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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.
Then, there's the highlighting. The objects you can interact with get a bright blue outline when you hover your mouse over them, and in my opinion, it's a bit jarring in a dungeon crawler. This isn't some hardcore thing as much as it is a game design thing. When you have to remain attentive and keep your mind sharp to notice all the hidden clues and cracked walls, the last thing I want to do is train my brain to look for that blue outline. The problem is, I'm not sure how they would fix that without forcing you to click on every piece of scenery since the current setup includes plenty of non-interactable clutter.
I also need to mention some welcome advancements in the actual character models. They looked rather odd in the early gameplay videos - these weird cardboard cutouts that moved up and down as they spoke and alternated between facing you and the enemies in combat - and I don't think many people were too enthralled by that implementation. The alpha build removed the annoying bobbing and replaced it with static images, which honestly was enough to salvage things, as far as I'm concerned. Without the bobbing, I wasn't bothered by the combat turning in the slightest.
In fact, my only major complaint about the character models was your dwarven adventurer. He looked less like a normal ale-loving tunnel-digging bearded lad and more like a White Walker reject or some weird misshapen demon. I don't know if this was just a placeholder model or what, but it looked absolutely gnarly.
Unlike the poor dwarves, the exploration looked quite promising. There was a cog puzzle you had to solve in order to open a door, a set of runes on a wall you had to match with a code lock, and a cracked wall you had to break by singing in its general vicinity. And even though none of these tasks were particularly taxing on the old noggin, that's only to be expected from a condensed early preview.
If we extrapolate from there, what we get is a dungeon crawler with a decent variety of tasks, puzzles, and activities. A game that doesn't hold your hand too much and allows you to miss stuff if you aren't attentive enough.
Of special note there, are the so-called puzzle weapons. These elven artifacts have hidden powers you obtain by fiddling around with their models in a 3D environment, solving riddles and puzzles, and performing various combat challenges. If I'm being honest, figuring out how to unlock the full potential of an ancient elven longsword was probably my favorite part of the entire alpha. And the best thing about it was that if you got something wrong, instead of becoming stronger, the weapon got cursed, making you think twice before trying to brute-force your way to power.
However, don't let this ability to fail make you think that this game is some tough as nails old-school dungeon crawler where each tile is a death trap and you're constantly fighting for your life. If anything, the fourth installment of The Bard's Tale looks to me more like a dungeon jogger, an inventive and easy on the eye mix of Legend of Grimrock and Might & Magic X. At least that's the impression I got from it.
A Matter of Thrust
For the purposes of the alpha, your party of adventurers consisted of a dwarven fighter, an elven spellcaster, and a human-looking Baed bard. These characters had their own unique skills, weapon and armor proficiencies, and racial bonuses. The primary attributes present in the alpha were Strength, Intelligence and Constitution. I don't know if there are any plans to add more attributes for the full release, but I do have to say that I found it odd how Armor Class and Spell Points were considered attributes by the character sheet, so perhaps we'll see Dexterity and Luck replacing them at some point in the future.
It's also important to note that the three adventurers available in the alpha weren't a full party. According to one of the Kickstarter updates, the game will let us recruit a party of up to six adventurers and have summons take that number up to eight, the maximum number of units supported by the game's 4x4 combat grid.
You get two rows of four slots and so do your enemies, which means that large-scale battles are out of the question. To get around this, the developers have come up with a system where battles happen in waves. The alpha's battles had up to three waves, which significantly increased the potential number of opponents you could face before being able to catch a breath. It's not exactly fighting hundreds of Berserkers at once, but if the final moments of the alpha meant anything, that iconic fight might still make an appearance, if only as an Easter Egg of some sort.
Your tools for dealing with your enemies include up to five active skills per adventurer, a variety of attacks with different targeting patterns, three distinct damage types, and an assortment of consumables.
The alpha didn't give me a good enough feel for how you gain the active skills, but it involves mastering them over time by using particular weapons, or something along those lines. The consumables are a bit simpler - they go in the trinket slot, which allows you to use them in combat.
The remaining equipment slots include helmets, armors, boots, and weapons. And while the helmets and armors present in the alpha gave you some nice attribute bonuses or made you more resistant to damage, the boots were particularly interesting, since they provided additional mobility options.
The alpha also had some lockpicks, torches, health-restoring foods, books, and elven gemstones, but you didn't really get to use them. Same with crafting. The crafting menu was present and accounted for and it looked competent enough, but I didn't find enough materials to put anything together. Still, it's nice to know that these features are being worked on.
Now, back to combat. The three damage types currently in the game are physical, mental, and true. Physical damage is the most basic type and is reduced by armor. Mental damage ignores armor and interrupts channeling abilities that take multiple turns to use but gets blocked by the channeling focus bar. And true damage just doesn't care and goes through everything.
The turn-based system is quite a curious one. Instead of characters having initiative scores or something along those lines, you have Opportunity and Spell Points. Spellcasters and bards use the latter to cast their spells, while the former is a common pool for your entire party. In the alpha, my party had a total of four Opportunity points, with each non-magic attack or move, regardless of which character took it, using up one. Again, because it was an alpha, it was pretty much impossible to lose in combat, but despite that, I could see the tactical potential of this system and now can't wait to get my hands on the full thing.
And of course, this preview wouldn't be complete without me mentioning the combat animations. While for the most part they aren't too slow, some of them exist solely to add flavor to the combat, elongating it for no good reason. Because of that, some animation speed options for the full version would be welcome, along with maybe an optional animation-less teleporting units mode.
Overall, I was fairly impressed by the alpha. It was just a small taste of what the full game will have to offer, an amuse-bouche if you like, but it certainly did its job - it made me want to play more of The Bard's Tale IV. And sure, the UI still needs a lot of work, the character models could do with a bit of an overhaul, and the tile-based movement is yet to be implemented, but if you treat the alpha as just one piece of the puzzle and use it to imagine all the other pieces, then you've got yourself a game. A game that bears little resemblance to its venerable predecessors, perhaps, but hopefully ends up preserving some of their spirit. And if we're lucky, offers an enjoyable and challenging dungeon crawling experience in the process.