The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep
Sometimes RPGS, even ones with modest budgets, emerge fully formed, perfectly crafted and able to satisfy the interests of several different kinds of players. then there’s The Bard’s Tale IV. it’s rougher than a badger’s arse, as we’re sure the game itself would agree.
the Bard’s tale series hasn’t had a proper entry since 1988’s Thief Of Fate and we think that’s key to explaining why this is a dungeon crawler in the most classic sense. Deceptively linear and in first person, this has you inching your way through elaborate mazes full of turn-based combat and puzzles. For modern players, this will evoke the likes of grimrock, but despite being part of an old series, Barrows Deep feels a little less burdened by the past than some. the grid-based movement system isn’t there, letting players move around freely. it comes across a bit elder scrollsesque, a comparison that really is unfair, not least because The Bard’s Tale IV clearly does not have the massive budget that Bethesda’s titles have.
it’s certainly capable of lush scenery, but for every wonderfully lit underground lair there’s a drab flat square of mud and rubble that looks like it needed more time in the development oven. it’s a fun world to explore at least, with new abilities unlocking new shortcuts and secrets at a nice steady rate, though it does mean retreading a lot of the same ground for a while.
Where it shines is in its combat. though its presentation here – 2D sprites laid out in first person against 3D enemies – will be off-putting for some, there’s little denying that it works in execution. You start with your titular bard (a lass named Melody is the default but you can make your own), who can drink to bolster their musically themed powers. then you have a motley party of fighters, rogues and wizards all laid out on a grid.
Who goes in front and the distance from enemies are all tactical decisions that shape the course of each skirmish, determining which abilities can be used and who gets struck by attacks. as in the best of things, it’s simple to understand but gradually blossoms into lots of complex encounters, with you managing a larger group of characters over time while getting in longer and more involved battles. it’s a shame that it takes so many hours to get there, though, because the combat is the game’s main strength and the initial hours hint at none of it.
so, it’s a mixed bag, though true to it’s name, very deep. it’ll last a long while too, well over 50 hours if you want to have a go at everything. You’ll just have to look past a lot of rough edges.
the BARD’S tale (2004)
legend of Grimrock
Above: The interface for combat is a little odd but works surprisingly well. Right: Sometimes, when the lighting is just right, The Bard’s Tale IV looks excellent.