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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (430)

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Override: Mech City Bra... 3/5
SolSeraph 3/5
ActRaiser 4.5/5
ActRaiser Renaissance 4/5
The Outer Worlds 3.5/5
Cris Tales 3/5
Warframe 3.5/5
Immortals: Fenyx Rising 4.5/5
Boot Hill Bounties 4/5
Pathfinder: Kingmaker 2/5
Borderlands 3 4/5
Horizon: Zero Dawn 3.5/5
World of Final Fantasy 4/5
ReCore 3/5
I Am Setsuna 2.5/5
Assassin's Creed Origins 4/5
Boot Hill Heroes 3.5/5
The Bard's Tale IV: Bar... 4.5/5
The Bard's Tale Trilogy 1.5/5
The Bard's Tale III: Th... 1.5/5
The Bard's Tale II: The... 0.5/5
The Bard's Tale: Tales ... 0.5/5
The Technomancer 2.5/5
Tyranny 3.5/5
Pine 2/5

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The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep   PC (Steam) 

A Most Glorious Return    4.5/5 stars

“The Bard’s Tale 4: Barrows Deep” (“BT4”) is one of those sequels nobody ever expected to happen. While the original trilogy wrapped itself up during the Reagan/Bush era, it apparently didn’t have the staying power to be beaten like a dead horse, as more modern IPs are. Instead, ‘The Bard’s Tale’ went into a deep slumber, rarely spoken of amongst PC gaming grognards who spent the 1980’s playing terrible games and covering their walls with pages of notes and graph paper maps. That is until Brian Fargo, the exiled CEO of InterPlay started fishing for some IPs that his new startup, inExile Entertainment, could use as a stepping stone to get off the ground, back around 2002. He lit on ‘The Bard’s Tale’ IP and, through some legal tiptoeing and lack of direct referencing of the original trilogy, guided inExile to produce a strange spinoff that bore “The Bard’s Tale” (2004) as its title. InXile found some mild success dusting off this ancient IP as well as the equally ancient ‘Wasteland,’ and the less ancient ‘Torment’ IP (though now divorced from the Wizards of the Coast-owned PlaneScape setting).

Over the years since its reformation from some tattered fragments of InterPlay, inXile managed to make a name for itself as an Indie-tier developer of slightly-unpolished RPGs. Of course, it wasn’t a huge reputation, nor was the company hugely profitable, so when Uncle Microsoft came knocking at the door with a big bag of money, inXile became a part of the corporate giant’s Xbox Gaming Division in 2018. However, before this purchase, inXile had one last iron in the fire: “BT4,” which would be a crowdfunded Kickstarter project. The original version of “BT4” released the same year Microsoft acquired inXile, to decidedly lackluster reviews, mostly focusing on the bugginess and poor use of the Unreal Engine. A year later, with an infusion of Microsoft’s unlimited budget, inXile released a free Director’s Cut update to the game that fixed a lot of the problems and added a chunk of bonus content.

When I heard about “BT4,” I was immediately excited about it, in spite of knowing nothing about the original trilogy. All I knew was that a long-dormant RPG series was getting a new entry, and that couldn’t possibly be bad… could it? In order to generate hype for this simultaneously long-overdue and completely unexpected sequel, inXile released both emulations and full remasters of the original trilogy, which I played in order to get myself ‘up-to-date’ on what ‘The Bard’s Tale’ is all about…

… I absolutely HATED THEM! So with the thoroughly foul taste of the original trilogy still fresh on my gaming tastebuds, I went into “BT4” hoping beyond hope that somewhere over the gigantic 30-year span of time between the 1988 release of “The Bard’s Tale 3: Thief of Fate” and “BT4” that someone (named Brian Fargo) might have learned a few things about game directing and design.

He did!

Presentation
“BT4” is a first-person game built in the Unreal Engine. While the Unreal Engine has some quirks and idiosyncrasies that experienced development teams can work around completely, it’s very obvious when an untested team is using Unreal as a shortcut, since there will be glitches, hitches, and general bits of weirdness. Thus it’s obvious that Mr. Fargo didn’t spend that Kickstarter money to hire top-tier programming talent, because “BT4” has all of those little quirks in spades. Of course, when it comes to the art talent that actually builds the 3D models, paints the textures, and does all the heavy lifting to give a game a visual style, it’s obvious that the inXile team really had their hearts in it, because the game looks great. Environments range from huge, sprawling outdoor areas to claustrophobic dungeons, and each different type of region has its own unique flare. You can tell when you’re in a complex that was built by dwarves, or by the evil firstmen known as Charn, simply by how the architecture looks. Character models, however, are somewhat less impressive. While they are well-animated and feature solid lip-sync for their vocal lines, they tend to look rather dead-eyed and glazed-over. Regardless, the art style for both human and non-human characters (both friend and foe) is very well-done, with its own unique character.

