The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep Review – Lament. InXile Entertainment’s resurrection of this long-lost series from the age of Ronald Reagan and Max Headroom takes the role-playing genre back in time for better and worse. The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep’s visuals are a charmingly nostalgic reminder of the origins of 3D role-playing games, but most of the game’s features are too outdated to hold up to today’s standards.
Actually, the first challenge here is remembering what the Bard’s Tale franchise is all about. The plot is supposed to follow 1988’s The Bard’s Tale III: Thief of Fate, although most of us will have to take their word for it given the 30 years between major franchise installments. Skara Brae and a rogues’ gallery of familiar villains from the original Bard’s Tale trilogy are the main hallmarks here, along with new live-action cutscenes that brings to life the iconic cover art from those ’80s RPG classics. They are beyond cheesy, but these clips provide plenty of old-school atmosphere.
Other shout-outs to RPG history are evident in the core design, which is minimalistic by comparison to modern role-players. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the straightforward character development and combat systems are easy to learn. Your group is depicted via portraits in the “party bar” along the bottom eight slots (for the six party-member maximum plus two for summoned allies) on the screen. Movement is handled fluidly with the party being directed as one in real time while exploring. Encountering enemies switches the game over to turn-based combat where you give orders to attack, cast spells, and so forth based on objective and spell points. Overall, it’s a tried-and-true system for a retro RPG experience, especially if you want something basic.
But with that said, Bard’s Tale IV is too simplistic. Characters come with just four core stats (strength, constitution, armor class, and intelligence) that can basically only be adjusted with equipment and skills earned when leveling up. If you want to raise your constitution (which functions here as hit points, unlike a more traditional D&D system), for example, you need to put on armor, wield a bonus-granting weapon, or take a skill that gives a corresponding buff.
Serious customization is hard to come by. There aren’t a lot of character choices provided beyond standard fantasy races like humans, elves, dwarves, and the goblin-like trow, and classes like fighters, practitioners (mages), rogues, and bards. Bards do feel somewhat unique due to their ability to power skills and magic in battle by chugging booze. Leveling up provides some ability to tweak your heroes, but choice is limited because you’re allocated just a single point with each advancement to distribute among the four skill trees
Combat has a narrow focus. A handful of objective and spell points are given to the party to use collectively each turn, and you have to spend them on just four selected skill masteries from your overall pool of abilities. Attacks always hit, so strategizing involves looking through each hero’s masteries, choosing what does the most damage, and deciding on the best enemy target. You can deal physical damage via melee and ranged attacks or mental damage via spells.
Masteries deal with one type of damage or the other, which causes problems as there is no way to switch them up once a battle has begun. As a result, readied masteries regularly don’t match up with what enemies bring to the table. For example, heavily armored foes are vulnerable to mental damage, but if your ready-to-go masteries don’t have enough mental attacks, you’re out of luck. You can try to build a balanced party, but many masteries aren’t shared across classes, so there’s not a great range of options if you want a group that’s prepared for everything. Because of that, combat feels gimmicky, with you failing at times through no fault other than not guessing what the game is about to throw your way.