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The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrow’s Deep
Game Reviews

The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrow’s Deep

Pseudo-classic dungeon crawling with a focus on puzzles that demands a very specific sort of nostalgic player.

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As the years have gone by, we’ve steadily seen more and more crowdfunding projects from that fad’s heyday maturing and bearing fruit. Not all of them, of course – Star Citizen is still something of a joke, after all – but there’s certainly been a fair few titles released lately that started their lives as Kickstarters or what have you. Some have even been good, like Shovel Knight! Some have been bad, like the much-bemoaned Mighty No. 9. And some, like The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrow’s Deep, are decent and not much else.

You’re an adventurer in a world where adventuring is outlawed! The gods have turned their back on the world, there’s a crazy cult making life hard for everyone and we can’t even count on our usual plucky do-gooders to save the day. Well, except for you. You don’t care about your job being outlawed. You’re going to recruit a party, you’re going to spend points in a skill tree, you’re going to solve some puzzles and you’re darn well going to do your job anyway.

I’d like to go into detail about the previous Bard’s Tale games, but, er…haven’t played ’em. Sorry, guys. Insofar as I can tell they were old-school dungeon crawlers along the lines of the early Might and Magic titles, which I actually did play and enjoyed. I’d probably have gotten a kick out of them when I was younger. Modern me, though, is focused on the fancy graphics, crowdfunding quirks and multiple progressively-more-expensive editions of The Bard’s Tale IV.

You know what I remember from the old Might and Magic games? I remember being able to break them by using abilities in hilarious and potentially unintended ways. You could teleport past encounters and pick up loot you weren’t supposed to have yet that would turn your characters into gods. The game would let you do this. You’d be rewarded for ingenuity and creative solutions to problems.

That’s not what you’ve got here. What you’ve got here is modern adventuring. There’s essentially three stats – health, strength and intelligence – along with armor class. There’s a big old skill web full of opportunities to add to these stats – though, mercifully, the game is largely free of percentages. You can find plenty of loot, though it mostly just adds to your three stats or armor class rather than doing much of interest; the best loot are items with puzzles attached that can be enhanced if you mess around with them, reminiscent of some of the stuff you could find in Planescape: Torment. Also…there’s save points. In an RPG from 2018. Yikes.

Combat is grid-based, with a pool of actions shared among your party that you can do with as you please, and by modern RPG standards it’s not too bad. You can move around and attacks tend to hit specific parts of the enemy board, so there’s an element of planning your assault to hit where your opponents will be rather than where they are. Enemies tend to be predictable, though, and there’s a very sterile feel to combat; either you can win or you can’t, with the determination really up to your stats rather than you. Once you understand how combat works, it’s not too difficult to enact “ideal” strategies, at which point it’s a contest of numbers. Character actions aren’t especially interesting either – mages mostly blast, thieves mostly stab, warriors mostly block and bards do somewhat more interesting things so long as you keep them drunk, with that last class being the most unique option of the four.

Combat’s not really the focus here so much as puzzle-solving, and boy, you can expect plenty of puzzles. Bards Tale IV ends up feeling somewhat like an adventure game with RPG combat added on than an RPG with puzzles. They vary in quality, though I rarely found any puzzles that drove me especially crazy, but the sheer number of them may put off some players. If you don’t want to put your brain to work, beware.

From a presentation standpoint this is probably going to be a divisive experience. I don’t especially mind the aesthetic they’re going for here, a sort of plastic, artificial take on Celtic fantasy that stands out against the crowd, but I can see it being off-putting at times. What’s almost certainly going to bother players is the game’s performance, which tends to be middling at best even on a high-end system; some patches have done a lot to improve this side of things, but this doesn’t look remotely good enough to merit the kind of horsepower it seems to need. On the other hand, sound effects, music and voice acting are almost universally solid, as should probably be expected from a game about bards.

Contrary to what it would like you to think, The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrow’s Deep is a very modern game, in particular calling to mind the Legend of Grimrock series. It’s got hyper-streamlined content, combat that’s balanced to the extreme in the somewhat humdrum way we’ve grown accustomed to from modern RPGs and a fairly forgettable story that relies to some degree on nostalgia for a 30-year-old franchise. I wouldn’t call The Bard’s Tale IV a bad game, but I would stay that it appeals to a very particular set of players. If you aren’t sure you’re part of that set, you might be better off checking out something like StarCrawlers, which does a better job of marrying classic dungeon crawling with modern gaming sentiments.