Outside of the game engine, “BT4” tends to shortcut its handful of cutscenes, using pre-rendered ‘animated stills’ (which aren’t all that animated), which come off as kind of cheap. However, in a nod to the past, when loading a saved game from the title screen, the player is presented with a live-action cinematic recap that does its damnedest to look just like the box art of the original 1985 “The Bard’s Tale: Tales of the Unknown,” brought to life via the magic of digital video, greenscreens, and forced perspective. The effect is simultaneously cheesy and awesome!

While the visuals in “BT4” are a somewhat mixed bag, leaning toward the positive, the audio is nothing short of sublime. The entire game is voiced by no-name Scottish locals, whose excellent performances lend a vibrant air of authenticity to every line of dialogue. Then there’s the soundtrack, which is one of the absolute best videogame OSTs I’ve heard in many, many years. The game is accompanied by a mix of Scotts and Gaelic music, some traditional, some composed specifically for the game by the talented Ged Grimes, who absolutely nailed every aspect of modern bardsong. And while the original Scotts English songs are great in and of themselves, nothing stirred my black old heart as much as walking through the silent countryside only to have the mournful strains of a bagpipe swell from nowhere, accompanying beautiful and somber Gaelic vocals.

Technically, “BT4” is pretty solid. I ended up buying the GOG version of the game, which doesn’t support achievements, but I only experienced a single crash-to-desktop. However it’s really impossible to overstate just how much better “BT4” is from a UI perspective than even the remasters of its predecessors. This is a game that is designed from the ground up to work with Xinput or the primitive default controls too many PC gamers still cling to. It features a number of optional Quality of Life features, though the game experience is intended to have all of them enabled – but when targeting an audience as deluded and set-in-its-ways as old-school ‘Bard’s Tale’ fanboys, you have to compromise. Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, there are a number of odd Unreal Engine glitches that made it through into the final product – even the Director’s Cut – that can be frustrating. Shadows tend to flicker and look strange in one area, while in another area the game constantly hitches and stutters for no observable reason. There’s some texture pop-in that has no reason to be there, and it’s possible, while moving around in both the grid-based and non-grid-based movement modes, to get the player’s party stuck on bits of floor geometry, which is incredibly annoying.

Story
“BT4” takes place hundreds of years after the events of the original trilogy – events which have been turned into incredibly catchy bardsongs that both summarize the original three games and make them sound much more interesting than they actually were – have passed into legend. The game opens in the Scottish city of Skara Brae with the default hero, a female bard named Melody, witnessing the execution of a variety of people at the hands of the Paladins of the Swordfather. Their crimes? Being non-human or practicing magic.

Melody is taken under the wing of an older bard named Rabbie who plans to introduce her to a group of friends at the Olde Adventurer’s Guild who might be able to put up a resistance against the paladins’ overzealous crusade… only to find the guildhall beset by paladins and set alight. Escaping into the secret tunnels beneath the guild, Rabbie soon reveals to Melody that the Skara Brae she thought she knew was all recent construction built atop the inundated ruins of the old city, which have been carved out and populated by all manner of poor folk, refugees, and monsters.

As a shiny new member of the Adventurer’s Guild Underground, Melody sets out to meet Rabbie’s contacts, to figure out what the paladins are up to, and why they’ve upped their persecution of ‘adventurer types’ to 11. What she discovers is that a new sorcerous threat has set its sights on Skara Brae (and the secrets the city conceals), and has resurrected the three villains from the original trilogy to accomplish a dark and unknowable goal. Thus Melody and a ragtag crew of adventurers and mercenaries must race evil across the land of Caith to stop these undead archmages from accomplishing the goals of their even darker master.

When it comes to worldbuilding, plot, and character development, “BT4” is everything that the original trilogy is NOT. While the player isn’t forced to use Melody as their hero and can, indeed, create a custom hero of any race/class/gender combination, having a default player character to inhabit is a good thing. Even better is the diverse collection of allies that join Melody’s party through the first half of the game. These characters are representative of most of the stereotypes you’d expect to find in a fantasy game, with a beefy dwarf warrior, a proud elf wizard, a cheeky trow (think ‘fairy,’ but then give them the same treatment Tolkien gave to elves) rogue, plus several others. However, each of these allies has a distinct personality and unique lines of dialogue throughout the game. Even better, while just walking around and exploring, the party members will run through a fairly large amount of passive banter between themselves, which really helps to establish them as characters, and generally makes the party feel like a party. My personal favorites would have to be the interactions between the joke-telling trow, Wringneck, and the straight-man dwarf, Dalgliesh. A close second is the constant snarking by the imp familiar, Crux, who, as a bound demon is obliged to obey the party and assist them to the best of his capability, even though he hates every moment of it.

