The Bard's Tale IV: Afterthoughts Tuesday 21st of July 2020

Title
Title animation

I wrote in a previous mote how while I haven't played the original (or remastered) Bard's Tale trilogy, I did (eventually), play The Bard's Tale. Today I finished a 60+ hour trek through the Bard's Tale IV Director's Cut, and here are my afterthoughts.

Initial Thoughts

Getting Started
Getting Started!

On starting the game and hearing the title song which I eventually came to know as Snow in Summer, I had the feeling that this was going to a good game. That feeling took a bit of hit once I started playing though, as I noticed when I wasn't moving the ground still was. I eventually attributed this to some sort of "your character is breathing" type of effect, and eventually stopped noticing it but it was irritating a first.

I think I should have wrote some proper notes as trying to remember all the things I did in a 60 hour play through is impossible.

Loading Synopsis
When loading a game, a brief synopsis of what you should be doing is displayed

When loading a save game, you get a little video recap of what you're trying to do, I thought that was pretty nice although it doesn't seem to load in the background so if you watch them it takes longer to load the save.

General Gameplay flow

Bard's Tale IV has two main gameplay elements - combat and puzzles, with a bit of exploration and character development in between.

Combat

Combat
Kicking some undead behinds

Combat is quite interesting - your party of up to 6 fights an enemy party of up to 8 (at any one time, some fights have multiple ways and some continously spawn in new foes until you defeat the summoner) on an 4x4 grid, where each party has a 2x4 area they are positioned in. Combat abilities are either directional or limited to in range, so carefully positioning your party members is essential for the best utility. You have a fixed number of "opportunity points" and using abilities will use one or two of those points. While you can move your characters on the battle field, each movement uses up one opportunity point and also each character can (normally) only move once.

Some characters also have "spell points" which certain abilities use, and mixing and matching these is crucial. As the game progresses you are granted more opportunity points and the skill trees of your party can sometimes boost them too, which is very helpful as get further into the game. Towards the end of the game when I had a large number of points I could make better use of moving my party around on the battle field to make best use of abilities which I could hardly do at the earlier levels.

Some abilities require can take more than one turn to activate, requiring "focus" and preventing other actions from being taken. Therefore, the opponent can either try to kill the character or break their focus. It's a nice mechanic I haven't really seen before.

Oh yes, and the enemy doesn't cheat. They too have opportunity points and spell points and fixed abilities. It works really well.

However, I did end up changing the game difficulty to Easy. I started off at Normal but the first few fights ended up in defeat more often than not. Perhaps I wasn't used to the abilities of my characters as I started gathering them, or perhaps I was unlucky but I'd frequently trounced by an unforgiving enemy.

Conversation
A normal conversation with a somewhat abnormal subject.

Although you can create your own party by hiring mercenaries, I found I got by perfectly fine using the characters I recruited during the game. I liked the way that at various points the characters would have quick conversations with each other, I less liked the fact that there were triggered at the same spots and sometimes would repeat. Most amusing was the conversations between Lioslaith and Bryon.

Puzzles

In my opinion the puzzles are easily the worst part of the Bard's Tale. There are only a few types and they get used, and used, and overused, and overused some more. I was seriously fed up of them before I was halfway through the game which also caused me to skip some optional chest puzzles as I just could not face pushing one more stupid block around.

Block Puzzles
Block Puzzles. How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways. I hate thee to the depth and breadth and height

Blocks: Push the a block from A to B without getting it trapped. Rinse and repeat ad-naseum. Later on the designers must have thought "how can we make these tedious puzzles even more so. I know... lets make it so that when you push one block, another block somewhere else moves as well". I hated these bloody puzzles.

Fairy Golf
Fairy Golf. Many fairies died to bring you this screenshot.

Fairy Golf. Use various totems to guide a fairy to a fairy ring without destroying her. Humorous. I thought after the first couple of these that they would become my pet hate, but the block puzzles quickly took the top spot.

Circuit Puzzles
Circuit Puzzles. Not denying it, I'm not a fan of these either.

Lava Circuits. A line based puzzle where you essentially have to complete a circuit made of lava. Or maybe blood. I don't know and I don't care... these puzzles also pissed me off with their overuse.

Gears. Move cogs and wheels around to complete a mechanism.

The annoying thing is there were other types of puzzle too, a few where you had to play a tune on some bells, another where you had to touch all the lights without touching one more than once, some code wheels, get-the-statues-to-the-right-height, and various others. Another interesting one was mixing different inks to solve a problem. Yet the vast majority are utterly boring move blocks around (not to mention that for the most they don't even make the slightest bit of sense lore wise).

Exploration

WFF
What Is This I Don't Even

Level design is actually fairly linear. There are some secrets to be found, but by and large it isn't possible to leave the beaten path. It is worth exploring all the map though as in places there are shrines for upgrading weapons, chests, hidden caches and mini puzzles (almost invariably another "move the block" puzzle. Sigh). Plus the odd bizarre Easter egg.

You can use tools such as grappling hooks and lockpicks to get to high places and loot things that don't belong to you. As with any RPG everyone seems to take a totally blind eye to you smashing and looting everything not nailed down.

Character Development

Skill Tree
An example of a skill tree

Each archetype in the Bard's Tale has a number of different skill trees which is one of two ways of boosting a party member's stats and abilities. The other way is with weapons and armour, which can include stats and even new abilities.

While you can also craft new weapons I finished the game before getting around to it, using the weapons I found in side quests or looted.

