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The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: RPG/Strategy
Developer: InXile
Release Date: Sept. 18, 2018


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PS4/XOne/PC Preview - 'The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep'

by Cody Medellin on July 26, 2018 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep is a new installment in the classic RPG series, returning players to the place where it all began, Skara Brae.

Ask a console gamer about The Bard's Tale, and they'll likely tell you about the Diablo-style adventure game that came out in 2003 with Tony Jay and Cary Elwes headlining the voice cast. It was a good romp that prioritized humor and action with a good story to match. Ask an old PC gamer about The Bard's Tale, however, and you'll hear about one of the classic franchises that was all about awesome writing and a grid-based, dungeon-crawling experience that happened to be tough as nails. Thirty years have passed since the game's last official entry, and we're finally getting a proper sequel in The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep. With more than a month to go before it officially releases, we got our hands on the latest build.

The story returns with a more serious tone. The opening cut scene tells of how two ancient beings created man as soldiers to help them rule the land. When the combined forces of the dwarves, elves and trow defeated the beings, they locked them up with a barrier and cursed a human princess to sing forever to keep that barrier alive. Over time, the beings tried to influence humans to become evil so they can be freed, and after three failed attempts, they're trying again.

For those worried about the more serious slant to the plot, there are still dashes of humor that do a good job of not falling into the absurd. Most of that is incidental, like a quick line your companions may say or a conversation that diffuses a serious topic. Little things, like poster text and books, also do this, and combat reveals enemies who will tells others to step aside or ask you to stop singing. Again, there's enough here to get the feel of what the old games were like, but it doesn't become a farce.

Since this is a formal sequel to the series, the gameplay returns to the more familiar dungeon-crawling mode. You can form a party of up to six people, each with complementary skills. Though you have a rather large pack to keep your things, it's still governed by a grid system, so you need to make sure that you occasionally use or sell things before your inventory is full. You'll see enemies, so fights aren't random surprises, and all of this is done in a first-person perspective.

The return to the classic mechanics are accompanied by some more familiar modern changes. For example, since this game has a bigger emphasis on the story, you can use the default characters instead of building up everyone from scratch. The game has plenty of save points, but you can also use the points to give yourself an XP boost if you're feeling lucky or know there isn't going to be much trouble between points. The game also defaults to you being able to freely look around the environment, albeit without the ability to jump. The classic grid-based movement is still here and can be toggled off and on for purists. For those getting into the genre for the first time, the free-look system is a welcome addition.

The biggest change of all is the battle system, which is very different from other dungeon crawlers. First, there's initiative, which is handled similar to games like Lunar. If you hit the command at the appropriate time, you can gain the first strike in a fight. Otherwise, the enemy will charge and get the first attack instead. Second, there are a finite number of actions the group can take in any turn. If you have a six-person group, you can't have everyone perform an action during your turn. Third, characters who can handle magic like your bard get their points from alcohol. Drinking and getting drunk is a viable strategy, since you'll double that character's strength in one turn if you don't mind having them vomit or black out during a subsequent turn. Finally, the game introduces a small grid system for both enemies and allies, so movement can be governed. Character placement is important since some moves either cover a specific area or need a line of sight to be effective, and moving some players out of the way means that you can protect them from enemy attacks.

The new battle system does wonders for the game, as it makes it more immersive than the classic system of other dungeon crawlers. You have to place some thought into your moves because some people will do nothing. Movement gives you more defensive strategies to work with, and it keeps your attention on the fight since you have to prepare for enemies charging up to deliver one-hit kills to your party. As you play around with actions, you'll inevitably find the ones that give you bonus moves, and you'll use your magic often since those moves are usually free. Overall, it's the kind of system where you welcome a fight instead of trying to avoid it.

Even in its closed beta state, the game presentation is great. Unreal Engine 4 gives the medieval setting some richness with lots of particle effects when enemies die and awesome textures for things we've seen countless times before. The characters look fine, but their animations could be a touch smoother. When you see the characters speak, the camera sometimes seems to be positioned to look up at them instead of looking at a character straight on. The sound is what will really stand out, as the old Scottish influence is everywhere. From the songs to the music and the accents, the game is rich with culture.

The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep is a game that should be a delight to both old fans and those experiencing the series for the first time. The return to classic mechanics is balanced nicely with new ones that both keep things fresh and give players expected quality of life changes. The story also looks to be a meaty tale that falls in line with most of the older games, while the presentation looks and sounds delightful. Hopefully, the final product lives up to what we saw in the beta.

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