Even non-characters have personality in this game, since it’s possible to recruit player-created NPCs at the guild if, for some reason, the core cast isn’t doing it for you. However, in creating a custom character, it’s necessary to assign them a voice, and each voice archetype comes with its own set of commentary and party interactions.

The worldbuilding in “BT4” is nothing short of revolutionary… for this series at least. We finally have an idea of what the world map looks like, how the various “Seven Realms” relate to each other, and via a backstory video hidden in the game’s main menu options, we even get to learn the foundational cosmology behind the entire world’s mythology and history. The fact that this High Fantasy worldbuilding does actually feel somewhat unique, what with its heavy Scotch/Gaelic/Celtic influences instead of the more common Norse influences (which are still in there), is a pleasant surprise.

Overall, “BT4” is a pretty long game by Dungeon Crawler RPG standards. According to my save file, I spent 60 hours playing… but according to GOG Galaxy’s gameplay timer (which isn’t exactly reliable), I spent 80. Either way, “BT4” offers a not-too-long and not-too-short experience that is packed with entertainment. I never found myself bored, confused, or irritated, and was constantly looking forward to what would come next. I haven’t felt that way about an RPG, let alone a Dungeon Crawler, in a long time... And NEVER a ‘Bard’s Tale’ game!

Gameplay
My definition of a Dungeon Crawler RPG is pretty simple. First, it needs to be an RPG, naturally, with that sweet, sweet abstracted combat, so full-blown Action games that happen to take place in a dungeon like, say, “Hexen” or “Ultima Underworld” are out. Second, it needs to have spatial logic puzzles and traps EVERYWHERE. If you’ve gone an hour without pulling a lever, stepping on a pressure plate, or figuring out how to get around a pit full of spikes or stubborn door, you’re not playing a Dungeon Crawler.

With that basic definition in mind, “BT4” is absolutely mindblowing in both its faithfulness to the subgenre, but in regard to the design and execution of all of its moving parts.

Dungeon Crawlers have traditionally relied on grid-based movement. This was due to a combination of factors, including technological limitations early on, but then transitioning to a required level of abstraction as Dungeon Crawlers moved away from turn-based, encounter-based combat to a more organic, cooldown-based form of combat. The grid in these later games prevented the Action game nugget of circle-strafing from becoming dominant, instead replacing it with the clunkier, grid-based ‘Dance’ that even modern Dungeon Crawlers like “Legend of Grimrock” lean on.

“BT4” has optional grid-based movement, which can be toggled in the options. Oddly, instead of a square grid, “BT4” uses a hex-grid… and not very well, so I turned it off after about 5 minutes and used free movement. Of course, since “BT4,” like its predecessors, relies on combat encounters that take place in an arbitrary space not defined by the actual dungeon (all those dragons standing 90’ away from the party in a 10’x10’ room from the original trilogy), the grid isn’t necessary.

With or without the grid, though, “BT4” is absolutely packed with puzzles to solve and traps to circumvent. And these elements of the gameplay are executed extremely well. Gone are the old, crappy password-based puzzles from previous ‘Bard’s Tale’ games, replaced by clever, thought-provoking logic puzzles ranging from the common block-sliding puzzles found in nearly every game to codebreaking puzzles revolving around a small set of runes and a large variety of ways to interpret them. Even weapons – perhaps in a slight nod to the ‘Disgaea’ series, or perhaps not – have puzzles built into them, which the player can solve to unlock increasingly powerful enchantments. Indoors, outdoors, above ground, underground, in towns, or in wilderness, “BT4” presents the player with a never-ending stream of brain-teasers that are all enjoyable to solve, whether the player is deciphering the right combination of petroglyphs to send an errant fairy to her fairy circle or channeling electrified blood to complete gore-soaked circuits, there’s enough diversity in the puzzle selection both to keep an individual concept from being overused and to allow all of the concepts to iterate with more challenging setups as the game progresses. And lest I forget to mention it, the game is HUGE! There’s so much ground to cover that there’s even a fast-travel system to make backtracking more convenient. In a Dungeon Crawler! Can you believe it?!

