Hands-On: The Bard’s Tale IV is a fresh take on fantasy roleplaying tropes

Reviving a classic game series isn’t easy, but it seems like inXile Entertainment has sort of made it their sole purpose in existence. Last year’s Torment: Tides of Numenera was an engaging and entirely engrossing tale set in a dark, unique world and Wasteland 2 (coming soon to Switch) reminded us why Brian Fargo and company are so well-known in the RPG world. Now with Wasteland 3 coming along, the company looks back even further to its roots in the classic Bard’s Tale series.

The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrow’s Deep is a Kickstarter success story to the tune of a whopping $1.5 million and serves as the first true entry in the franchise in a staggering 30 years. Three decades. A lot has changed in the gaming world over those years, but luckily it seems like The Bard’s Tale won’t get left behind by the cruel passage of time.

Still old-school at heart

The Bard’s Tale IV takes place 100 years after the events of The Bard’s Tale III: Thief of Fate. This means that even though it still takes place in Skara Brae and longtime fans will see references and familiar areas, enough time has passed that newcomers can easily jump in fresh without any prior exposure to the series. I have a feeling that will be the case for most people that play the game.

From the title screen of The Bard’s Tale IV you immediately get the sense that this is nothing like most modern RPGs on the market. As a throwback to the original game’s cover, you’ll see a bearded man holding an instrument with people gathered around -- just like a bard would do. But then once you click New Game, the image springs to life with beautifully colorful animations and singing.

When I met with David Rogers, Lead Designer at inXile Entertainment, he explained that these musical moments at the start of each play session are used to classically convey the bard setting, but also to serve as a unique recap of your adventures. This sort of charming spirit oozes from every inch of The Bard’s Tale IV.

Once you’re into the game you eventually get the chance to create your own main character if you wish -- and they don’t even have to be a bard. There are four archetypes to pick from, including bard, fighter, practitioner (mage), and rogue. All of them play extremely differently from one another in terms of not only their abilities, but how they level up across skill trees and the strategies used in combat.

Storytelling is a huge focus in The Bard’s Tale IV and each and every character has a litany of recorded voice over lines -- including your created characters.

Turn-based redefined

Combat in The Bard’s Tale IV takes place on a small turn-based grid system. Mechanically it’s actually similar to turn-based tactics games like Final Fantasy Tactics, but the grid is just much, much smaller.

You have to pay attention to and use the grid to your advantage at all times. For example, if an enemy is in the back row of their side you can’t hit them with melee if you’re in the back row on your side. Some enemies charge up attacks that devastate entire columns in front of them, forcing you to move out of the way. Early on things are relatively simple, but the door is wide open for some really inventive and challenging combat encounters.

At the start of combat you’ve got a certain number of “opportunity points” that are shared across your entire party. For example, moving a character a single space costs one opportunity point, while chugging a powerfully brewed beverage is a free action. In the case of the bard I played in the demo, chugging drinks increased my drunk stat, but also granted me a spell point that could be used to cast my magical bard hymns, like Sanctuary Score, which grants an ally temporary buffer health for incoming damage.

When you’re not in combat you walk around the map just like you would in most other first-person RPGs, but you can feel the inspiration of old-school designs seeping through here as well. You’ll come across lots of puzzles, notes to read, and people to talk to. From a moment-to-moment gameplay perspective The Bard’s Tale IV could be compared to Legends of Grimrock, except each party member is controlled independently on a grid in battle and this game actually has a story with characters to care about. That’s a big differentiator in this subgenre.

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If you want to know more about The Bard’s Tale IV, then you can actually get your hands on the game right now. Starting today, all backers will have access to the beta this preview is based off of and if you pre-order either the Platinum or Ultimate edition you can gain access right now.

The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrow’s Deep is slated for release later this year on PC with “future platforms” getting announced at a later time.