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The first game in The Bard's Tale - or should I say Tales of the Unknown - series was a dungeon-crawling RPG created by Michael Cranford and the Brian Fargo-helmed Interplay team way back in 1985. And now, two direct sequels, a "construction set", an action-RPG spin-off, and more than 30 years later, Fargo's new studio, inXile Entertainment, decided to update the series' classic “first-person exploration, turn-based combat” formula for the modern audience. The result? The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep.
As is usually the case with reinventing the wheel, things didn't go exactly as planned, and instead of a triumphant return of the dungeon crawler, we got a game with some great ideas and neat features but also a heap of issues and questionable design decisions.
Barrows Deep actually has very little in common with its predecessors despite a plethora of nods, references, and returning characters, but I do think that it can provide an enjoyable experience to anyone looking for 30-40 hours of dungeon-crawling action.
Story and Exploration
The game starts with you witnessing a public execution, running around the streets of Skara Brae for no apparent reason, and then going through an extended tutorial section where you get a chance to familiarize yourself with the game's controls and mechanics.
This intro section is not very well done in my opinion. It does very little to showcase the game's actual strengths, is kind of confusing and entirely pointless. Play through that intro, and you'll think that the game is all about holding W in dull linear corridors while following glowing quest markers and occasionally engaging in simplistic combat.
But even in those grey and gloomy tunnels, some of the game's positive qualities manage to shine through, like its more than decent level design.
Even those initial claustrophobic tunnels are designed in such a way to always show you something intriguing and cool just outside of your grasp. You find locked doors that you have no way to open, you activate hidden switches and levers that seemingly do nothing, you occasionally catch a glimpse of a blocked-off part of the area you will need to revisit later, you stumble onto mysterious signs and glyphs that clearly do something, you just don't know what that something is.
The game keeps dangling these little mysteries right before you, and you can't help but press onward just to find out what awaits you behind the next corner.
And later on, when you get to the first real dungeon that actually has some color in its cheeks and offers plenty of winding paths, puzzles, challenging encounters, and non-obvious ways to progress, this is where the game is at its best.
Going just by the opening sections, you wouldn't guess how varied the game's tilesets get or what weird, imposing, verdant, magical, glacial, or otherworldly environments your party of adventurers will visit on its heroic quest.
Speaking of that quest. The game's story goes something like this - the local church gets a bit overzealous with its prosecution of heretics, magic users, older races and unsanctioned adventurers, and starts executing everyone it doesn't like with enough enthusiasm to put even Warhammer's inquisitors to shame.
As one of those adventurers, you're not particularly fond of this new development, so you set out to try and find out why your kind is being so unfairly maligned. In the process, you stumble upon a mysterious sorcerer who goes around resurrecting ancient villains, all antagonists from the earlier Bard's Tale games, while also framing those with a chance to put a stop to their nefarious plans. And from that point onward, your main goal becomes just that.
The story won't be winning any awards, but it does its job and is quite engaging, especially for a dungeon crawler, a subgenre of RPGs not known for its intricate plots. It does fall apart somewhere at the end where it feels like the developers were in a rush to ship the game already, but prior to that, it's good enough to make you want to find out what happens next.
As a side note, something I have to mention here is how when you load the game, the bard on the menu screen comes to life and actually sings you a verse or two, recapping the latest story developments. I think it's a great touch and exactly the kind of unnecessary thing that can make a game go from merely good or bad, functional or broken, to an experience you can fondly remember twenty years later.
The game's dialogues are fairly simplistic and don't leave a lot of room for meaningful choices, but at the very least they're competently written and aren't overly verbose. Every conversation is voice-acted, which adds to the game's atmosphere and its overall Celtic aesthetic.
The sound effects and soundtrack are quite outstanding, further reinforcing the game's Celtic motifs and leaving you with numerous pleasant tunes to listen to on your journey.
Your party of adventurers that can include up to six characters and can consist of both story characters and custom mercenaries rarely stays silent and spices up the occasional backtracking sections with plenty of banter. The neat thing there, is that your custom mercenaries don't simply exist to smite evil and keep quiet, and instead participate in party banter as well.
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