The Bard’s Tale IV – Barrows Deep brings back a classic franchise many won’t even remember or know about. A PC exclusive on Steam, we went in to see how relevant the classic RPG is today.
My very first gaming experiences in the middle of the 1980s were on an Atari 2600, which an uncle of mine owned. Not too long after that, I remember seeing a game called The Bard’s Tale on a PC and later owning it for my Atari ST. It was absolutely stunning and mesmerizing to see, especially coming from an Atari 2600 background, as it featured 3D graphics and an attention to visual detail and animations I hadn’t seen before in a videogame.
I was too young to properly appreciate its dungeon crawler gameplay at the time (that didn’t come until after I started playing Dungeon Master a few years later), but it certainly left a lasting impression. I really enjoyed seeing the classic trilogy re-emerge on Steam last month for that reason, but was especially looking forward to the fourth part in the series, since the action RPG that was released a while ago doesn’t really count as a proper sequel – even though I enjoyed playing it on my Vita again fairly recently.
Barrow Deep harkens back to the classic games from the eighties, even though it does feature updated mechanics (and of course visuals to bring it more in line with present day standards and conventions). There’s a thin line there, and inXile’s development team has mostly succeeded in making this (finally!) feel like an authentic Bard’s Tale sequel despite the changes that were made.
One big change they made was to change the setting to an era that unfolds about 150 years after the events of the original games. A smart move, because it gives them leeway in making changes in look and tone that can be attributed to the time that has passed. The opening sequence explains what has transpired and why the world is in turmoil – and of course it’s up to you to restore some semblance of order.
As in the original games, music plays a large role – and you can interact with the game world through music as well. Obviously this plays less of a role when you choose not to play with the bard character, but you can unlock new parts of the map with any character through puzzles, challenges and new abilities. This also encourages exploring and revisiting areas you’ve already been too, as your new abilities might let you open a doorway that previously remained shut. This concept can also be seen in enemy strength, as certain enemies are just too strong to take on until after you’ve leveled up a bunch.
You can freely move around in a gorgeous 3D world this time, but the combat action still means you shift to a turn-based mode where you’re fixed in place. It’s a nice trade-off that works well in keeping in sync with the classic turn-based combat in the original games while offering a 3D visualization of the game world that resembles something out of the darker parts of Elder Scrolls universe.
As mentioned before, you’re not stuck with the bard as your main character – you can also go with the more commonplace classes of fighter, spellcaster or rogue. All the classes have their own skill trees to develop and you’ll have to assemble a team that complements each other with their skills and abilities. This is especially true in combat, where it’s not just about positioning and combining attacks – you also have to allot your action points during each turn. This is handled a little differently than it is in games like XCOM, as you don’t have action points per character but rather spread them around from a shared pool. In theory, this allows you to emphasize just one character, if you feel one of them is especially heroic – though in practice you’re better off carefully balancing your party.
The writing isn’t as good as I remember the original game’s writing, but the developers have done a good job in making sure the dialogue and (humorous) tone of the game echoes that of the classic trilogy. The voice acting is good too, as the entire audiovisual presentation feels like it’s something the team was extremely passionate about during the development of this kickstarter-funded project. I certainly enjoyed their efforts, even when it’s not all as streamlined as some of the modern RPGs. Welcome back, The Bard’s Tale!