Game Info:

The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrow’s Deep
Developed By: inXile Entertainment
Published By: inXile Entertainment
Released: September 18, 2018
Available On: Microsoft Windows, Linux, macOS
Genre: RPG, Dungeon Crawler
ESRB Rating: T for Teen
Number of Players: Singleplayer
Price: $34.99
(Humble Store Link)

Thank you, inXile Entertainment, for sending us your game to review!

Fantasy: the mind’s wildest playground. Sure, it ignores the grueling realities of the medieval period for a romanticized one, but it’s given our imaginations an epic launching pad like no other. Stories the likes of King Arthur and The Lord of the Rings forged dragons, knights, and elves in our heads. The fictional cultures that delight our curiosity; the inspiring underdog heroes; the idea of a reality bigger than ourselves: how could it not fit videogames like an iron gauntlet glove? But this genre, much like its flashing swords, can’t be wielded carelessly. Fantasy’s capacity for sheer size and scope often leaves plenty of room for some sinful influence to sneak in. The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrow’s Deep, a fan-funded sequel to its classic predecessors, might not recognize that fact.

Bard’s Tale IV’s plot continues in the series’ pre-established universe. Its animated prologue tells a tale of two maddened gods, their brutish apes-turned-into-men, and their attempt to use their barbaric humans to wipe out the ancient races of elves and dwarves.The ancient races triumphed over these gods and sealed them into another realm. As expected though, you can’t imprison any god with lock or key. To prevent their return and to punish mankind, a human princess was enchanted to sing a spell to keep the evil deities contained for all eternity. Her song remained ironclad so long as it was continually sung forever. That, of course, is only what the stories say. The country of Caith certainly knows the legend. Already, three would-be conquers tried freeing the evil gods to win immeasurable wealth and power. Good thing then that they each were defeated by an assorted pack of puny heroes. That’s not to say another greedy bloke wouldn’t try again, and with the sudden violent persecution of non-human races it seems something’s rotten in the city of Skara Brae.

A fantasy universe requires substance to be interesting. A need must to exist for audiences to want to dive deeper. Stories often do just that. Fantasy worlds are built that way after all, but how well did Bard’s Tale IV build its world? Well, for starters, it’s pretty neat that its lore comes pre-built thanks to its predecessors. Events in prior games were implemented wherever possible. I’m sure that delighted many fans. Regions, tales, and characters aren’t in short supply. Every other conversation contained some sort of significant exposition. However, I tended to get lost in a sea of names. Ever had those conversations where everyone understands the topic but you? That’s this game for Bard’s Tale newbies. Don’t get me wrong. Worldbuilding is very very hard. Any honest writer will tell you that, but a random Joe programmed to mention random stuff does not an interesting universe make. Too much isolated information, untethered to context, floats dead in the water. I commend Bard’s Tale’s team for ambition, and they clearly knew fantasy worldbuilding required hefty lore. I’ve seen many an artist fail to grasp even that. However, lore offered in connected pieces are more digestible than in single chunks.

The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrow’s Deep

Strong Points: Fun Combat System; Lovely Music; Crisp Sound Effects; Good Leveling System
Weak Points: Lengthy Load Times; Weak Puzzles; Annoying Glitches; Misleading Ranking System; Sink-or-Swim Mentality
Moral Warnings: Occult Heavy Setting; Encouraged Drunkenness; Light Gore; Mild Swearing; Some Hellish Imagery

Bard’s Tale IV: Barrow’s Deep is an adventure/turn-based RPG hybrid. That simply means its gameplay is part environmental and part turn-taking. I’ll tackle both sides in their own segments. First, let’s cover a few basics. You aren’t controlling a single character this time. You control a whole group. Now, you technically do have a customizable ‘main character,’ but that simply means it’s the one person you’ll always have. Who and how many join your party will often be your decision. Movement is controlled by the classic A,D,W, and S keys. Left mouse clicks perform actions, and right mouse clicks grants access to the map/quest tracker, inventory, and the options menu. It’s worth noting that shortcut keys exist if you’d prefer something snappier. That pretty much covers the control scheme. It’s nothing remarkable, but it’s serviceable.

Also worth mentioning now are the character classes. Whether wandering or fighting, recruiting a well rounded group matters to your party. These classes include Bard, Rogue, Fighter, and Practitioner. Rogues and Fighters focus on physical strength, defense, and subterfuge. Bards and Practitioners are effective mental attackers for boosting allies and impairing enemies. Every character also has four skill trees, each categorized for specific qualities. Abilities you pick cost skill points. Skill points are earned via accumulated experience points, but some abilities must come first before others are reachable. This upgrading system appears overwhelming, but I liked it. It doesn’t let one dull the game’s teeth to nibbling yet grants an avenue for one to adjust to his/her needs. Plus, there’s a guild that rewards your deeds with chances to rearrange one character’s skill points. Meaning, if you regret your choices, you can still turn it around. How nice is that?

