Reviewed On: PC
Review code provided by the publisher.
In the village of Skara Brae, where the game opens, there’s a merchant who apparently sells soup. I say apparently because I’ve never seen this soup. The man selling it claims I’m not worthy to taste his legendary broth, and even the loading screen gently informs me that I’ll never be worthy, that I should accept it and just move on. But I couldn’t. Over the coming hours, I defeated evil sorcerers, saved the world, solved a bunch of puzzles and even herded some fairies around the place. I never forgot about the soup, though. Maybe one day I will be worthy. One day.
It’s been some 33-years since the very first Bard’s Tale arrived on the scene, and two sequels followed before the series seemingly died in 1991, the very same year I was born. It’s a little strange to see the franchise suddenly resurrected, perhaps a direct result of the nostalgia craze that still seems to be going on, but here it is with a remastered version of the first game arriving earlier this year and now a fully-fledged sequel funded by Kickstarter backers. Since I never played the first three games, though, I’m tackling this one from the perspective of someone who spotted it on the Steam store and thought, “That looks interesting.”
There’s actually a rather good game to be found, but you do have to wade through a lot of rubbish to get to it and I’m not convinced that the effort is entirely worth it. Built on the Unreal 4 engine with a meagre Kickstarter budget the developers have created something that often looks like The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Weak textures and lighting never manage to do the occasionally nice art design justice, while stiff animations and horrid faces don’t support the otherwise good voice acting. It’s a rough looking game, then.
Look, the crappy graphics aren’t actually a big issue. Sure, it’s always nice to have graphics so good that they’ll melt your eyeballs and get you all sorts of aroused but they aren’t the most important thing in a game. However, what can’t be forgiven is that such a poor looking game should run so horribly, making even a GTX 1080 Ti graphics cough and splutter like it’s being forced to run a marathon after a pizza eating competition. The framerate struggled to stay consistent with areas dipping below 60FPS, while frequent stuttering drove me to turn the graphics down. A game that doesn’t look great is one thing, but a game that doesn’t look great and runs like an old banger is quite another.
You also have to deal with infuriating loading times between areas that typically took over a minute to a minute and a half. There’s quite a lot of these transitions, too, and even loading into the game could take the same, if not more, amount of time. Users have reported that SSD loads time are considerably better, as they should be anyway, so if you’re rocking an SSD with enough space you should be fine. Otherwise, look out a good book or something. You’ll be able to get a page or five in each time you fast-travel or transition to a new area.
However, it does have to be said that the developers have already announced plans to patch the stuttering, load times and add in proper widescreen support as well as a FOV slider. As I finish this review up no patch has been released.
For the plot we get a pretty standard setup; you’re a potential hero who has to set out to save the world from evil people who want to do evil things in the evilest way possible. It’s frankly almost instantly forgettable stuff, and only the various party members you recruit along the way stop it from being utterly dull. That isn’t to say that the characters have the depth or snappy writing of the Mass Effect 2 crew, though, but some of their banter as you amble around the world is quite entertaining and keeps them shallow but defined personalities.
As for the world that I just mentioned I really dig its Scottish styling, though that might be because I wear a kilt, chase haggis around and love to fight. There’s no open world design here, rather you’ve got a bunch of levels separated by loading screens, but the design of these areas feels old-school in that there’s quite a lot of space to explore and plenty of opportunities to unlock shortcuts so that backtracking isn’t as much of a pain.
There’s a nice streak of humour running through the game, with possibly my favourite being a strange farmer who somehow manages to appear in each new area. The game never takes itself too seriously, and is willing to lean into the weirdness.
When it comes to getting in a fight the first-person real-time exploration gets ditched in favor of turn-based action where you control a party of up to six characters. Combat gets handled via a grid system where you get eight squares and the opponent gets the same, and the position of your various party members on these squares dictates what attacks and abilities can be used. Some attacks will only allow you to hit things directly in front, for example, so you always need to consider positioning and whether its worth spending one of your team’s pool of action points to move around.
At first, the combat doesn’t seem to be anything special as you basically just spend points on whatever ability happens to do the most damage. Over time, though, things become much more fun as new concepts are introduced that force you to carefully consider your turn and the composition of your part. Armour, for example, can be brute forced but the better option is to use a special attack like Sunder that can remove the troublesome armour. Meanwhile, some of the more powerful attacks and skills require a character to focus for a turn or three, but these can be interrupted if sufficient mental damage is dealt. On top of that spells, which are powered by spell points, don’t use an action point.
As you level up your party you can invest in a number of new skills, yet each character can only actually have four equipped at any given time, so you need to think carefully about what you want to take into a fight. Choices have to be made between taking big, powerful attacks that cost more than one action point but are capable of dealing huge damage or taking smaller abilities that can be handy in dealing with specific threats. The tactic of just dishing out as much raw damage as possible from earlier no longer works, and so I found myself enjoying planning out my party.
