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After Legend of Grimrock revitalized first person dungeon crawlers back in 2012, we've been seeing a bit of a resurgence to this nearly forgotten subgenre of RPGs. One of the more notable projects to arise from this resurgence was inXile's The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep, a true sequel to Interplay's classic and beloved series.
This collective love that simmered for about three decades led to a successful Kickstarter campaign that gathered over $1.5 million in 2015. Nearly three years and 43 Kickstarter updates later, The Bard's Tale IV is entering the final stages of its development and has a playable alpha build. InXile was kind enough to provide us with access to this build, so let's take it for a spin, shall we?
Sing Us a Song Tonight
The currently available alpha version of The Bard's Tale IV greets you with a soulful opening song, truncated options menu, and a brief combat tutorial. Then, after a short loading screen, your party of three gets thrown into a dungeon and tasked with finding Lagoth Zanta somewhere within Castle Langskaal.
This takes about half an hour, which isn't that much, but those thirty minutes are densely packed with content. You get to fiddle with gears, break walls with your thunderous songs, fight a bunch of nefarious cultists and their goblin minions, unlock the hidden powers of an elven longsword, drink some booze, and even eat an authentic haggis.
All of this is powered by the Unreal Engine 4 and as such looks quite nice. The textures are rich and varied, with ancient crumbled walls making way for some snowy plains and then opulent castle interiors. All kinds of statues, trees, and assorted smithing equipment serve as minor obstacles and offer a taste of the full game's tile set variety. Unfortunately, the alpha doesn't allow you to change any of the graphics options, which leads to it looking a bit too blurry for my taste, but I'm sure the final version will let you tweak those according to your preferences.
The sound design is also pretty great. Apart from the aforementioned opening song, the environmental stuff is also really good. The wind howls, the gears squeak as they turn, the cultists of Castle Langskaal gossip among themselves. It all comes together to create a mighty pleasant audio environment.
Your party members aren't exactly a silent bunch either and never hesitate to voice their thoughts upon solving a puzzle or discovering a secret passage. And I don't know if it's because I'm not from the United Kingdom myself, but the voice actors' accents have a nice ring to them and add some neat flavor to the overall atmosphere.
The user interface, on the other hand, is far from stellar. It looks nice and slick at first glance but that's about it. The tooltips are too obtrusive, item descriptions occasionally leave the screen's boundaries, the area of effect markers are hard to see, there are some inconsistencies with attribute names, and it's quite tricky to click on your characters with any sort of precision.
What also bothered me, were the animated 3D models on the character screen. Not only are they pointless, as you pretty much never see your party members on account of this being a first person game, but they also cause some unnecessary microstutter when you're cycling through the character sheets.
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