The Bard's Tale 4: Barrows Deep Review
A rousing adventure driven by great music, puzzles, and turn-based combat.
If you entice me with deep, turn-based RPG combat, clever puzzles, and jaunty, Gaelic folk ballads, you can pretty easily have me eating out of the palm of your hand. The Bard’s Tale IV certainly did for the majority of the 50-ish hours I spent delving its dungeons and enjoying its quirky lore and charming voice acting. The fact that so much of it is so great made it all the more disappointing that it’s hobbled by technical problems too frequently to disregard them.
Set in a picturesque, storybook land that resembles a romanticized medieval Scotland – but with elves and goblins running around – the straightforward but rousing main quest tells a decent tale of ancient sorcerers, kingly bloodlines, and wicked gods. It can get a little hard to follow at times as it seems preoccupied with calling back to as many characters and events as possible of the first three Bard’s Tales, which came out in the ‘80s. But the small lore snippets discovered in books, notes, and NPC conversations help the setting come alive even if you have no idea who Tarjan the Mad God is.
Each area you visit has a strong personality and visual style, from the murk and mud of the Skara Brae Below to the wild and snow-covered peaks of the Stennish Isles. Navigating them wasn’t always as fun as taking in the scenery, though. The attempt to replicate old-school first-person dungeon crawlers often makes navigation frustrating in dungeons and outdoor areas. It’s often unclear where you can and can’t walk or where you’re supposed to go next. One sprawling castle, in particular, was full of minimap quest markers that led to nothing, requiring me to stumble around until I figured out the way forward. The load times on my 7200 RPM HDD also seem almost preposterously long for what you get – the world is definitely stylish, but it’s not winning any awards for visual detail that might justify me freeing up SSD space for it.
All along the way, your adventure is accompanied by great voice acting and an excellent soundtrack featuring some very talented vocalists. Music is a central element of both the story and the world, as you’d expect in a tale about a bard, and it very effectively unifies and accentuates every cavern and town. Soulful ballads offer more than a backdrop, as listening closely to them introduces you to elements of the history and culture of the world you may have missed otherwise. Breakneck fiddle rills help to get your blood pumping for tough boss fights. Even many of the abilities you use in the overworld to do things like remove vines blocking your path or activate teleportation stones have a catchy musical component.
Your adventure is accompanied by great voice acting and an excellent soundtrack.
Banter between the handful of recruitable party members is plentiful and often pretty funny, reinforcing the welcome, light-hearted undertones. Those help break up dour dungeon crawls that take you to various dark pits where bones stick out of the walls and everything wants to kill you. Unfortunately, the character models look a bit dead-eyed and doll-like up close, and their lips are often poorly synced with dialogue, which detracted a bit from the cast’s charm. I liked them better when they were just 2D portraits popping up at the bottom of my screen.
When the cornucopia of fiends, skeletons, forest spirits and sorcerers comes for your blood, though, you’re in for a treat. The turn-based combat system is deep and dynamic, with a strong focus on positioning and room for all kinds of different party builds. Everything is laid out on a grid, and specific abilities can only target specific opposing squares based on where the attacking character is standing.
All of these considerations turn battles into exciting puzzles to be solved.
It all really clicked for me when I realized my spellcaster’s levitation spell, which can relocate any friend or foe to any other square for only one spell point, was actually one of the most powerful abilities I had. I could, for instance, levitate a weak caster hiding behind his tankier friends right into range of my berserker’s highest-damage abilities. If an ogrish brute was winding up for a powerful attack, I could levitate him to a space where the blow would fall on an empty square or even the back of a buddy’s head. All of these considerations turn battles into exciting puzzles to be solved, using clever movement and making the most of my limited action points. It felt appropriately challenging from beginning to end – rarely did I face a fight that was a total cakewalk, and only a few times did the difficulty spike to the point that it felt irritating.
The class design offers tons of interesting options to build your party, too. I ended up with three Fighters in my final line up, but they all played very differently – one was a walking wall of armor and hitpoints, another was a deadly barbarian that could cut down even the toughest opponents, and the other focused more on buffing the rest of the party. Bards can either stand back and use magical songs to aid their allies or get right up in the thick of things, chugging alcohol to gain spell points and brawling like a drunken sailor. I felt like I’d only scratched the surface by the end, and I’m pretty sure I could start over with a very different party and have a completely different combat experience.
The dungeons and overworld also maintain a great balance of combat and puzzle solving, switching gears regularly so you’re rarely forced to do one or the other long enough to get bored with it. Some of the puzzles are a bit overused, though. There’s a particular type that requires you to guide a fairy through a maze that I got very tired of after I’d done about a dozen of them in the same area. But others are memorable and rewarding brain-teasers that often require you to really study the environment to find a solution. One I found particularly memorable and rewarding made me ring bells in a specific order to open a door, with the solution being hidden in a painting of some birds who’s positions in the sky had to be read like notes on a bar of sheet music.
Bard’s Tale IV is often bogged down with technical issues.
It’s really a shame that, for all the reasons to recommend it, The Bard’s Tale IV is so often bogged down with technical issues. Aside from the previously-mentioned problems with level layout, load times, and quest markers, I also ran into fairly regular hitching, unexplained framerate drops, and a couple crashes to desktop on a GeForce GTX 1070-powered system that well exceeds the recommended specs. Twice, I ended up stuck in the terrain so badly that I had to reload a save to free myself. In one dungeon, the walls kept flickering white any time I turned my character in either direction. A can or two of extra polish would have done wonders here.