The Bard’s Tale 4 is a first-person RPG with turn-based combat by inXile Entertainment. The Bard’s Tale bridges the gap between turn-based strategy and open world RPG while also adding a plethora of well-designed mechanics to boot. You find yourself hunting down a powerful being, trying to save both your hometown of Skala Brae and the whole kingdom (Caith). Along the way, you will gain many allies and make many more enemies (one of them being the game itself).
As previously mentioned you are hunting down Mangar, an evil wraith working for someone who is even more powerful, he is corrupting the world around you, starting with Skala Brae. As for the actual storyline, unfortunately, anyone who has played a Dungeons and Dragons campaign has come across something very similar, evil magic caster trying to corrupt/take over the kingdom. Yawn.
Cookie cutter story aside, the characters you will meet along the way are all unique and quirky. The Scottish setting the game uses is embraced in every aspect with all the characters fitting in extremely well and are voiced immaculately. You may have to close your eyes however as some of the characters look hideous. The best example of this for me is Rabbie, he is the first NPC you meet and should set the example of how people look in the game. Alas, poor Rabbie looks like he’s fallen out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down which is a real let down as some of the other non-human characters look very well done.
For the most part, The Bard’s Tale 4 is experienced in first-person, bar one or two cutscenes. This makes the player feel like they are part of the world although it will sometimes present challenges for you. The lack of a jump button while exploring means you get stuck on things scattered on the floor, at one point I got caught on a plank of wood that was flat on the ground. However, it is only a momentary setback costing you a few seconds of frustration. But all in all moving around the world felt lethargic and restrictive, there’s often only one path for you to take and the game restricts you from going off course by adding an invisible wall around every path.
Adding to the frustration, save points are unevenly spread throughout the world of The Bard’s Tale 4, sometimes you get two or three really close, sometimes you have to go on a pilgrimage just to save your game. So losing a fight could cost you half an hour maybe even an hour if you’re unlucky. Pair this with some of the longest loading times I’ve ever seen can make starting again from a save stone extremely annoying.
Did someone say extremely annoying? Let’s talk about the inventory menu in The Bard’s Tale 4. Where do I begin?. It felt unnatural to use. Firstly if you pick something up it will slot it into your inventory for you (which is lovely) but it will put it as near to the front as possible. So you end up with items everywhere, some of which are old and some are new there’s no way to sort them or search them. On top of that, there is no drop/destroy shortcut you have to right click, then destroy, then confirm, every time you want to get rid of something. I spent large chunks of time just sorting through things inside my inventory.
One thing that never got frustrating though was the use of the songs, these act as a way to interact with the world around you. You learn songs to; activate fast travel points, see corrupted entities, and uncover hidden stashes of goodies. Each song is used differently and often allows you to go back on yourself and discover items and chest that were previously locked away. Once you’ve learned what the song does it’s up to you to decipher when and where to use it which gives you such a good feeling of accomplishment when you do hum, sing, or play the right tune at the right time.
The element I most enjoyed about The Bard’s Tale 4 4 was the puzzles. They are designed in such a way as to allow you to learn how to solve them without the game really telling you how. I found myself naturally progressing through harder and harder puzzles with little to no instruction. This is most evident in the cog puzzles and the fairy puzzles, both very different from each other, one you are moving cogs along tracks to make certain cogs turn, the other you are guiding fairies to a stone using signs.
Once you get the hang of them they build on themselves, the cog puzzles introduce cogs that are red and they have to be still in order for you to finish the puzzle and the fairy puzzles introduce using two signs at once to make the fairy move in diagonals. I will add though that as much as the cog puzzles really do test your knowledge they are extremely finicky as you cannot lock the camera onto the puzzle, I found myself clicking the wrong cog multiple times. Adding to my frustration you have to run this game on high textures. I found out while fiddling with the settings that on medium textures some of the interactable pieces for the fairy puzzles looked completely different to their high texture counterparts, to the point where I could barely tell what it was.
On a positive note, the turn-based combat of The Bard’s Tale 4 is very well designed. It’s engaging and tactical, often making you think just as much as the puzzles would. Enemies are well modeled and the effects for spells are clear. The skill trees for each class are unique and provide a wide variety of skills and abilities to affect your experience both in and out of combat. However I did find myself in very sticky situations often relying on luck to get me through certain combat encounters.
If you choose to make your own character and elect not to make a Bard your next opportunity to acquire a bard into the party is about 8 hours in and for me, at that point, I was struggling in almost every fight (I also chose to send the fighter away to do something, which in hindsight is an awful decision. Just a heads up.) I also found myself relying on the practitioners during combat, the combination of the arcane barrage (the first spell you learn) alongside the soul leech effect (has a chance to refund spell slots when you hit spells) felt extremely powerful and dominated how most of my encounters were won or lost.
The one thing I hated most about combat in The Bard’s Tale 4 was actually starting it. The Bard’s Tale 4 uses a charge mechanic to allow you to initiate fights. This is basically a dash that allows your team to go first if you charge the enemy. This was honestly the most awkward part of the game, the charge stops on minor obstacles which stopped me from getting the first strike numerous times. Once it even clipped me onto a rock that I definitely shouldn’t have been allowed to stand on and soft-locked my game! Enemies can sometimes be hard to spot in busy streets and I would accidentally walk into an encounter that I didn’t want to happen. I accidentally walked into an impossible level encounter (seriously, there are impossible encounters that your team almost can’t win) because I had no idea it was there until I saw the enemies on the minimap but by then it was too late, I had to watch my team die as I wondered where the last checkpoint was.
The Bard’s Tale 4 has quite possibly the most humbling soundtrack out there. Everywhere you go you can hear music off in and around you. The songs that play aren’t blistering scores played by large orchestras, they are small and warm, played on one or two instruments. My personal favorite is the song that plays when you first boot the game up. It’s soft and welcoming and even gives you a little insight into the story. When I first heard it I honestly just sat there and listened to it for a good five or six minutes. Overall this game is a real treat to listen to from start to finish. Even the tunes that play during your battles are jams! The use of authentic sounding instruments and some amazing musicians/vocalists breathes life into the game.
The Bard’s Tale 4 does look amazing both in and out of combat (my favorite is the puddles of water, they look so hydrating!) however I have had an issue with the game looking fuzzy. Even after playing around with the settings I struggled to get a clear picture. I play all my games on an HP Omen with a GTX950m and about 8GB RAM and it serves me well in most scenarios.
I found the best happy medium was low for everything except textures which I set to high. Combat is especially beautiful, all of the spell’s effects flying around and the characters all look gorgeous. Even on the lowest setting the game still looks good though.