It all comes together rather well, and while it still can’t escape the game’s many technical failings – which come in the form of strange pauses while the game catches up with itself – it becomes very satisfying to scrape through some of the harder fights. There’s a nice level of tactical thinking needed when it comes to figuring out what order to do things in, how to combine abilities for maximum effect and whether or not you should get your Bard drunker. The answer is that you should always get the Bard drunker. Drunk equals better abilities. Booze, kids, it really is the answer.
Getting into a fight, though, is a bit annoying. The concept is that by staring at a roving enemy long enough a number will pop up that indicates that groups overall power, which would be a fine idea if it were not for the fact that your own group has no power ranking, so it’s essentially a useless system. You have no idea how the enemy force compares to your own. It’s like the developers abandoned the whole system mid-way through and forgot to take it out. Instead, you have to judge the viability of charging in by the coloured outline that might eventually decide to pop up around the patrolling foe that you’ve been gormlessly staring at for a few minutes. Green means the fight should be a piece of cake, while yellow and orange are getting into the realms of being tricky, and finally red denotes that you’ll likely get squashed in a single hit. Again, this would be fine except that the whole thing is bloody vague at best, with some orange and red fights being a complete pushover and some green or yellow ones actually being quite hard. It’s made all the trickier by the fact that you can’t tell when enemies can see or hear you, so you have to edge towards them like a muppet.
There’s a sort of stealth idea in place that means you can actually skirt around fights sometimes, which sounds fine on paper but is a mess in practice. As mentioned above there’s no way to judge when an enemy can hear or see you, which is important because if they attack first they get the first turn in combat, and if you do skip fights then you also miss out on the biggest source of XP in the game, leaving you unable to deal with later threats.
The levelling up itself is nothing exciting. Each class has some unique skills to unlock as well as some basic ones that everybody shares – like bumping up strength which somehow determines the damage of everything, including magic – and by spending your points you can unlock whatever you want. Well, nearly. Unlocking some things means having to purchase previous skills first, which can mean sometimes having to spend your hard-earned points on things that feel useless so that you can work toward the thing you actually want. There’s also a slightly odd system where you have to visit a group of three mysterious individuals back at the adventurer’s guild who will tell you whether you have performed any worthwhile deeds and then allow you to advance to the next level of the skill tree. It adds nothing to the game, other than occasionally having to stop whatever you were doing to go back to the guild, via all those damn loading screens, so that you can get access to next level of skills.
There’s also a really heavy emphasis on puzzles to break up the turn-based combat. You might find yourself trying to drive a fairy toward some ancient stones via a series of turnable totems, or trying to open a locked door by shifting gears around. You’ll also get to shove massive stones around and try to direct energy flows. Sometimes the developers get the balance wrong with a few sections where the puzzles go on for a bit too long, but for the most part they’re a lot of fun to solve. They manage to be challenging without being overly frustrating or obtuse.
What is frustrating, though, is the save system. If you quit out of the game you’ll always start back exactly where you left off, but outside of that you need to use special save totems that will act as a checkpoint if you should happen to die. Now, I’m not against this system since it does stop people from spamming quicksave before every fight, but the placement of these totems left me frequently angry. Sometimes there are loads of them, and other times they are far and few between. You may find yourself repeating a huge sequence of puzzles that you already know the solutions, too, or in one instance I had to repeat the same three fights three times because the game crashed three times. The point is the placement of save points feels poorly judged.
There are a number of audio issues, too. I encountered mysterious singing in town, for example, only to find that the source was apparently a point in mid-air on the street. This happened a lot.
But I have to give some serious respect to the soundtrack which makes use of beautiful Scottish and Irish style folk music as well as some awesome vocal work. Seriously, this might just be might favourite soundtrack of the year, though admittedly the competition hasn’t been too strong.
The voice acting is surprisingly good, too, so long as it sticks to the Scottish accents. Whoever the developers managed to get into the recording booths are certainly enthusiastic about the project and give it their own. It’s over the top at times but that just matches the slightly barmy sense of humour. The only time the acting felt off was whenever it detoured from the Scottish accents.
The Bard’s Tale IV really takes the concept of a mixed bag to its own, unique level. In so many ways the game is a mess on a technical level and has a bunch of design questions that left me scratching my head, but amidst the detritus is a very enjoyable combat system and solid puzzles. Despite a few moments where I wanted to just give up this newest entry in the Bard’s Tale franchise did eventually win me over. However, it’s not a game that I can easily recommend to the average gamer as you really do have to put up with a lot of issues and a lack of polish, and so I’d probably say this is only worth a by for dedicated RPG fans or if you spot it on sale. However, if the developers do manage to get the game properly patched this could be a solid RPG with some neat ideas.
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