Outside of the excellent and prolific puzzles, the combat in “BT4” is the other main gameplay component. Not only is it drastically improved over the nonsensical Gygaxian combat from the original trilogy, the overly-simplistic turn-based mechanics of the preceding games have also been completely replaced with a fairly novel ‘lite’ tactical battle system that is reminiscent of the one seen in From Software’s (*heave*) “Enchanted Arms” on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The player’s party (of up to 6 characters) and the enemy party face off on a 4x4 grid, with two rows controlled by the party and two rows controlled by the enemy. Characters can’t cross over into enemy territory, but each of their attacks and skills have a specific range and area that they can hit. Characters in the front row also serve as blockers for characters in the back row, protecting squishy wizards and rogues from everything except ranged attacks. The party formation isn’t fixed in combat, as both player characters and enemies can move around their side of the grid to setup various strategies. Each character isn’t limited to a single action during a combat round either, as “BT4” features an action point system that uses units called ‘Opportunities,’ with each character action costing their team a varying amount of opportunity (magic, on the other hand, costs spell points instead of opportunity, but magic users generally start combat with a low amount of SP and must build it up using other skills or passives in order to unleash spells). Once a side is out of opportunity, they must manually end their turn so the other side can do its thing.

Combat is also not random in “BT4,” but instead every encounter is fixed and specifically designed. These hand-crafted encounters combined with the strategic turn-based combat makes even battles feel more like puzzles and less like rote grinding in “BT4,” and the game is far better for it. Of course, there were a few times I wished there were more encounters or respawning encounters so I could grind some experience and gold.

The fixed encounters do have a few minor rough edges around them, though, in the form of two difficulty spikes. Early on in the game, the player will encounter enemy wizards who summon several goblins, and will continue to do so with impunity. However, at this point in the game, the player’s party is still locked to 4/6 characters, and the party will be low enough level that skills to knock enemy casters out of their SP gaining skills are limited. These summoners also require a bit of luck to beat for a player that isn’t aware of and expecting them, as the goblins they summon are pulled from a random pool of archers, fighters, bards (yes, goblin bards!), and suicide bombers. The latter are the biggest problem because they can and will one-shot the entire party if not dealt with promptly… so if the random summon pulls two suicide bomber goblins, the player is almost guaranteed to lose. The other difficulty spike comes in the form of the bonus dungeon added in the Director’s Cut release. This dungeon takes place in a dwarven ruin and is accessible from the very beginning of the game… yet it is full of ultra-tough boss-tier encounters with golems that will even challenge a maxed-out party with the best gear and skills.

Character building in “BT4” is nothing remarkable for the RPG genre. You’ve got characters who are each locked into a specific class on creation. As they gain experience in battle or by completing quests, they gain levels, each of which grants a single skill point. Skill points can then be spent on each class’ unique skill tree to unlock a wide variety of abilities, ranging from passive boosts that are always active to class-specific skills to weapon-specific skills. Every few levels, though, the player must return to the Review Board – in reference to the original trilogy and the inability to apply level-ups without doing so – in order to unlock the next rung of skills in their skill trees. There is also an option to respec a character’s skill points by paying a Mercenary Token to the Review Board, a somewhat uncommon in-game item that became decidedly less uncommon in the Director’s Cut, allowing players to experiment with a variety of builds and all the skills, though not to an insane degree because the number of Mercenary Tokens and the quantity of in-game gold with which to buy them are both limited.

But while character building isn’t particularly novel, each character class does feel unique and brings its own valuable set of skills to the table. Practitioners – the official in-game term for wizards – can vary greatly, depending on the style of magic they use. Rogues can specialize in a variety of different weapons and tools. Bards guzzle copious amounts of alcohol and buff the party with a wide array of magical songs. Fighters can focus on being defensive tank-types or more aggressive damage-dealers. There are enough novel concepts mixed into the character building and combat execution by said characters that it really makes for a fresh RPG experience… and is about a trillion percent better than the garbage combat that gives OG ‘Bard’s Tale’ fanboys nostalgia boners. Sure, there are a couple of meme battles in “BT4” that reference the awful encounter system of the original, including both the 99 Skeletons and 99 Berserkers, 99 Berserkers, 99 Berserkers, and 99 Berserkers, but they’re definitely played for referential humor this time around instead of an earnest design choice (and coincidentally, while fighting said Berserkers, on wave 67/99, one of them decided he would defeat my party by refusing to end his turn, forcing me to reload my save and start that battle over, which would have been triggering if the whole thing wasn’t so silly).

Overall
“The Bard’s Tale 4: Barrows Deep” is completely unlike the original games that bear the ‘Bard’s Tale’ name… and is SO MUCH BETTER for it! Not only does this unforeseen sequel completely destroy its predecessors in every category, between the glorious soundtrack, the rich narrative, thoughtful puzzles, and compelling combat, it also completely redeems its IP as a Dungeon Crawler, ranking as one of the best games in that subgenre I’ve ever played. Sure, there are some rough edges, with visual quirks and some minor difficulty spikes, but they do little to eclipse the game’s overall excellence. Move over, “Dungeon Master,” there’s (finally) a new king in town!

Presentation: 4.5/5
Story: 4.5/5
Gameplay: 4.5/5
Overall (not an average): 4.5/5

 

 


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