Preview: ‘Bard’s Tale IV’ a reminder of what made RPG classic great

Platform: Linux, macOS, Microsoft Windows
Engine: Unreal Engine 4
Developer/Publisher: inXile Entertainment
Genre: Dungeon Crawler

By Gieson Cacho | The Mercury News (TNS)

The “Bard’s Tale” franchise is beloved among role-playing game aficionados. Released in 1985, the PC title touted revolutionary 3-D visuals and character portraits. Those were rarities at the time. It also introduced the concept of the Bard, a character that can boost allies or weaken foes with their singing.

After three games and a construction set, the series has lain dormant until inXile Entertainment, a studio founded by Brian Fargo who worked on the series, launched a Kickstarter for an official sequel. “The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep” updates the 33-year-old franchise with a fully realized world in the vein of “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.”

I had a chance to play the first hour or so of the game and I was surprised with the beta. The full game itself officially launches Sept. 18 on PC and will be on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Mac and Linux later in the year.

Upon firing it up, players are thrown into the world of Caith, but this is a fantasy world set more than 100 years after the mad god Tarjan destroyed Skara Brae in “Bard’s Tale III.” Fortunately, players don’t necessarily have to know the past events, but they’ll appreciate the project more if they played previous entries.

In this future, a new city has been built on the ruins of the old one. The xenophobic Church of the Sword Father has become one of the major factions in Skara Brae, and they are hanging those who break their rules. The church blames the poor state of Caith on nonhuman species such as the dwarves, elves and trow.

That puts the Adventurers Guild in direct opposition to the Church of Sword Father because the guild accepts those races into their ranks. That’s what sets up the initial conflict as Fatherite zealots raid the guild and Melody, the default name of the protagonist, flees with the Rabbie, the guild leader, through a hidden passage.

That takes them to the underground ruins of the old Skara Brae, which is based on the map of the original “Bard’s Tale.” From there, players can customize their hero, who can be male or female. They can also pick from seven races, which include dwarves, elves, trow and four types of humans. From there, the must choose one of four archetypes: bard, practitioner (mage), fighter and rogue.

Each class has at least 60 skills and several different subclasses that players can mix and match from. There’s even a quest to earn the abilities of a cleric. With practioners, players can specialize in being glass cannons, a party member that deals massive damage to foes but is weak physically. Fighters serve as damage sponges protecting the rest of the party while rogues can serve as assassins that kill dangerous adversaries or crowd-control the battlefield. In addition, rogues can pick locks and reduce damage from traps.

The titular bard is the linchpin of a party. The class can empower allies and cripple foes. The hero can drink and gain strength with some liquid courage. Using these moves, they can initiate powerful combos in the turn-based combat.

In the first part of the six-hour beta, players will explore underground Skara Brae, which is filled with all sorts of monsters. It’s essentially the first dungeon and laid out in a way that’s reminiscent of “Dark Souls.” That means the initial run-through will take players through out-of-the-way routes, but as they explore, players can unlock shortcuts that make the map smaller.

They’ll also have to use stealth and judgment when fighting foes. Players can sneak up on enemies and attack, giving the heroes the chance to strike first. That’s important because “Bard’s Tale IV” turn-based combat relies on positioning and planning and getting to strike first is a huge advantage. The party is given opportunity points, which represent actions that the heroes can perform.

Creative director David Rogers compared the system to “Hearthstone” and essentially the opportunity points are mana that players consume per turn. Actions such as moving one character a space so they can attack costs an opportunity point. Some actions such as a charge attack cost a point but require a turn to power up. Thankfully for the bard, drinking doesn’t cost anything, which gives them an advantage in battle.

With the way “Bard’s Tale IV” is set up, players have to plan and think ahead. Rabbie, the player’s first ally, can move to attack a foe to the side of him. Attacks hit certain areas, requiring maneuvering. Once that happens, a bard can use a song to boost Rabbie’s defense so that he’s protected when adversaries retaliate. As characters level up, they add more opportunity points to the pool and they become more dangerous as more combo options open up.

Along with easy-to-defeat foes, players will also encounter more powerful adversaries. They’re marked with a red icon above their heads. That’s when players have to use their stealth skills and avoid them.

Like any other dungeon crawl, players will run across treasure. Loot is scavenged off defeated foes. There are runes that offer clues to items and simple gear puzzles to solve. One of the more interesting elements is Luckstones, which act as save points similar to bonfires in “Dark Souls.” There are also Ancient Luckstones, which gives player the opportunity to destroy it for experience points but they also lose a save point. Players need to be confident in their abilities to survive to do that.

Another interesting wrinkle is the cut-scene intros that introduce the game to players after loading a saved game. The videos act as a “Previously On” segment that reminds players what happened during their previous session. It’s not the most revolutionary addition but it is a thoughtful touch to make the experience better.

Rogers, the creative director, says the game takes about 30 hours to complete without sidequests, but if players take their time and explore “Bard’s Tale IV,” it can easily be longer.