Bard’s Tale IV does require you to do a lot of traveling. Thus, its adventure genre comes into play. It is pretty basic. You observe your surroundings, avoid booby traps, and constantly move from point A to point B. You do get to craft items from materials you find like potions, grappling hooks, and pick locks. Merchants will sell you items, attire, tools, weapons, and crafting materials. The most interesting mechanic in your adventuring, though, are the songs you learn. These tunes are super useful for the effects they cause to the world around you. One song rebuilds broken objects. Another activates shortcut warp-points. My favorite is the one that lets you see enemies through walls. It certainly was the most memorable aspect. The map, on the other hand, needs work. It helped somewhat, but the compass was confusing. Landmarks weren’t obvious. I wasted hours figuring out where to go at least twice. The slow loading times between particular places didn’t help either. An inventive mechanic mixed with average standards and poor directions leaves a mixed impression.

The game also touts side quests. What modern epic fantasy game doesn’t? Side quests often add vibrancy to an already lively game. Unfortunately, the results here were sadly lackluster. Why? Well, take rewards for example. Who doesn’t do side quests for prizes? Extra time and effort in exchange for rare weapons, magic armor, or at least hefty lumps of cash is fair, right? Well, it’s not that Bard’s Tale withholds rewards. It’s just that too many times what’s rewarded turns out disappointing. You may win a weapon less helpful than what you’ve bought. You could use one of your limited lock picks to nab another exact copy of a cheap helmet, or your earnings are a handful of gold. They’re unjustified for all the trouble you go through. It’s unsatisfying. Over time, I grew less and less enticed. If not for the experience points, I’d hardly bother. Of course, these side quests feature extra puzzles. Oh? Did I not mention there were puzzles? Yes, there are, but they’re not noteworthy. Let me put it this way: Compared to games like Myst or Professor Layton, Bard’s Tale IV’s pitiful copycat jobs are puddle jumps. They’re either obvious, tedious, or both. It’s sad when a game tries to be what it’s not. It just leaves wanting to skip the mediocre ‘chores’ to get to the real fun.

Okay. I’ve been harsh with Bard’s Tale IV‘s puzzles, but now for where the game shines: the battle system. Combat here carries so many intricate factors I doubt I can give it justice, yet here I am to try. Encounters of the evil kind are inevitable. Similar to Checkers, combat is done in turns between your party and the enemy party. Which side goes first depends on who strikes first. You’ve got a limited number of moves (called opportunity) in your turn. Each character only has six abilities, five of which you personally equip. You get four moves, one movement option, and an item slot. Consider how these choices work in a group, though. A well rounded team needs complimentary attributes. In battle, your characters are assembled on a two rowed, four columned grid. Who’s in front and who’s in back in relation to your foes can put you in or or out of harm’s way. Changing positions mid-battle costs opportunity too. Lastly, each attack has different areas of range, cooldowns, and/or charge times. Some attacks can be cancelled mid-charge by mental attacks. Equipped weapons and armor can alter some moves’ behavior, and items grant advantages if chosen wisely. Now, I agree that this all sounds dense. It is, but it’s a good kind of dense, at least to my tastes. I enjoyed the countless variables I had to turn the tides. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it was mine.

The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrow’s Deep
Score Breakdown:
Higher is better
(10/10 is perfect)

Game Score - 74%
Gameplay - 14/20
Graphics - 8/10
Sound - 9/10
Stability - 2/5
Controls - 4/5

Morality Score - 44%
Violence - 3.5/10
Language - 2.5/10
Sexual Content - 10/10
Occult/Supernatural - 1.5/10
Cultural/Moral/Ethical - 4.5/10

Hold on a minute, though. Fights in Bard’s Tale IV do have a couple crippling flaws. For one thing, encounters have a sink-or-swim mentality. You’ve probably guessed that character classes apply to enemies too. Every enemy type has weaknesses. Throw in the unique specialities distributed among different creatures, and those variances multiply. A means to study your enemies beforehand would have been nice, but there is none. It’s rather baffling actually because in-game prompts suggest studying your enemies. How can you study if you’re given nothing to study with? For another thing, the game’s difficulty gauge is misleading. It’s supposed to indicate a foe’s strength. It’s supposed to distinguish between easy pickings, an average struggle, a tough scrap, or a death-wish. Too bad it lies! Picture this: I spot one group gauged to be unwinnable. A space away stood a big brute rated an average. Naturally, I pick the feasible target. Here’s the plot twist. I reattempted that same fight over five times, maybe ten. All because the ‘average’ giant hit like a truck, had a lengthy health bar, and healed himself between every turn! Now here comes the punchline. I beat the ‘impossible’ group in one try. Now tell me. How is it not misleading to call a huddle of bandits and wizards untouchable, and yet an ugly, two ton, self-repairing goliath ranks an average!?! That does not compute! Even a dum-dum sucker could call that baloney!

