The bard’s tale IV : barr ows deep
Och aye the new
A dungeon-crawling adventure suffused with Scottish spirit.
It’s not often that you get to call a dungeon-crawler cosy, but here we are. The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep is a cosy game. It’s enjoyed best at night with the lights off, your hot drink of choice at hand, and a quality pair of headphones covering your lugholes. This is because Barrows Deep does not present its world like most dungeon-crawlers. Sure, there are some horrible beasts from Scottish folklore lurking in dank corners, but they’re mitigated by eccentric high-fantasy characters wise-cracking in their faces. The world has its tongue stuck firmly in its cheek, despite how much the narrative attempts to sucker-punch you with serious business from the offset.
We find ourselves in Skara Brae, a city rebuilt after the destruction seen at the conclusion of the last game in the series, The Bards Tale III: Thief Of Fate, which debuted a mere 30 years ago. As strange rumblings start, a cult known as the Fatherites appears and start hanging magic users by the dozen in an attempt to put an end to the disruption. You and your ragtag group of outlaws must save the land of Caith from their vice-like grip.
Combat is a refreshing twist on the usual dungeon-crawler fare. You control up to six characters at once, spending a group pool of Opportunity on abilities to decimate your foes. We felt it would be sinful to play as anything but the titular Bard, whose drunkenness becomes a compelling part of the experience.
Chugging from your tankard gives you the Spell Points (and the Dutch courage) to shield and buff your comrades. Too much elven wine, though, and you’ll enter a drunken rage, with your strength boosted for a turn before blacking out.
The turn-based combat evolves throughout the game as you soldier through different locations and face meatier challenges. From lush forests to snowy mountains, the environments are detailed and begging to be explored, with side quests, clever puzzles, and secret stashes to be found. Character models are more hit and miss, but creature designs are inspired, bursting with Gaelic influence and imagination.
The soothing soundtrack is packed with over 30 hours of beautiful Gaelic music that is true to Scottish tradition and interpolates classic songs from prior games in the series. Layered over battle this is a blood-pumping triumph, but we find that even small sound effects such as levelling up or viciously chucking your tankard at an enemy are sonic delights.
Our experience is soured at times by a few issues with polish. The lack of a quick saving and loading system means that getting stuck in the geometry leads to a substantial loss of progress on separate occasions, and it’s lacking a few of the contemporary creature comforts of modern RPGs. You can only track one quest at a time, and menus could be far more intuitively designed with options for sorting items. Load times border on worrisome even when moving between small environments. It’s a shame as, frustrating bugs aside, this is a unique RPG that stands out from its peers. It’s a shoe-in for nostalgic fans of the original series, but even those just looking for a change of scenery should spend time getting lost in its charming world.
“the bard’s drunkenness becomes a compelling part of the experience”
Playable classes include Bard, Practitioner, Fighter, and Rogue, with lots of opportunity for customisation, including your character’s voice and look.