You’d be forgiven for not having played the first three The Bard’s Tale games, just like you’d be forgiven for not having gone back and played the first The Elder Scrolls. Unless you were gaming in the late 80s or picked up on the series during the early 90s, this era and style of first person dungeon crawlers probably passed you by. The Bard’s Tale IV though is looking to bring this venerable series back.
“The Bard’s Tale IV picks up 150 years after the events of The Bard’s Tale III,” revealed Creative Director David Rogers. “We do that very purposefully because we wanted fans of the old games to recognise Skara Brae and find all its landmarks, but it gives us a good way to introduce everyone into this world in the same way. Enough has changed that everyone has to rediscover what has happened since the fall of Tarjan.”
Maybe for fans of the old games it will feel like it’s been 150 years since the third game released in 1988. It will start in a familiar feeling place though, with a tableau of a bard regaling a small group of listeners with a song and a tale to the sound of his lute. But this isn’t a still image, it’s actually a wonderfully crafted live action introduction that’s been made to mimic the original game’s cover art. Each time you load up the game, you’ll be regaled with a brief recap of your adventure so far, fully acted and recorded by live performers.
David revealed, “The game is fully voiced [with Scottish voice actors] and we worked with Ged Grimes, who’s been producing Celtic folk music for the past eight years, and we worked with the who’s who of Celtic musicians and singers. We have a whole host of Gaelic singers as well, and we wrote some of the songs for our game, wrote the lyrics and translated them into Gaelic. Some of the songs we were writing as we designed the game, so if you listen closely in the main menu or when you go to the Adventurer’s Guild, there’s actually hints to where magic items and secret dungeons can be found.”
As the game opens, a band of unfortunate adventurers face a public hanging at the hands of the Fatherites that have risen to power since in the last century and a half, preaching hatred against all the old races and the old ways. Your starting character Melody returns to the Adventurer’s Guild after witnessing this travesty, alongside her mentor – you are the chosen hero to save the world, according to his dreams. The Fatherites are kicking in the door moments later and you have to escape via a hatch into the catacombs underneath the city.
You start with just the two of you as you head to the old refuge of the Adventurer’s Guild in the ruins that Skara Brae was built on top of. Unlike some other dungeon crawlers, you aren’t immediately tasked with building a party of four characters, but are eased into things more gently. “The first leg of your journey in the whole game is running around and recruiting your band of adventurers,” David said, “but you get to take them on one at a time, learn their abilities and what their role in the party is going to be, and then you get to set off.” However, if you don’t like these characters, you can simply throw them out and create your own, choosing from an additional range of voice packs.
Helping to build the team dynamic, David explained, “We have the road chatter system where we detect if you’ve got a bit of downtime or a ways to walk through somewhere you’ve already cleared out, and then the party members will take that opportunity to chatter with one another. At one point I had a character that I’d made and he was super agro and angry – I was using the volatile voice pack – and he challenged my Dwarf to an arm wrestling match and wouldn’t let it go for, like 40 seconds.”
The combat is really nice and fluid, despite being a turn-based game that gives you all the time you want and need to plan your next few turns. You have to be aware of each character’s positioning on your 4×2 grid, the type of attack you’re using and more as you fight. Some attacks will only affect a ‘channel’, meaning they will attack directly in front, while others will sweep across a particular row of the grid that enemies are laid out on. Attacks will often need to charge up for a turn, giving the opportunity for them to be interrupted or avoided. You’ve only got a handful of Opportunity points to spend on actions each turn, so you need to use them wisely.
Regardless of whether you stick with the standard characters or roll your own, you choose how they develop. Delving into the class system, David explained, “The game features four archetypes, but each one represents many, many different playstyles. We went with four instead of nine or ten, because it helps you differentiate and make Practitioners play differently to Fighters. When you have fourteen different classes, you end up with the Cleric, Druid, Shaman problem, where you just have multiple different flavours the same role.
“Each one features about sixty different skills and four to six different subclasses, where the subclasses act like different play styles within that class. So to build a fighter that’s all about commanding my troops, rallying them round and getting them into different stances, or you build a ‘glass cannon’ two handed sword berserker, you could build one that crafts and actually plays a support role. Each one has many different ways you can play them, so there’s thousands of different ways to build your party.”
Exploring the world has a touch of Metroidvania to it, where you might find new paths and opportunities to explore as your abilities grow. Simple sliding cog puzzles will bar certain doorways, while there might be symbols that you initially don’t recognise before learning that they signify a point where you can attach a grappling hook and get higher up. These are things that that lend the world design a modern feel, and that’s echoed in the save system, which David says was ever-so-slightly inspired by Dark Souls. No, it doesn’t mean that all enemies respawn, but rather it gives you risk/reward dilemma. Unlike the original games, you can find Luck Stones outside of towns that let you save and restore your party’s health and spell points, but you can also challenge yourself, using up that stone to reward you with more experience at the expense of being able to save or heal. Are you feeling lucky?
It’s clear that a lot has changed in game design since the late 80s, and The Bard’s Tale IV has tried to take that into account in every possible way. As David said, “We kind of internally treat this, not as The Bard’s Tale IV, but as The Bard’s Tale XIV, in that it’s been so long since the originals and so many advancements in basic design philosophy that we didn’t want to just take one step forward.”
He laughed when I asked if they had all the games between planned out somewhere to map the progression through to XIV. Those might be tales to tell another time.