The bard’s tale IV : barr ows deep

Och aye the new

Games Master - - Contents -

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.

You’re bard

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.

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