designed with a lot of thought and enthusiasm for the immersion it wants to give its players; when you start the game, the music gently plays and small animated scenes show a bard retelling his tales to a small audience gathered around a warm hearth, mesmerised by the stories. The music is fantastic and has a very Gaelic vibe, with lots of harps and drums, and choral versus that immediately let the imagination wander back to simpler times.

Starting the game proper, you are given some background about dark beings invading the world through a rift and how humans are corrupted by them; it takes the combined might of humans and the old races, Elves, Dwarfs, and Trow, to force the evildoers back into their prison.

It’s a grim start, with our first view of the world has us witnessing a hanging. But this event starts to give us an early idea of who the big bad might be. The hangman praises Henrod as the poor victims dangle by their necks; could this be the villain of our tale?

Welcome to Skara Brae, a coastal village where all the locals have a Scottish accent and wear tartan. Rabbie, the leader of the Adventurer’s Guild, beckons you over for a wee chat; it’s time for a little history and the first very user-friendly tutorial on how to add new members to your party. Now that’s done it’s off to the confines of the Adventurer’s Guild, to discuss why you are the hero that Rabbie has been dreaming about.

It’s at this point that you can choose to keep the already created character of “Melody,” or create and configure your own hero, I, of course, went for the latter, so that I could look at the classes and races on offer. There are four different human factions: Bead, Einarr, Fichti, and Outlander; with Dwarfs, Elf, and, Trow as the other racial choices. Each of these seven races can be one of the four class archetypes, with the familiar choice of certain traits depending on race. The four combat classes are Bard, Rogue, Practitioner (Mage), and Fighter.

The game world and environment were an unexpected level of quality; I was truly impressed with the graphical fidelity of the rendered surroundings. The town of Skara Brae looked awesome, and it only got better when we started adventuring underground in the collapsed town. NPCs and the characters you interact with are well animated and all fully voiced with exemplary voice acting, although if you’re not a fan of the Scottish accent, then you’re in trouble.

Once we leave the relative safety of the guild hall, you are on course to begin your quest. Following map markers, you are guided to each stage of a quest, picking up new team members and side quests, as well as solving small puzzles and unlocking shortcuts along the journey with your magical songs. Enemies have markers on them which show their difficulty level, so it’s best to avoid those that are way above your level and find an alternate route on some occasions.

New levels are earned when you cap experience from combat engagements; these reward skill points which can be spent on offensive or defensive skills, and armour talents for each party members’ skill trees. Your combat party is made up of melee and magic fighters, with the choice of setup left to you. I preferred to set up one of the fighters as a tank, to guard my squishy back-row. The combat arena is a 4×4 grid, with each side taking up a 2×4 part of that grid to do battle in.

There is nothing new on how the combat works; anyone that has played a turn-based combat game before will feel quite at home with the combat in Bards Tale; you can even charge your enemies and take them by surprise with a “first strike,” like many other games in the genre. It’s not new, but it is tried and trusted and it works well here; there is enough variety and need for tactical awareness to keep it interesting.

Overall, I found The Bards Tale IV: Barrows Deep to be a much more polished experience than I was expecting. I was happy with the combat and the environment in which the story took place, and the superb voice acting, with my only gripes being the storyline was drawn-out a little too much over many quests which took a little “oomph,” out of the storytelling – oh, and the lack of a jump button. Although it wasn’t essential to the game, it really frustrated me, and I had to stop myself multiple times from hammering the space bar when I couldn’t navigate over a tiny obstacle in my path.

The Good

  • Great atmosphere and music
  • Crisp graphics
  • Fully voice acted NPCs

The Bad

  • No jump button

Family Focus

ESRB: No Rating as of this review. PEGI: No Rating as of this review.

Although there are no ratings for this game yet, Bards Tale IV does contain violence and some storylines that are unsuitable for younger children.

Disclaimer: This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.