Ah, it’s inXile, my favourite developers of middling RPGs funded via Kickstarter. What do you have for me this time, inXile? What’s that? You’ve made a new iteration of Bard’s Tale, an RPG series so old that its last installment was released in 1988 and which even I would never have heard of if my flatmate didn’t keep going on about it all the time? Ah, well, given the highly uneven quality of Wasteland 2 and Torment and my complete lack of caring about the source material I think I might pass this time, thanks.
…wait, it’s a first-person dungeon crawler? Tell me more.
First-person dungeon crawlers are a genre I’ve belatedly discovered a lot of affection for despite not really playing any back in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s when they were actually a big thing. There’s something about being transported down to a party’s-eye view of the dungeon that really appeals to me, and modern takes on the concept (I’m mostly thinking Grimrock here) have also effectively leveraged the interactive and tactile possibilities that the first-person perspective affords them. I was a little worried that the brief renaissance heralded by Legend of Grimrock had come to a premature end after Grimrock developers Almost Human got put on pause1, but it turns out Kickstarter had me covered all along; not only have we got Underworld Ascendant slated to come along in November, but The Bard’s Tale IV is flying the flag for this particular subgenre right now.
To my surprise, though, while Bard’s Tale IV is very definitely a dungeon-crawler and is very definitely first-person, it jettisons one of the core aspects of the formula by not being tile-based. Instead you have full FPS-style free movement within the sometimes rather-artificial boundaries of its levels. Your viewpoint is still supposed to represent what a party of up to six characters sees as they wander around towns and dungeons, and the game segues into a turn-based combat segment whenever you blunder into a group of enemies, but otherwise Bard’s Tale IV feels much more conventional in terms of its movement and methods of interacting with the world than either Grimrock or Might & Magic X. I won’t deny I was a little bit disappointed in this; yes, the tile-based nature of those old dungeon-crawlers worked was somewhat down to a necessary abstraction of the mechanics for machines that were nowhere near ready to handle full 3D environments, but it also arose from the translation from the paper maps drawn on graph paper that are the classic driver behind D&D campaigns. I liked that I was playing something so overtly game-y, that felt quite deliberately retro, and which contributed quite significantly to the distinctive atmosphere that Grimrock and Might & Magic X both had in spades.
Still, while I think the decision to abandon tiles does materially diminish Bard’s Tale IV — in places it feels much more like a generic first-person adventure game than it really should do — I appreciate that’s more a matter of personal preference than anything else. As it happened I got over it pretty quickly, because Bard’s Tale nails the two key things it needs to get right in order to be any good whatsoever: exploration and puzzle-solving. Unfortunately the opening hour of the game is both miserable and baffling, as you’re led by the nose along a series of scripted tutorials that teach you game mechanics while setting up the game’s extremely generic world, story and characters with no opportunity to see what the game actually does well. Once you get into the first proper dungeon, however, the reason people seem to have such a soft spot for The Bard’s Tale as a series becomes somewhat clearer: it’s a moderately sprawling affair chock-full of puzzles and secrets, with stone mouths scattered around spouting riddles containing clues on how to progress. Combine this with a copious number of spike traps and spinning blades and you get something that feels rather more like classic kids’ TV show Knightmare than other examples of the genre have managed so far, which is always going to be a significant plus point in my book.
The puzzles throughout the game are, for the most part, admirably well-pitched in terms of difficulty. The most basic ones involve pushing stone blocks around, and if you ever wanted to find out precisely how many ways there are to spin the concept of pushing stone blocks around I recommend picking up Bard’s Tale IV because it comes up with quite a few more than I would have thought possible, ensuring that this simple idea never becomes stale. Bard’s Tale is also very taken with its cog puzzles, which involve sliding cogs along tracks to join up a spinning drive cog with a target cog that’ll open a nearby door. Later on you come across more complicated mechanics such as running over a track of light gems so that you light them all up without backtracking, or ringing a set of bells in a certain order (that will often be dictated by subtle environmental clues), or something that’s basically akin to ensuring electricity flows the right way around a circuit, and these are all moderately tricky without ever becoming frustrating — which is a good level of difficulty for your puzzles to have, I think. I did wind up stumped in one area that was basically nothing but a single giant puzzle where you had to pick out constellation patterns on a control console, and this was slightly annoying because there was nothing to really indicate what the right solution was or that I was progressing towards it; it’s one of those puzzles where you have to guess what was in the designer’s brain first before you make any attempt to solve it.
