Music has always been secret weapon for The Bard’s Tale. And tunes are still one of the core competencies of the revival, as creative director and lead designer David Rogers showed me during a demo I did a few months back.
This is why InXile Entertainment is turning to accomplished musicians such as Ged Grimes, the bassist for the rock band Simple Minds and an accomplished composer and singer of Gaelic music. Rogers also said that many of the voice actors are from Scotland, and you can hear the development studio’s attention to detail in the music and characters of The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep, which is coming to PC later this year.
InXile abandoned the traditional publisher model for making games for crowdfunding years ago with a pair of role-playing projects that lit up Kickstarter: Wasteland 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera. Both games show that studios with strong visions and communication with fans could make crowdfunding work. InXile raised $1,519,680 from 33,741 backers for The Bard’s Tale IV, which brings the old turn-based RPG mechanics of the 1980s classic series and builds upon them with voiced characters, more classes and subclasses, and improved presentation.
You can hear the improvements for yourself on the title screen:
“It’s all original music,” said Rogers, who was also the lead designer for InXile’s VR RPG, The Mage’s Tale. “We have Julie Fowlis, who is one of the main singers on the movie Brave.” (She sang the songs “Touch the Sky” and “Into the Open Air.”)
“It’s a ‘Who’s Who’ of Gaelic singing talent in Scotland.”
This applies to the voicework as well. Voice actors perform all of the lines for each of the characters you encounter (you can still make your own party, if you want a more traditional Bard’s Tale experience), and in addition to the narrative dialogue, they chime in from time to time, similar to how characters add flavor in other RPGs by commenting on their locations, their feelings, etc.
As as fan-supported project, The Bard’s Tale IV has plenty of references to the old games. You’ve got spells like Warstrike and songs such as Falkentyne’s Fury and Wayland’s Watch. InXile turned to the original MIDI recordings of the songs as it prepared its orchestrations.
“We took the old MIDI tracks and we brought them forward and orchestrated them, had our sound designers pour their love into it,” Rogers said. He went on to note that the games (they were on Apple II, Apple II GS, MS-DOS, Amiga, Commodore 64, and other formats) had different MIDI tracks, so the best depended on what platform you played on. He wasn’t sure what versions they used, but an InXile rep said over email that “some are from the GS and some from the Amiga. We picked and chose our fav[orite] ones.”
Sound design is just as important to The Bard’s Tale IV as its music. One spell shrinks your enemies, and when they curse at you while tiny, it’s in a high-pitched voice. It’s a touch that sound designer Brian DiDomenico added.
Spinnin’ wheel does not got to go ’round
Spinner traps, like music, are a mainstay of the older Bard Tales games. These are squares that would spin your party around, and they were frequent hazards in the grid-based RPG designs of the 1980s. But these are not coming back — they just don’t work when your dungeons or mazes just don’t look like the same square every time you move.
“Spinners worked really well in the old Bard’s Tale because it was so tile-based. When you spun, you might not know you’ve spun because the tile you’re looking at might look like the one you were looking previously at. But with our visual fidelity and amount of landmarks we have, if we spin you around, you know immediately, and you reorient yourself, and you’re on your way,” Rogers said.
Magic Mouths — mouths that would appear in walls and speak to you — do return, as do teleport traps. He also alluded to one of my favorite dungeons from the first game — Kylerean’s Tower, a puzzle- and trap-filled maze that’s home to a good archmage. This new Skara Brae sits upon the ruins of the old city from the original series. I’ll find out more of what Rogers means by his Kylerean mention later this year.
Disclosure: I am a backer of The Bard’s Tale IV on Kickstarter.