The landscapes of Caith and Skara Brae are pretty impressive. Not that I think it’s always pretty per se, but I digress. On the positive side, Bard’s Tale’s graphics pull off tons of detail. The textures on Skara Brae’s cobblestone streets, water surfaces, and buildings dazzled me. I’m serious. The weather damage, hewn stone, and dirt clods neared photorealism. I just wish I wasn’t stuck in Skara Brae for the first several hours. It’s not really the artists’ fault. It’s just that a finely generated grimy, filthy city is still a grimy, filthy city. Beats me why anyone would enjoy living someplace that dingy. If games could emit smell, I’d bet the town odor would be pungent, and that was just its topside. Skara Brae underground adds ‘grotesquely creepy’ to the list. You don’t know how relieved I was to see trees and more non-brown colors outside city walls. If only the frame-rate didn’t drop. I guess occasional choppiness is the trade for some vibrancy here. Well, at least the region looks better than the residents. I’m not saying the people look awful. They’re fine overall. There’s just something off about their faces and stiff movements. It’s a tad unsettling. The music and sound effects department, on the other hand, knocked it out of the park. They had really good voice actors. Nature sounds, metal, wood, anything capable of noise sounded crisp, clear, and satisfying. For my feelings toward the soundtrack, I’ll express it this way. I enjoyed its Gaelic/Celtic music so much, I considered buying some soundtracks off iTunes. I believe that gets my opinion across.

Gameplay-wise, most of my gripes were frustrating at worst and mild at best. I’d say the same thing about all the bugs and glitches. Technical errors popped up far too frequently. Sometimes there were funny animation quirks. Others were less amusing. There were times I briefly got stuck while walking. While battling, the game on occasion wouldn’t let me make my selections unless I tapped the ‘escape’ key. (That hiccup shouldn’t happen in the first place.) Also, the game completely crashed at least once. Now, I wouldn’t call one or two glitches surprising here. Humongous games ask for humongous problems. The game’s staff knows it too. They performed at least two repair patches during my playthrough, but the bugs still persisted. Maybe the creators should have squashed a lot more of them before releasing this game. My mood certainly wouldn’t have been soured so many times.

Time for some serious talk. If the game’s anti-Biblical prologue I transposed for you didn’t scared you, then brace for impact. It ain’t pretty. Let’s put this into perspective. For twenty-seven days, I recorded every dishonorable sight, sound, and policy, and you know what I’ve found? Bard’s Tale IV has no shame. The corrupted “church” in the story (if it could even be called that) are the dirty racists who burn ‘innocent’ magic practitioners at the stake or hang other races along with their sympathizers. Wanton drunkenness and sorcery is constantly encouraged. Enemies taunt by shaking their bums. Characters appeal to gods. Ba***rd, pi**, and da*n infest most conversations. Male’s genitals are mentioned. A particular temple looked ‘puke’ levels of hellish. I even met a half rotted zombie, complete with a sword run straight through his eye and half existent brain, and that’s just the warm up. How about the body raiding? Or the dead summoning? Or the shrine praying? All of which meant to be done by you. Now, I could keep this ball rolling. I could tattle on every blood drop, crass word, or paganistic speech, but then this paragraph could fill the entire review. Besides, the exact number of its offenses doesn’t matter. It’s how the game celebrates these behaviors that’s truly telling. Such ‘sparkling’ wisdom like, ‘Sometimes the hangover is worth it,’ or ‘There’s no justice, just us,’ reveals this game’s true heart more than any review can ever hope.

So what can be said about Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep? Well, if I could turn my conscience off, I’d consider it decent enough. It’s got some neat ideas. The series’ lore is densely established. The song mechanic is nice. The graphics are impressive, and the unique battle system is a fine crowning jewel. However, when it tries to mimic somebody else it comes out as ‘meh’, and the misleading difficulty gauge, unhelpful map, and glitches were aggravating. If that were it, I’d say consider what you’re willing to put up with and call it a day, but that’s not the case here. Fact is, the moral fiber is too nonexistent for me to recommend a purchase. It’s out of the question for kids, but if by chance you’re still considering, I ask but one question. If you’d blanch at exposing this particular junk to a child, then is it really okay for you? A Bard’s Tale character chopped his arm off for what turned out to be a fake remedy. To erode your own spiritual morals for a sin-glorifying, average game is just as stupid. I’d get out of Dodge - or Skara Brae in this case.

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Hannah Colvin

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Christ Centered Gamer looks at video games from two view points. We analyze games on a secular level which will break down a game based on its graphics, sound, stability and overall gaming experience. If you’re concerned about the family friendliness of a game, we have a separate moral score which looks at violence, language, sexual content, occult references and other ethical issues.

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