Content of the article: "The Bard’s Tale IV: Director’s Cut is an underrated gem of a turn based RPG (but you have to look past some jankiness)"
I had a blast with this game and wanted to bring some attention to it. If you're a fan of dungeon crawlers or DnD style RPGs you may want to check this one out. It's janky as heck but it's a vibrant, fun game at heart.
My background: I grew up playing the original Bard's Tale I and II on the Apple IIe. I love turn based RPGs, exploration, and figuring out combat systems. So I was definitely the target market for this game. It was fun to tool around Skara Brae and remember the landmarks, layout, and characters from the old games. That said, background with the series is a nice little bonus but definitely not necessary to enjoy the game.
I played the game on PS4. It was perfectly playable there, though some of the puzzles were annoying to do with a controller, and mouse look on PC would be MUCH easier. I put in about 70 hours, doing many of the side quests and secrets, but not 100%.
Music – The music is amazing. It features many different vocalists singing traditional Scottish Gaelic music. This adds so much atmosphere and character to the game. There are also bard songs written especially for the game referencing events in the Bard's Tale series and sung by talented singers who also voice the characters in game. I've often found songs in games cheesy but in this case it really worked and made the world feel real and lived-in.
I don't often listen to game soundtracks outside of their games, but this one is an exception.
Here's an example:
Exploration and lore – The game world is varied and fun to explore. There are a lot of nooks and crannies waiting to be found with loot, lore, or just goofy secrets (one had me cracking up when I found it, but I don't want to spoil it here!). As you progress in the main story you gain songs (abilities) that let you get past specific obstacles. You can then go back to previously explored areas and use these to unlock new places. There are entire side quest dungeons that aren't required for the main story but are varied and fun to explore and clear out.
The world feels lived-in and there is a lot of back story and lore, from songs and lyrics to books, notes, characters, architecture, and the voice lines your various enemies spout (my favorite being the zealots moaning "music.. is… perversion!" when my bard would bust out a combat song). The game twists generic fantasy tropes into its own versions which gives it its own flavor that's enjoyable to spend time in.
Combat – It took awhile for combat to click with me but once it did I found it a lot of fun. You have a limited number of opportunity points you can spend per turn. Each time a party member takes an action it generally uses one point, sometimes more. Spellcasters use magic points to cast spells and you have to meditate (charge up) to gain these points before you can use them, which means early game you're often spending your first turn of combat setting things up for later. This takes some getting used to at first since it runs counter to common RPG mechanics where you open with your big flashy abilities and then run out of resources later.
Early game can feel very limited with few opportunity points, party members, and skills. But as the game goes on you accumulate more of all of these and once you reach a critical mass you start to feel powerful and and are able to unlock some fun combos. The skill trees are varied and you can go a lot of different directions with your characters depending on what tactics you want to employ.
You can re-spec your skills by paying an in-game currency. The same currency is used to hire mercenaries (generic party members you roll yourself). There seem to be around 15 of these coins in the game, so you're limited in how much you can re-spec, especially if you also want to roll a bunch of your own characters. I actually never ended up using these because I was happy with the characters you get in the game and I accumulated enough skill points over the course of the game that a couple misspent points weren't worth re-speccing.
Characters – Your party members have distinct personalities and will banter with each other as you progress through the game. They're not quite as deeply drawn or have as much interaction as, say, Operencia (another great recent dungeon crawler that's very similar to BT4), but it's enough to be quite enjoyable and there are some pretty funny interactions.
Pre-game options and "Struggler's Lament" – When you start a new game you can select a bunch of options that affect your experience and difficulty. One of them is the "Struggler's Lament," which gives you the ability to skip puzzles in the game. This was HUGE because some of the puzzles really start to drag on and get frustrating, especially toward the end of the game. You don't have to use it, and I wouldn't skip everything, but being able to move on when something is starting to get too annoying was very welcome.
It's janky as heck – This is the big drawback. As I understand it, when the original version of this game was released it was a buggy mess. Early reviews certainly scared me away and like I said I'm probably the target market.
With the director's cut many of the issues with the original game have been fixed. However, the game is still plagued with all kinds of audio hiccups, slowdows, missing textures, and stutters. On the PS4 the game crashed about 10 times over the course of a playthrough and one time I got stuck on terrain and had to reload. The good news is that in the director's cut you can save your game anywhere at any time, so as long as you get in the habit of saving often you don't lose much if the game crashes.
Puzzles – There are a LOT of puzzles in this game. I remember the original games had puzzles, but they feel like they're a bigger part of IV. Most of them are fun and just challenging enough to be satisfying when you solve them. However as the game goes on there are some really annoying ones, and some types are far more fun than others. In the final chapters some of them are so large and involved that it gets pretty ridiculous. Without the ability to skip puzzles it's very likely I would have given up on the game in the last couple chapters.
Inventory – There is no auto-sort in the inventory, so as you get late in the game things get clogged up. Paging through to find the food you need to eat gets annoying. I did enough side missions that by the latter third of the game I had so much loot that the vendors didn't have enough gold to buy it all, so I ended up dumping things. Not a huge deal but I would have loved an auto sort and a "mark as junk to sell later" feature.
Main storyline – It's perfectly fine but nothing Earth shattering. Much of it is the same loop repeated: to kill the big bad, you need this item, to get this item, you need to go here, to go here you need to find a key or something.
Overall I highly recommend this game if you're into the genre at all. No need to have played the original games first. You need to be able to look past poor optimization and bugs, but if you can you'll find a game with real soul and character.
For those of you trying the game, a couple tips I wish I'd known:
- Don't bother rolling mercenaries until you've met all of the party characters in the game (six of them). Until then your party makeup will be locked in, I think the idea is to give you a chance to play with each of them for awhile before you choose who to keep. I was wishing I had a front line fighter early on, rolled one, and then promptly was forced to remove them to make room for a new character I met.
- Definitely choose the puzzle skipping "Struggler's Lament" at the beginning. You don't have to use it but having it in your back pocket will alleviate a lot of frustration later. Also unless you're really nostalgic I'd skip the grid based movement and just use free move.
- There's a useful paladin (fighter-cleric) character, Bryan of Dorn, available for your party in Baedi Lowlands. He's the only one who is out of the way and you can potentially miss, so he's worth looking up in a guide. He has some of the more memorable banter with other party members too.
- A couple chapters in, you'll be asked to send a party member on a mission to another place. You never get this party member back, so choose carefully!
- Wandersong – A Joyous, Poignant, and Wholesome Experience
- Chrono Trigger is a good example of an RPG where party members have an impact in both story and gameplay
- I just completed Jedi Fallen Order, and I loved it
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