'The Bard's Tale IV' is All About the Party (Booze Included)

I have a soft spot for bards. I'm a writer, after all, and anyone who writes likely gravitates to the romanticized notion of a teller of tales roaming the countryside bearing the news and drama surrounding the heroes of the day. But bards don't always get their due in modern RPGs. Rarely is bard even a playable class, instead tending to be spammy, singing NPCs.

Not so with The Bard's Tale IV , the successful Kickstarter project from inXile Entertainment that resurrects the dormant RPG franchise. It's been 30 years since the last entry, 1988's The Bard's Tale III: Thief of Fate, but Creative Director David Rogers told Player.One those old classics still embody what's best about the series.

"We looked at the core pillars. You like building that party of adventurers, customizing them and making them your own. You get to iterate," he said. "Over the course of the game you build your perfect party."

That party includes up to six characters pulled from familiar RPG classes like fighters and mages, in addition to the titular bards. My hands-on party included a bard who provided some damage and defense buffs. And drank. A lot. Booze fuels the special moves for bards, similar to the way mana potions might fuel magic.

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Strategic, tactical combat defines the action in 'The Bard's Tale IV.' inXile Entertainment

Rogers explained the silly tone and humor help define what makes The Bard's Tale IV more than your standard dungeon crawler, although those elements are there too. It's very much the "if it ain't broke" approach of giving fans the adventure they expect. There's magical, quest-giving creatures and near-miss death traps and deep strategic combat that's ripe for tinkering.

"Those are just good, old-fashioned fun," he said. "So you don't mess with it too much."

But The Bard's Tale IV messes with it a little bit by inserting puzzles practically everywhere. There's the usual puzzles on locked doors and chests, but it goes much further. Even your special weapons are puzzles.

"We build puzzles into everything. If you love puzzle games, you're gonna love exploring. And if you love puzzle games, you're gonna love combat, because it's also a puzzle," said Rogers.

I encountered a few during my hands-on and was pleasantly surprised by the degree of difficulty. The first I encountered was a lock on a gate that hit a sweet spot of being just hard enough randomly clicking around wouldn't solve it, but just simple enough that it only took a few moments of quiet contemplation to understand.

Rogers admits that it's difficult to make good puzzles. Make them too easy and players get bored fast because there's no challenge. He said he wants players to feel responsive towards puzzles, to engage with enthusiasm each time.

"If you err too cautiously, a puzzle isn't interesting," he said.

And so while The Bard's Tale IV incorporates a fair amount of difficult puzzles to keep the challenge high, it also builds in a few methods for giving clues. There's the "magic mouth," talking statues that offer clues for nearby puzzles. Your party members can help by telling you to pay attention to a particular detail or reminding you about an item in your inventory. He emphasized this new version is built off the old games and a lot of things still translate.

"That old map you made on graph paper, if you break that out you'll be able to find your way around. We held true to some really important things," he said. "If you liked the old Bard's Tale, you get to go back to all these old places and see what's happened to them in the past 100 years."

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Deep dungeon dives are what made the Bard's Tale franchise an RPG standout. inXile Entertainment

Rogers stressed that the goal was to make something accessible to all players, because the team at inXile strongly believes in the universal appeal of this RPG franchise. I am among the many RPG fans who don't know much about the Bard's Tale franchise, but I enjoyed my hands-on. Everything felt right. The NPCs had solid voice acting, there were neat puzzles all over the place and the combat satisfied the side of me that's sunk hundreds of hours into games like XCOM.

"It's like a Shrek movie. There's jokes for everyone, and some jokes for people in the know that don't make the movie less enjoyable," Rogers said. "The core pillars of what made old fans fall in love the first time are still relevant."

New fans will get the chance to fall in love the first time when The Bard's Tale IV releases later this year. An alpha is currently available on Steam for some Kickstarter backers. You can get an extended look at the combat below, or check out the gameplay trailer at the top of this article.