Still, this is a notable blip in puzzle design that’s otherwise consistently excellent, and easily the equal of the puzzles in Grimrock. Exploration is similarly pleasing; Bard’s Tale 4 takes place in a mixture of overworld, underground and dungeon maps, where you can often find some big surprises by not following the path the game seemingly wants you to follow, and instead taking a moment to examine your surroundings for anything that’s conspicuously out of place. There are several entirely optional dungeons in the game with powerful artifacts awaiting you at the end if you can survive their gauntlet of puzzles, traps and enemies — and if you can figure out how to get into them in the first place, as three of them are locked by puzzles that you’ll only solve by scouring the nearby areas for clues. At set points in the story you’re given special exploration abilities (in the form of magic songs) that can be used to remove obstacles from your path — building a bridge from shattered rock, or removing an overgrowth of giant vines — and these are used to hide optional secret areas and alternate routes through a level. There’s never anything too interesting in these areas, unfortunately, as they’re very easy to miss and the development effort has been spent on things that are more likely to be seen by the majority of players, but I appreciate that they’re there. The fact that they’re largely wasted is more down to the randomly-generated loot system used for most treasure chests; it really takes a lot of the fun out of hunting for secrets when you uncover a new one and all it’s got in it is a treasure chest containing 100 poxy gold coins, but there was enough unique loot scattered around to make exploration more or less worth my time.
In yet another surprising move, Bard’s Tale IV even make a surprisingly good fist of the combat — this was something that I felt Might & Magic X and Grimrock both failed to make interesting, but while the system Bard’s Tale uses ends up being heavily flawed it’s also something that promotes some very engaging tactical decisions for approximately two-thirds of the game’s length. When you’re out exploring and you spot some enemies, the first thing you should do is stop and hover the mouse cursor over them; this will cause a coloured highlight to appear that indicates that group of enemies’ power level relative to your party. If the highlight is green (indicating they’re trivial) or yellow (indicating they’re near equivalent to you) you should then immediately sprint towards them as fast as possible, as initiating combat before they can spot you gives you the first turn. No matter where individual enemies happen to be located when everything kicks off (and they can wander a fair distance away from the main pack) every enemy in the area gets dragged onto a four-by-four grid of tiles. The two rows closest to you are reserved for your party, and the two furthest away are reserved for the enemy; party members cannot move on to enemy rows and enemies can’t move on to party rows, meaning each side is restricted to a very thin two-by-four slice of the battlefield. When your party can accommodate up to six characters and enemies come in groups of eight (and more, in which case they’ll attack in waves), this means the battlefield can get very crowded.
And as you’d expect, when everyone’s packed so closely together it means positioning — both yours and the enemy’s — is key to winning fights. Each of your party members has access to four “Mastery” abilities, plus any additional abilities they’ve picked up on their way through their class’s skill tree or granted by equipment they’re wearing, plus a basic move ability. Masteries are also granted by the skill tree and you can unlock more than four, but while your active Masteries may be chopped and changed at any time outside of combat you can only ever equip four of them. Masteries are split between powerful physical attacks, spells, and utility abilities such as Taunt, and what most of the Masteries have in common is that they all have a certain range and area of effect. Some attacks can only target the two squares immediately in front of that party member. Some attacks can also target the column to the left and right. Most attacks will strike the first thing in their path — so if you have a squishy caster it’s a good idea to put them in the back row and plonk a beefy fighter-type in front of them to soak up the punishment — but there are some spells which have penetration and strike all squares in a column. Because ranges are so limited, and because you only have a certain amount of action points to spend across the whole party before your turn is over (starting at three, and steadily growing as you progress through the story) you really want to maximise the value of your attacks; moving one of your characters into range via the Move ability costs an action point and is very inefficient, when it’s far better to drag the enemies around via the Taunt ability or the Levitate spell, both of which are free actions, and then potentially hit them with one more attack that turn than you might have been able to otherwise. If you have an attack that penetrates, or which affects multiple squares, and the target squares aren’t all occupied with enemies, it’s a good idea to rearrange their formation via these positioning abilities so that you’ll hit as many as possible.
