inXile Entertainment’s The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep is an oddity in a surprisingly good way. It singlehandedly revives a CRPG series from the 1980’s barely batting an eye or acting like a ton of time has passed. Obviously, advancements in technology help give the game a modern look and feel, but at its core it’s still the RPG series nearly twice my age that so many people have come to love in the years since its initial release.
That being said, it still has some of the clunkiness associated with the genre with complex walkthrough-reliant systems and quests that aren’t friendly to newcomers to either the genre or the series. Its presentation also shows its lower, crowdfunded budget. If those things don’t bother you though, The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep is one of the truest to form and exciting CRPGs to come out in a long time.
While 30 years have passed since we’ve last seen The Bard’s Tale, the destruction of Skara Brae that took place in The Bard’s Tale III: Thief of Fate is 100 years removed and mostly forgotten by the start of Barrows Deep. In that time though, the Cult of the Sword Father (referred to in-game mainly as the Fatherites) has risen to power and is abusing it, outlawing the heroic Adventurer’s Guild that players are a part of.
At the start of the game, the Guild is ambushed, leaving the player on the run in the depths of the once great Skara Brae. From there, players’ quest to fight back against the Fatherites and face another great evil kicks off. While the story is nothing insanely new or unexpected, The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep excels in its world-building, atmosphere, and voice acting.
Every part of Skara Brae players is fleshed out with impressive buildings, peoples, and more that feel lived in and ripe for players to take in. There’s a ton of lore and history to learn to get a great understanding of things, but this can also serve as a double-edged sword. While h longtime fans of the series shouldn’t have a problem understanding what’s going on, newcomers will probably be a bit lost without spending a decent chunk of time reading into the lore.
While this is part of the charm of these hardcore CRPGs, The Bard’s Tale IV could’ve done a somewhat better job explaining things to players early-on. Considering it has been 30 years since the last canon game in the series, a majority of new players will likely be newcomers that could be turned off if they are bit confused and not invested in the plot and world of the game. That’d be a shame too because there’s quite a bit else to like in The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep.
On the presentation side of things, sound design is great. Outside of the aforementioned quality voice acting, the soundtrack of the game is top notch. Music is infused into several of the game’s characters and gameplay, so you can tell the developers put a lot of time into polishing this part of The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep’s presentation. That being said, the visuals don’t always fare as well.
While the world design and environments look good for the most part, load times are a bit too long, and it can sometimes be a bit disorienting to find just where players can go. Most human characters also have an uncanny valley look to them that clearly shows where the game’s more limited budget probably began to strain itself. Enemies and other non-humanoid characters suffer less from this, and it’s an issue that can be looked over for those who are here for the gameplay, which will satisfy RPG fans.
Gameplay is split into two main parts: world exploration and puzzle solving as well as strategic turn-based combat. While simple level and push block puzzles do exist within The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep, the game did manage to impress me with a decent number of original puzzles large and small that kept me thinking for a bit but still felt just manageable enough to solve without a guide.
As for the environment, players have a variety of skill they can use at various points to do things like open new paths and find secrets. I mentioned before that it can be a bit tough sometimes to gain back one’s barrings and know precisely where you can and cannot or should and shouldn’t go without a guide, but these abilities do help alleviate this problem.
All enemies can be seen walking around the world, and players have the opportunity to ambush them for an extra turn, but can be ambushed from behind as well. While gameplay can still be reasonably similar to the series’ 30-year-old roots at some points, additions like this do show that the developers have taken more modern and useful mechanics like this into consideration, as this is something that wouldn’t have been in The Bard’s Tale IV if it was made all the way back in the 1980’s.
Once you get into a battle, things play out in a grid-based format that rewards the right combination of planning, positioning, and special ability usage. There are several classes to choose from as well. You have the standard Fighter, Mage (called Practitioner here), and Rogue classes, as well as the standout Bard class, which is unique in its functionality. It emphasizes playing music and drinking, two things you don’t usually think about in regards to turn-based combat, to buff one’s team or debuff the opponents.
That being said, there’s a lot of experimentation to be had within each classes due to the special buffs characters can have because of their race, or what you specific skills you decide to apply to and upgrade characters with. For example, a simple fighter can be paired with the Einarr race and damage heavy attacks and skills to become the team’s powerhouse, while another one can serve as a tank with great fortitude against physical and mental attacks if you decide to go that route when assigning skill points after each level up.
Class and party builds are, of course, pivotal in every battle. Each side of the battle consists of eight spaced grid, with both sides being able to maneuver characters around at the cost of limited opportunity gems (which determine how many moves one can make), and spell points. While this setup may initially seem simple, it proves to be very dynamic and expertly crafted once you learn how to take advantage of each enemy and party member’s special abilities and position into account for maximized effectiveness.
For a strategy game fan like myself, this battle system remained consistently engaging and never got frustrating, and was the highlight of the entire The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep experience. It is a lot to take in at first, especially for those not inherently familiar with turn-based combat or strategy games, and is yet again another thing that cements the game as a more niche, hardcore RPG.
The developers did release a free, in-depth walkthrough guide for everyone playing on launch day, which was very helpful and kind of them, but also made me question some of the design if it was deemed such as necessity. I’m not asking for hand-holding, and admittedly I didn’t have too much trouble getting through most of the game without the guide, but I can’t deny that there are some parts of the game that aren’t demonstrated clearly enough for the less-familiar without those additional materials.
It’s also isn’t the most technically sound game either outside of the aforementioned lackluster character models and long load times. While improvements have been made since launch, there are still a decent number of glitches that are noticeable and consistent enough to be an annoyance. It’s great to see more hardcore RPGs like The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep and Kingdom Come: Deliverance make a resurgence this year, but the games’ crowdfunded budgets do seem to ultimately have led to less polished experiences.
The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep is definitely for a specific crowd of hardcore RPG and series fans, and for those, it caters wonderfully. It features a fascinating world and one of my favorite turn-based combat systems in recent memory. That being said, it may not be as appealing to a mass audience due to its complicated nature and glitches. For a franchise that hasn’t been seen in 30 years, that may not have been the wisest decision. However, I do hope The Bard’s Tale series sticks around because the core experience is great, making the game one of the most interesting RPGs I’ve played in 2018.