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The Bard's Tale 4: Barrows Deep review - a scruffy puzzler's delight

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An eccentric and charismatic B-movie of a game. The Bard's Tale 4 is an ideal place to puzzle in.

I'm sorry this review arrives late, but The Bard's Tale 4: Barrows Deep is stubborn. Trying to power through it is like trying to solve a great pile of crosswords in one sitting: your brain would turn to mush. You could cheat - The Bard's Tale 4 includes a walkthrough out of the box - but you would rob yourself of the point of the puzzle in the first place. The answer doesn't really matter; it's the process you undergo to get it and the satisfaction you feel when you do that counts. In this way The Bard's Tale 4, one giant collection of puzzles, can be enormously satisfying, but force the issue and you will bang heads with it. It cannot and should not be rushed.

The other important thing to know or remember about The Bard's Tale 4 is where it comes from. This has its roots in crowdfunding, and is not a big budget game with a huge team. Character models are dated and cutscenes are slideshows with filters on, and a variety of bugs (a huge second patch for the game has just been released) forced me to reload upwards of 15 times. This is particularly annoying in The Bard's Tale 4, because saves happen at little pillars and not freely from a menu, meaning you have to redo progress each load.

But what other games do you know that come with a printable Code Wheel for solving puzzles? What other games do you know with a bard hero class powered by booze? What other games do you know with a live-action, evolving story recap when you select 'Continue'? What the Bard's Tale 4 sacrifices in polish it makes up for with personality.

But caught right, The Bard's Tale 4 can be stunning.

You learn magical songs, for example, to open thorned blockades or knock down walls and discover paths previously off limits. You visit a Review Board to unlock higher tiers of ability, if they allow it, and chat to an NPC called Faryn Bygo there (in other words Brian Fargo, the creator of The Bard's Tale and leader of developer inXile). There's badger racing; there's a farmer who hates adventurers because they always smash the place up (I had just smashed his barrels looking for loot); and there's a writer dreaming up a tale about a world without magic and monsters for his readers to escape to.

I wish I could write like this!

But it takes a little while for the game's personality to sink in. It's not the brightest beginning. The Bard's Tale 4 does takes you to some imaginative and beautiful places - pastoral elven realms; twisted, fleshy hell realms - but the opening seaside town of Skara Brae and the sewers underneath it are not among them. The story is codswallop too - I genuinely thought I'd reached the end of the game at least twice before it announced, 'No! Aha! Here's the real baddie,' assuming I cared - although a spritely cast of companions and eccentric extras do their best to lift it (and there are fewer accents I'd rather listen to for hours on end than the Scottish here, which is not, for once, reserved only for dwarves).

The core loop is getting through areas gated off by puzzles, and sprinkled with groups of enemies. The Bard's Tale 4 is first-person when you explore but a chess-like grid when you battle. Your gang occupies one eight-square half of the board, and your enemies occupy the other. Who goes first depends on who charges first in exploration mode, and it can be a deciding factor if and when you whack the difficulty up (doing so reinvigorates combat in the latter stages of the game).

Positioning during battles makes a big difference. Abilities have hit patterns according to the grid around you, and you can't whack enemies stood behind other enemies unless using a spell or an arrow. Governing all abilities is Opportunity, a shared team resource refreshed each turn. All abilities have an Opportunity cost, except those declared Free (very useful) and spells, which use mana, although gaining mana often involves Meditating, which itself requires Opportunity. Meditating also requires charging up, or Channeling, but this prevents you doing other things and can leave you vulnerable. There are Stances you can toggle on or off for various benefits too, like counter-attacking or gaining armour, but again, doing so shuts other options off to you. There is, in other words, a lot to think about.

Towards the end of the game, battles are complicated, ability-filled puzzles. (Picture of a crash included.)

Combat is like another of the game's puzzles, really, and as your powers broaden, your tactical options open. A strategy I leaned on a lot towards the end of the game, for example, was for my bard to drink booze to gain enough spell points to play Falkentyne's Fury, which curses all enemies to take damage the next time they're hit (for good measure I also have an ability which automatically slings my empty bottle at an enemy for damage), then move a mage forward (reducing their next spell cost by one because of some magical shoes) and cast a cone of fire over the enemies in front of me, triggering Falkentyne's Fury, setting enemies on fire, and adding another detonating mage debuff to the mix. Then I used the mage's dagger attack to retreat to the back row - and potentially steal a point of mana (a bladecaster ability) - and set about slinging arcane bolts which ignore armour. This triggers yet more detonations and applies more mage debuffs, and the effect cascades destructively around. There are more flourishes involved but you see what I'm getting at: combat can be a satisfyingly thinky affair.