If you’re clever like this you can kill off one or two enemies in your first turn, which is a big deal in terms of reducing their damage output and is why getting to go before they do is so important. There are mechanics in place to prevent these alpha strikes from getting out of hand; nearly every ability has a cooldown or a spell point cost, and you start battles with zero spell points and many abilities on cooldown, so the amount you can achieve on your first turn is limited — however, once you start getting more action points, more party members and more powerful equipment you can often wipe out the enemy force before they even get to lift a finger. Ordinarily I would call this broken, but it takes some work to get your party to that point and sequencing your actions and your manipulation of the enemy position in just the right way to kill all of them before your turn is up is still a pleasingly knotty conundrum. The classes and stats are all simplified, but in a good way — the way stats translate to combat performance is very easy to understand, and the classes (Fighter, Rogue, Caster and — of course — Bard) all have multiple, clearly distinct roles on the battlefield that they excel in. There’s no respec option available for your character builds, which is something I deeply disagree with as a matter of principle; however, the skill trees are simple enough that it is very, very difficult to screw yourself over with a bad build, and while there’s a significant quantity of enemy model recycling going on (where the higher level variant of an enemy looks almost identical to the easy low-level ones you’ve been fighting for the last two hours) the combat difficulty highlights mean that you never blunder into a bad fight, which ensures that the combat in Bard’s Tale IV manages to avoid the pitfalls that claimed Might & Magic X.
So the combat is plenty of fun — a bit broken, sure, but still fun. The real problems with the combat in Bard’s Tale IV stem not from the combat itself, but from the way it is used. For the first two-thirds of the game the content is balanced fairly evenly between puzzles, exploration and combat, which is precisely what I signed up for; there’s a nice feeling of power progression as you steadily level up and acquire better equipment that lets you go back and beat previously unbeatable enemy packs, and at this point the game hasn’t yet devolved into a one-sided slaughter. Unfortunately once you hit about eighteen hours in you get to the Stennish Isles, which is the game’s cue to go totally overboard on the number of enemies it throws at you. The Stennish Isles have been overrun by undead and they’re absolutely everywhere, with a new combat encounter lurking practically around every corner while the puzzles and exploration take a backseat to smashing all of these skeletons. The gimmick the undead have is that while they’re comparatively weak as individual enemies you have to kill all of them on the same turn, otherwise they spring back to life at full health on their following one. Which would be an interesting concept, except for two tiny problems:
- I’d just spent eighteen hours perfecting a party that could one-shot a group of normal enemies in a single turn. One-shotting a group of weaker enemies is child’s play.
- Because of the resurrection gimmick Bard’s Tale massively overvalues skeletons in terms of the experience reward you get for killing them.
And this means the Stennish Isles end up being an incredibly high volume of easier-than-normal combat encounters with disproportionately high experience rewards, and by the time I got to the end of it three or four hours later I was both sick and tired of the combat system despite the good work that’s gone into its design, and grossly overlevelled for the rest of the game. Not only was the combat in the Stennish Isles so repetitive it became tedious, but it made all remaining combat encounters in the game tedious, which is quite the accomplishment.
Given the, how can I put this… somewhat lean nature of the areas you visit post-Isles, especially when compared to the puzzle- and secret-packed regions you’ve been exploring up until that point, I have to conclude that Bard’s Tale suddenly turning into a combat-heavy nightmare represents inXile’s attempts to pad out the game’s running time. They have previous form on this, with the Los Angeles region of Wasteland 2 coming across as unfinished content that was thrown in because their Kickstarter promised it, and The Bard’s Tale IV definitely goes on for about six or seven hours past the point where I started to seriously lose interest — not because I was bored, necessarily, but because the last third of the game is noticeably worse than the consistently excellent dungeon-crawling experience I’d been playing up until then.
