It’s been generations since a band of adventurers rescued Skara Brae from the vile clutches of Mangar and saved time itself from the mad god, Tarjan. But the world of Caith finds itself in peril again in The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep, and it turns to another band of wizards and warriors (and bards) for deliverance from a grand evil.
And this time, you’ll have to think harder than in any previous Bard’s Tale to get the job done.
The Bard’s Tale IV resurrects a long-dead franchise, picking up a century after The Bard’s Tale III (which itself came out 30 years ago in 1988). The Interplay series is known for its emphasis on music, puzzles, and sometimes brutal combat.
InXile Entertainment (which Interplay founder Brian Fargo started in 2002) turned to those fans in 2015 with a Kickstarter for The Bard’s Tale IV, and three years later, the role-playing game is ready for its 33,741 backers — and anyone else who wants to buy it on Steam, GOG, and other platforms. What they’ll find is a game that makes music and puzzles an even bigger part of its soul, celebrating what many of us fell for back in the 1980s. Combat also becomes a puzzle.
I found that, despite some glitches, I deeply enjoy my return to Skara Brae, and more than 20 hours into my adventure, I’m pleased with the challenge of the puzzles, the bard’s role in your party, and a turn-based combat system that feels different than what you find in most RPGs.
What you’ll like
The bard’s life
My adventures in Caith started to sing (I’m not sorry for that) once I added a bard to my party. (Unless you create one at the start, you won’t find one until a few hours in.) In the first three Bard’s Tales, your bard could sing songs when exploring or during combat. In Barrows Deep, you belt out the beats just when you’re fighting, or you can play special songs of exploration when you’re cruising through town, tiptoeing through a forest, or delving into a dungeon. You don’t need a bard for these, and they’re essential for solving puzzles and learning more about the world.
Far too many games have puzzles that are about finding objects or matching blocks (I see you, mobile gaming). The Bard’s Tale IV’s puzzles are intricate, and one sort of these is unlike anything I’ve seen in my near 40 years of playing video games.
The best — and most difficult — puzzles involve fairies. These little glowing sprites move in a straight line when pushed, and if they don’t hit a special grouping of magical rocks, they poof out of exist. They reappear seconds later. The InXile team created an entire lore behind these little spiffy sparks, and it’s a different treatment for faeries than you’ll see in other games.
How do these work in puzzles? You have pillars with rotating pictures in them, and each face dictates where the sprite moves after you shoo it away — left, right, stay, or return the same direction. To find the solution, you must rotate these faces until you can get the sprite from the start to the magical rocks.
Some of these are quite difficult. The best way to go about solving the puzzles is to shoo the faerie along as you experiment with which faces will get the sprite to the end of its journey. I rather enjoyed these, though I did find that, like the bard, I did better after drinking a beer.
Other puzzles include panels of gears that require you to move them until you find the right configuration to open a door or deactivate a trap; moving blocks to specific spaces; and offering pots with clues on what items to sacrifice; and figuring out inks in one of my favorite puzzles that didn’t involve faeries.
Every copy of The Bard’s Tale IV comes with a strategy guide, in case the puzzles prove too difficult. I applaud this — it helps the player, and it continues the tradition of the series, which had some fantastic guides during its heyday.
At times, The Bard’s Tale IV feels more like a mix of an RPG with Myst, and this is a good thing.
A mean drunk
Booze plays a crucial role in The Bard’s Tale IV. Your bard must wet their whistle in order for their magical songs to work, and drinking up also bestows action points to your troubadour so they can make merry with a tune or swing with their weapon. But by far, my favorite bard’s ability is mean drunk. It’s a passive skill, and whenever you take a swig from your booze, you throw out a tankard that damages a foe during combat. It’s hilarious, especially when you hear a party member asking why you’re drinking during combat.
A good number of The Bard’s Tale IV’s fights require you to think who is going to attack and when. Your party, which starts with two and grows to six (or more with summoned monsters), must consider positioning and timing on the battlefield, which is a grid two squares deep by four squares across. Some of your attacks only hit the squares right in front of you. Others might cover a 2-by-2 area. One tactic you may try — using a fighter’s or practitioner’s abilities — is to move an enemy spellcaster into range of your crushing melee attack, or take an armor-wearing tank and move them where you can smash through their armor so you can deal out physical damage.
Damage types are another part of the combat puzzle. You can do physical, mental, or true damage, and armor and other abilities can protect against each type. You’ll have to batter down those protections before hurting those foes. I enjoyed this, because it meant that even easy combats required some thinking if I had to deal with damage types.
The colors and music
Far too many fantasy RPGs just put you into places that look like our world, with a supernatural flourish here-and-there to remind you it’s a magical realm. The Bard’s Tale IV steeps a number of its areas in fantastical looks, and where it doesn’t, InXile remembers that nature is full of different colors.
The art teams shows this off in the first major dungeon, the cellars of Kylearan’s Tower (one of the romps from the original Bard’s Tale). Here, an underground grove helps bring bright colors, with glowing mushrooms and vibrant vegetation. Statues and even walls and floors get color, too. A forest deeper into the story shows off the reds and oranges of a glorious autumn.
With many RPGs, I tend to play as I listen to podcasts. I didn’t do that with The Bard’s Tale IV. Music bubbles up in many different areas as you explore, and you’ll never know where you may find a Gaelic tune.
What you won’t like
I adore the puzzles, but I wish the designers gave us a break to step back and appreciate them better. In some dungeons, you go from solving one puzzle right into facing another. I would’ve preferred to have a little more space between some of them. Or maybe InXile should showcase the puzzle design in one dungeon that’s a gauntlet of such tests.
Granted, this is review code and not the final game, and since receiving it midweek, InXile has sent out a number of patches. However, the deeper I get into The Bard’s Tale IV, the more hiccups and pauses I encounter during exploration and combat. A patch improved some of the performance issues, but it still has some slow loading and other quality-of-life issues.
It didn’t take long for my inventory to become cluttered with food, drink, crafting components, useful items, and weapons and armor that I was stashing for other characters. But I could never find a way to clean it up or organize items by type. Finding stuff in the pages of the inventory screen (it goes up to five) became messier than searching for, well, anything in my 8 year old’s bedroom. I hope this is fixed upon release, otherwise, it’s going to annoy some players (note: It still hasn’t as of October 8). I annoyed me.
The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep delivers on the faith its Kickstarter backers put into the project. It weaves combat, exploration, music, and puzzles into a game that stands out in a crowded market. It’s unlike any other RPG, and with other old-school RPGs finding success these days — Pillars of Eternity, Octopath Traveler, and Dragon Quest XI — I hope InXile is able to come back to this fantastical world, just like it’s doing with Wasteland.
InXile’s approach to music and puzzle design make The Bard’s Tale IV a standout RPG. At times feeling Myst-esque, the puzzles are some of the most challenging and satisfying in today’s market. Their only flaw is pacing — sometimes, you don’t get a chance to take a second to appreciate your cleverness for solving a tough one. Music matters, and the designers weave it into your exploration, puzzles, and combat. In some ways, music is The Bard’s Tale, as it should be.
I look forward to cracking open a beer and taking a drink every time my bard does as I finish this unique game from InXile Entertainment.
The Bard’s Tale IV: The Barrows Deep is out now for PC. The development studio sent GamesBeat a Steam code for the purposes of this review.
Disclaimer: The reviewer backed The Bard’s Tale IV on Kickstarter.