Yes I am a Brew Master, if you're asking.

The archetypes themselves are typical of RPGs - rogue, fighter, mage - with a nice spread of familiar abilities, but it's the bard which stands out. Hands down, the best bard I have played in an RPG is in The Bard's Tale 4 - and with a title like that I'd jolly well hope so. The drinking mechanic is inspired. When you drink, a stack (or two) of drunk is applied to you, and there's only so much you can take before you pass out. The best part about this is there are instruments which require a certain level of drunk in order to trigger a secondary song effect, so the game entices you to court inebriation. You don't have to play as the prebuilt bard Melody, by the way - you can create any character you like - but she's well voiced and, well, when in Skara Brae...

But puzzles are the game's bread and butter; they're everywhere. There are doors opened by connecting spinning cogs, doors opened by rotating discs with patterns on. There are giant blocks to slide onto pressure plates, sometimes on the ceiling, and tunes to ring out on bells according clues found around you. There are sudokus and logic puzzles, whole halls of hellish re-wiring (more engrossing than it sounds). There's Fairy Golf. There are even puzzle weapons which gain power the more puzzles on them you solve.

Including a walkthrough means inXile can make puzzles trickier. The one in the middle took me bloody ages.

The Bard's Tale 4 uses these to strongest effect inside elaborately crafted dungeons - great imaginariums of colour and spectacle and otherworldly delights, with traps, floating imps and talking walls. Exploring them is like being in The Labyrinth with David Bowie, may he rest in peace - each new area a conundrum for you to solve. My favourite of these was the bizarre and eerie Mangar's Lair, where the chambers at the top and bottom of one staircase kept changing - at one point it was just one giant eye staring at me. Apparently it's entirely optional, Mangar's Lair, and not on the game's critical path; I don't know why inXile would want anyone to miss it - it's exceptional! And there are more of these optional places of wonder dotted around the world. I urge you strongly to find them. They're the game at its best and I regret passing some by.

You look familiar, and a little bit like a zombie...

But puzzles bog The Bard's Tale 4 down too. In outside areas they can become a pain, blocking every door and every little bit of progress. It can feel like inXile artificially lengthening sections for the sake of a long adventure - and it is surprisingly long at over 30 hours - and it wears you down.

Exacerbating the issue is a general lack of finesse. There's no fast-travel apart from between settlements at standing stones, for example, so you're forced to navigate twist-turny pathing as you traipse back and forth between objectives, and the compass isn't much help. Turning pieces clockwise or anti-clockwise can be awkwardly fiddly which, the umpteenth time it happens, begins to grate, and not being able to automatically sort your inventory is a nuisance. It all sounds trivial but in an already long and winding game these annoyances build up.

This is where I urge you again not to try and force The Bard's Tale 4. This is where, after a handful of crashes and having to redo progress (which was admittedly quicker when I already knew a puzzle's solution) I clashed heads with the game. I had to turn it off and walk away, and I'm so glad I did, because returning to it a day or two later made me see things anew. I began seeing The Bard's Tale 4 not as an RPG to gorge on but to snack on - a daily crossword of a game.

It is an ideal place to return to puzzle in. There's no urgency, no tension; it's peaceful and relaxing, and accompanied by the most beautiful Gaelic soundtrack I've ever heard in a game. A whole album was specially commissioned for The Bard's Tale 4 and it is enchanting, from melancholic air to jaunty jig. This, mingled with the game's easy-going fantasy and pretty scenery, makes The Bard's Tale 4 exactly the game to play in the evening to unwind.

If there's such thing as a B-movie game, The Bard's Tale 4: Barrows Deep is it. I don't mean it detrimentally, because although it's scruffy, it has bags of charisma, and by not trying to please everybody it revels in being different. And being different in a world of so many spectacular role-playing games means everything. If you don't like puzzles, I hope I've made it clear you should probably avoid The Bard's Tale 4, but if you do - if you take pleasure in a mental stretch - then there's an awful lot here for you.

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