The Bard’s Tale IV is the long-awaited continuation of the Bard’s Tale series which was left off back in 1988, with a wholly different approach with only the name The Bard’s Tale in 2004. Releasing 20 years after the 3rd entry in the series, The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep has a lot to live up to as inXile follows in Interplay’s footsteps with this old school turn-based roleplaying game. Similarly to other companies that are reviving games of the 80’s and 90’s, Barrows Deep will hopefully also bring the same quality as the other revivals.
Barrows Deep starts off with a bit of a dreary beginning, to a sight of several non-humans and sympathisers being hanged on a giant tree. What’s next, we’re being hunted? Oh wait, our friend just shouted about us being heroes and that heroes are outlawed. Great. From hangings to an attack on our guild base, we are thrust through bad luck after bad turn into the sewers of Skara Brae, our first main hub of activity. Hunted by the paladins who hate heroes and non-humans, we make our way through the depths, finding an eventual exit.
As heroes, we never let things get us down, and so our quest is to bring down this corrupt management of paladins whilst also helping the downtrodden. Firstly, we need a team, and so our quest for a ragtag band of adventurers begins, picking up several races and classes to fight beside us. Along the way we are given an overarching quest, save the world, defeat awakened evils all while upholding the name of heroes.
Sitting at around 30 hours for the main story, Barrows Deep will have you move between several cities, dungeons and areas before reaching the end-game. Along the way you will pick up numerous side-quests, optional puzzles and dungeons to increase that time easily towards the 100s. This time will also differ based on the difficulty you choose as well as your prowess with puzzles.
Keeping close to its original design, unlike the 2004 Bards Tale, Barrows Deep has us fight enemies within a 4×4 grid in turn-based combat. We can get a surprise round if we charge an enemy first, or have the enemy take their turn before us if we are spotted on the adventure map. Whoever gets their turn will have 3 or more opportunity, which are similar to action points in other games. Moving 1 square costs 1 opportunity, with attacks having varying costs depending on their effect or power. Once all your opportunity has been used up, alongside any spell points spent, the turn can then be passed onto the enemy.
Deciding how to spend your opportunity, using magical spells that use spell points instead of opportunity, who gets to attack or move, makes the combat become more of a tactical game. Since your whole team won’t get an action each in the early sections, you will find yourself leaving one of them out of the fight until their particular skills come in handy. As you progress, gain new companions and unlock higher tier skills you will be awarded more opportunity, allowing for more actions and tactical decisions within a fight.
Besides combat, Barrows Deep contains plenty of exploration, conversations, puzzles and dungeons, giving several activities for when you have cleared out an area of beasts. Movement is done pretty much through a 1st person perspective, reminiscent of very old RPG games where you move 1 square at a time within dungeons. Talking with people will reveal pieces of lore, quests and shops, while the levels are full of hidden items, riddles and puzzles, each rewarding you with valuable experience or items.
Barrows Deep features a mostly static amount of enemies, with both beast and humanoid patrolling the halls of castles or the streets of the cities. Charging at them from afar, or getting spotted, will engage combat. Once these enemies are defeated they disappear from the map, only to reappear if the story fills the area with new enemies, which is rare. Due to the finite amount of enemies you may feel a lack of grinding to be had in this RPG, but thankfully there are plenty of optional enemies to kill as you explore, quests to reward exp and the bind-consume system.
Sadly to its detriment at times, Barrows Deep features a save location system for saving your game. These come in the form of saving stones, both permanent and temporary. The permanent stones allow you to reuse them whenever you approach them, while the temporary ones allow you to either bind the stone, which is a 1-time save, or consume them for experience. Due to the design of most levels, you are often safe to consume save points and run back to previous permanent ones, gaining a leg up on the experience. Either through a glitch or intended design, the temporary stones do respawn for you to bind or consume once again, though it was impossible to tell why this happened.
A lot of the game is only filled by the sound of animals, footsteps and talking, with no music to be heard. However, if you pass certain groups of NPCs you will be treated to some signing, chanting and choirs in both catchy and annoying loops. Getting into combat is where the music shines a bit more, with bardic instruments being used to serenade the battles. Bagpipes, flutes, drums, lutes and more crash together as battles progress, instruments reaching crescendos when you deal high damage and enemies hit the floor. Boss battles are full of wonderful tracks that change depending on the actions you take in battle. Sadly, this music can also enter a 10-second loop at times, leading to a rather boring soundtrack.
The difficulty throughout the game is rather stable, with boss fights sometimes taking a bit too high of a leap. Most areas contain a steady incline of power for your enemies, with clearly marked fights that are impossible for you right now. The placement of higher-power enemies can put a hamper on your exploration, as 2 wrong corners can be the difference of power 30 enemies and power 254 enemies. Since there are finite fights, the difficulty can be a bit harsh as you cannot grind like in other RPGs, but abusing the save respawns can get around this somewhat. Besides levelling and items, you can also try out new team makeups and skills, approaching combat with a more tactical eye rather than straight up numbers.
Against all odds, bringing itself back from a 20-year absence, Barrows Deep has seemingly failed in its attempt at bringing the series into the modern era. Plenty of fans of the original series see it as a poor shift from 80’s design to 2018, with others disliking its shift from the 2004 release. Finding a hard time in pleasing fans, both old and new, Barrows Deep sadly is full of reviews with hatred by the community. From complaints of the world design, overall combat changes, crashes, glitches, bugs, poor voice actors, use of save locations, graphics, lag and more. Most of these are genuine complaints, while others are mostly opinions.
Through my playtime with Barrows Deep, I experienced several crashes, from just shutting the game down to crashing my entire PC. Enemies can get stuck on the grid, while animations will stop completely. Defeated enemies stand still, interacting with objects causes a few seconds of lag along with some spells requiring a few seconds to load. I was able to move into areas I wasn’t supposed to due to collision, getting stuck behind boxes and crates. Textures either don’t load or of very low quality, from pieces of bread that look like bricks to characters looking like play dough.
Overall, The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep gets a 7/10, it is an enjoyable adventure with engaging turn-based combat and puzzle solving but fails too harshly in other areas. Combat can become repetitive at certain points where you fight the same setup of enemies 5 times in a row when it doesn’t glitch out. Some puzzles are overly easy, while others are overtly vague without reason. The difficulty is great throughout, aside from some areas that take a drastic leap. The long list of glitches and bugs ruin an otherwise amazing experience as they plague every corner.