Graphics

Nice Vista
One of many examples of how great it can look

The Bard's Tale is capable of looking great, the Forest of Inshriach looks fantastic and some other zones are just as spectacular, such as the Maiden's Barrow and the Stennis Isles. But, it also has some utterly awful effects so that certain areas looked as though they were crawling with fireflies. Perhaps my aging GTX 950 can't keep up?

Human character models were terrible. Heads too big for bodies, eyes to big for heads, there was something "off" about most models. And the lip synching was abysmal too.

Shortly after starting to play, I replaced my primary HD monitor with a 2560x1080 ultra wide. Whilst the game runs at this resolution, it cheats and only renders at 1920x1080 with two massive black bars on either side of the screen. A bit of a shame because when the environments are good, they are really good.

Audio

Song Lyrics
Song Lyrics. These books are clues to weapons past.

I think the audio is hands down the best thing about the game. The songs are astounding. Rather annoyingly, the Director's Cut doesn't include the soundtrack, so I'm going to have to track that down. But as well as the primary songs about the weapons used to defeat the evils of the previous trilogy, there are quite a number of Gaelic tracks and they all sound wonderful.

Annoyances

I've already noted my distaste for the limited and overused puzzles. With that said though, the game does include an option which will give you a new song to bypass them. I never enabled this option so I don't know precisely what it does or how it works, but I suspect if I ever do play through the game again I would enable this option.

Crafting pane
Crafting pane. You will be using this a lot for food, lock picks and combat items.

The inventory system is also a bit frustrating. You can't store items anywhere but your inventory, so I ended up carrying an awful lot of elven weapons that I hoped I could upgrade and armour upgrades for the next times my characters upgraded and I could unlock a defence option.

Finding items is hard, while you can filter you can't search.

And whoever added the right-click menu to items needs to be flogged. When opened, the menu appears to the right of the item in question. So many times I right clicked in order to inspect or use an item, then moved the mouse onto the menu only for it to close. Then move the mouse back to the item and repeat.

Annoying Characters
One of two annoying characters who somehow always end up ahead of you

Unlike some games, there isn't a way of taking notes or annotating a map. I ended up writing notes on the different shrines I found and elven weapons I collected to try and match the phrases. Some quests need you to refer to books you have collected but again, there's no way of having that information permanently on screen, so it's either write the information down manually or constantly open the inventory, find the book, inspect the book, close the book. Also annoying in the Forest when trying to activate skygates.

Speaking of the Forest, that is the hands down worst level ever. It started off nicely enough, until I realise it was a thinly disguised maze. I could standing 2feet away from where I needed to be but still had to walk a mile or two to actually get there.

The Ending

How not to hide something
So. When you have something unspeakably evil... you don't hide it like this. OK?

End game was the same as the rest of the game, except that the block puzzles took in a new extra frustrating mode, they found a way to make gear puzzles even more tedious as well, and then just to spice things up they added a bunch of annoying light puzzles too. Otherwise, it was the same as the rest of the game and not any more difficult. Even the end boss was pretty simple.

I don't mean that in a disparaging way, all too often games throw a complete 180 degree turn and make the last level of a game completely different to everything that came before (Trine, MURDERED: SOUL SUSPECT) which always leaves a bad taste, so I'm glad when a game doesn't ruin everything with the last act.

Final thoughts

Dr Syn Reference?
Is this a reference to Dr Syn? It would seem so but why?

I was disappointed how dull the game was in comparison to the Bard's Tale. That game was funny and quirky. This game has a few bits of humour but that is it. In truth I assume Bard's Tale is the aberration and IV follows the formula of the original trilogy.

Early on in the game you have to choose a member of your party to go to the Haernhold to warn the Dwarves. You then never see that person again, they are never referred to again and no one seems to care that the member has vanished. Eventually I went looking for that member but discovered the Haernhold was hostile and too powerful for me. I don't know if this piece would get resolved if I progress in this area but it was still odd the way the game went silent on the matter.

At a certain point in the game, you're warned that if you continue, the world will end. I still had a couple of side quests outstanding but thought I could complete them on the way back to the Adventurer’s Guild. Unfortunately I was mistaken so I didn't get to finish them. In addition, there were two zones that seem to be completely optional - the Dwarven city of Haernhold and some Dwarven ruins beneath the forest. Although I normally like to play as much of the game as possible, the few times I visited the Haernhold the mobs were too high level to progress, and when I visited the ruins and discovered more stupid block pushing puzzles I left in disgust. And, even after you've completed the final quest, you can't return to the game - that's it, it's over. And I'm not too interesting in loading a game-hours old save file to try and finish them off.

I have mixed feelings about the game. I enjoyed the story and the combat mechanisms. However, I was bored and frustrated by the endless puzzles and there limited variety. Although you can create your own starting character, give the fact you build a party then this seems to be completely pointless. "You" are the party, not some random character in it. Therefore, I suspect I won't be replaying this game.

Curiously, I noted many that of the achievements I was getting, less than 10% of other players had them well. Is this because many players had already played the original release and the achievements didn't carry over to the Director's Cut, or did plenty of people hate the game enough not to even finish it - for example, at the time of writing only 3.2% of players have "Savior of Skara Brae" for completing the game.

I wanted to enjoy the game more than I did, but the puzzles tended to suck all enjoyment away. Should I ever replay the game I'll likely switch on the new song and see if that lets me skip them all.

Even though I have the remastered trilogy as well as the (emulated) original version of the trilogy, after playing the Bard's Tale IV I have pretty much zero interest in playing them. Which is possibly a shame as it might be nice to meet the "big bads" (that weren't so bad) of IV in the first 3.

This post was first published Tuesday 21st of July 2020 and was last modified Tuesday 21st of July 2020 at 16:35:17.

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