Actually, I suppose we have gotten to the part of the review where I go on the Kickstarter rant. I appreciate that Bard’s Tale IV would not exist without Kickstarter, but as time goes on I increasingly resent the idea that funding a game via Kickstarter means you let your fans dictate what your game is going to look like, whether it be via unwise promises to deliver a specific amount of content if the game is funded to a certain level, or via backer rewards that allow them to insert content directly into the game2. Here it’s resulted in a game that goes on for another six hours past the point where it really should be wrapping up, and which is chock-full of rubber-faced, awfully-voiced NPCs that I assume are backer rewards of some kind, and whose only function in the game is to vomit forth some hackneyed backstory when you interact with them. The irritating thing about this is that there’s about twice as many of these NPCs as there are actually useful NPCs such as quest-givers and merchants, and there’s no good way to tell the difference except by going around and talking to every. Single. One. At least Pillars of Eternity had the good grace to identify its fan-insert characters via coloured nametags so that I could safely ignore them; here it seems like the only NPCs in the game are fan-authored ones and it really drags the experience down.
Then there are the bugs and performance issues. Unlike certain other games that have released recently I didn’t encounter so many showstoppers that I could put them together into a big list (there was only one crash to desktop, for example), but Bard’s Tale still has plenty of minor irritations like items suddenly becoming non-interactable and stupidly long pauses in combat between you telling one of your party to do an action and the party member actually doing it. Probably the most annoying one was when I skilled my Caster into one of the big endgame class cap skills, and then ten minutes later the game un-skilled him from it and wouldn’t let me select it again, effectively eating that skill point. Towards the end of the game — precisely at the points where Bard’s Tale IV starts to drag, in fact — I started to experience significant amounts of framerate lag, which I found curious because while Bard’s Tale looks perfectly serviceable (at least when you’re not talking to an NPC) it’s also really not something that should be overly taxing on my machine. It feels very unpolished, which is something I’ve almost come to expect from Kickstarted games now but which I’m still not going to forgive in spite of that.
These bugs created rather more friction between myself and the game than there should have been, which together with the generally unfinished feeling of the back third of it almost caused me to pack it in. That I did not is largely because of my love for dungeon-crawlers combined with a little of my own personal brand of sheer bloody-mindedness. And I feel that that’s the kind of person you have to be to enjoy The Bard’s Tale IV; I thought the first half of the game was good bordering on excellent, and easily the equal of the two Grimrocks, but if I didn’t like the genre so much I would not have made it to the end. I finished Grimrock 2 in 20 hours and it felt like a perfectly satisfying experience, so there was absolutely no call for Bard’s Tale to be 30 hours long when the plot is total balls and doesn’t remotely justify a final ten hours that feels like it’s mostly padding. inXile really need to learn to pace their games properly because I haven’t yet played one that felt like the ending arrived when it should have; it’s either far too late (Wasteland 2, Bard’s Tale IV) or far too early (Torment). Arguably this is more an artifact of budgetary/development constraints than it is an intentional screwup, but this is their third Kickstarted game. They should know what’s involved by now, and plan accordingly. I think that in spite of all of that I still like Bard’s Tale IV the most out of all of their games, but first-person dungeon crawlers are a much smaller subgenre so it gets to make a commensurately bigger splash, and if you do not particularly enjoy them as I do it’s going to be far harder to overlook the many flaws of The Bard’s Tale IV.
- Most of the developers behind Grimrock are still together, but developing a tactical RPG called Druidstone under the name Ctrl Alt Ninja. Which strikes me as a little odd, but I’m sure they have their reasons. ↩
- Battletech — which is one of my favourite games released this year — did this too, and the backer MechWarriors were also painfully out of place considering the rest of the game. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Kickstarted game that’s offered backer rewards beyond “We’ll put your name on a tombstone or something” and not had its fan-authored content materially diminish the game in some way. ↩