The Bard’s Tale IV
After playing through a few hours of The Bard’s Tale IV, my strongest impression is that this is the game that Might & Magic IX was trying to be.
It’s got lots of references to the original trilogy, but it feels like a cross between the 2000s reboot and MM9: the look, the size of the towns, skill trees… Only unlike MM9, it feels like the world has been filled in more thoroughly.
I got sidetracked while still in Skara Brae Below, and by the time I got back to the game, the Director’s Cut was out. It fixed a lot of bugs and polished a lot of the rough edges, and I started over with that version.
The world-building is detailed, drawing from history along with classic fantasy tropes. Each area feels distinct, but part of the same world. Characters who join your party will sometimes have conversations with each other, and some get along better than others – for personal reasons and for cultural reasons. On the downside, the NPCs are oddly static, sticking around in one spot with very limited conversations.
The game mostly takes itself seriously as a story of corruption creeping across the world. Your band of adventurers are trying to reverse it where they can and stave it off where they can’t. But there are comedic bits scattered around that feel a bit like the reboot.
The early part of the game does feel like you’re being railroaded, but the Skara Brae underground isn’t as linear as it appears at first, and by the time you get out of the city, you have a lot more freedom of movement and a lot more side quests. (I like to explore everything and do all the side quests anyway, but at least I could choose what order to do things in!)
Combat is turn-based, and the enemies tend to level up just a bit faster than your characters, so it’s very much about strategy rather than reflexes or just getting more powerful equipment. And the leveling system has a lot more skills and branches than can possibly be learned in a single play-through, so you really need to think about how you level up each character and put together skills that complement each other.
It’s not just combat and exploration, of course: there are puzzles too. Most of them boil down to a few basic templates, though: moving gears around to activate/deactivate a mechanism, pushing large stones to clear a path or activate switches, bells that need to be rung in the right order, magic conduits that you have to arrange like circuits…and “fairy golf,” where you change direction signs so that fairies will fly around obstacles and end up where you need them to be. They get more complicated over the course of the game, with stones whose movements are linked, or have specific runes that need to match, etc.
One of the odd things is that shops aren’t sources and sinks. They have a specific inventory and money just like you do. That means you can’t just sell all your extra items to the same shopkeeper, because they’ll run out of space or money! More importantly, there’s a finite amount of items in the game. Including crafting ingredients. As you approach the end of the game, you have to start rationing items like you did at the beginning, not because you haven’t found enough yet, but because they’re running out!
The classic games had a handful of tunes that a bard could play as a sort of alternate magic system. And with the state of computer audio at the time, they were just melodies played on bleeps and bloops. (By the time the third game was made, equipment was slightly better – if you bought the right expansion card – and they could play audio on synthesized “instruments” like playing a MIDI file.) Of course these days any system can play full stereo recordings (and store the data to play it), so there’s a full soundtrack.
There are still short melodies that produce magic effects – it would hardly be The Bard’s Tale if there weren’t – but there are actual songs performed by people who know how to sing! They went for a Celtic/Scottish sound, trying to fit with the various human cultures in the game. Sometimes it’s just background, but other times NPCs will sing in taverns, and you can choose how long to listen. (In one of them you can actually request songs!)
Even better: the songs aren’t just atmosphere. They actually figure into the story and game play. There are lyrics that give you clues, melodies you need to remember and play (they do have sheet music for these that you can find, so if you can’t hear it yourself, you can still match it visibly). Some of the songs are about the events of the earlier games as remembered a century or so later.
I got the soundtrack as part of the Kickstarter, and I still listen to it from time to time!