Friday, October 12, 2018

Review of Bard's Tale IV

I recently finished Bard's Tale IV, the thirty-years-late sequel to the Bard's Tale Trilogy. I first played these games back in the mid-80s, on a monitor with CGA 4-color 320x200 graphics. Considering those limitations, they seemed like surprisingly good graphics at the time (see the original in emulation here).  I've since upgraded to an nVidia GTX 1080 Ti with 16.7 million colors at 1920x1080.

Fortunately, Bard's Tale IV upped it's graphics game as well, as you can see below.

Skara Brae Below. Honestly, this is probably the best looking part. 
The graphics are overall pretty good, but this is a Kickstarter supported game built by a small studio, so it's not exactly the realism that you'd expect from an AAA game from a major developer.  In particular, the character art is a little cartoonish, and the dungeons--and of course there are dungeons, the original Bard's Tale bragged about its 16 levels of dungeons right there on the box--do take on a certain amount of sameness after a while. There's just not a lot of variety in stone walls.

Character models can be cartoonish.
But for all that, there are some standout visuals. The dungeons of Mangar's Tower and Kylearan's Tower early on (both reprises of dungeons I explored in the original Bard's Tale), and the few Dwarven dungeons, can be quite spectacular in places. But the best looking areas are in the wilderness. For all that Bard's Tale IV is a dungeon crawler, there's a lot of wilderness exploration--which to be honest, are merely another type of dungeon, with impassable underbrush substituting for stone walls.
Some of the best visuals are in the outdoor areas.
Much more entrancing than the visuals was the music. As you might expect for a game like Bard's Tale, there's a lot of it. NPCs are constantly singing--performing, or in groups, or just singing to themselves. Most of the music in Bard's Tale IV are traditional Scottish songs, and I occasionally stopped what I was doing just to listen to someone singing. There's a songbook with translations of some of the songs, but I wouldn't recommend it. The songs aren't always a great fit for the setting. There are four songs in English, one about each of the games, including this one, which contain important clues about certain related dungeons.

I don't judge games purely on their music, or their graphics, or their technical excellence. I judge games primarily by how obsessed I am with them. For all Mass Effect Andromeda's faults, that was a game I played straight through from beginning to end with barely a break. And while Divinity: Original Sin and Original Sin 2 are great games, I find myself drifting away from them for months at a time.

Bard's Tale IV was a game I obsessed over. I played it from beginning to end, almost every night, except for a week when I decided I had to take a break. I even got involved in developer's inXile's forums. (Granted, part of the reason for this is that the game was ridiculously buggy when it was released, and I wanted to report the bugs and maybe hunt for clues for some puzzles where I wasn't sure whether I was just stumped or if I was running into a bug. But also I just wanted to talk about the game.)

So what got me so into the game? Part of it was the lore. Many people complain that it doesn't contain really great storytelling--which I won't argue against. But it did have better storytelling than the original Bard's Tale games (basic plot: an evil wizard has shown up and is causing trouble, go kill him), and more to the point, it gave those stories context and made them part of a bigger world, explaining why Skara Brae was so often the target of evil wizards. The other part was the puzzles. The original Bard's Tale games had a lot of puzzles in how their dungeons were designed, with spinning tiles, teleporters, riddles, and all sorts of things that only really work when the graphics are simple and the perspective is fixed. Bard's Tale IV has a whole new bag of tricks when it comes to puzzles. It does have some of the "find the right item to gain access to an area" puzzles typical of RPGs, but there are also codes you have to figure out, blocks you have to slide into position, fairies you have to guide, and Dwarven gear mechanism puzzles. And each type of puzzle builds to more complex variations as the game progresses. Even combat is its own form of puzzle.
Combat on an 8x8 grid.
Combat takes place on an 8x8 grid, with the heroes on one side and the enemy on the other. Different abilities affect different squares in front of the character who's acting, so moving characters into the correct position, and forcing the enemy to move, is an important part of combat. Spells and attacks always hit and do a fixed amount of damage, depending on the ability and the character stats, so there's not really a lot of randomness to combat, except for crits and certain riders which do depend on probability.

There are a couple of clever innovations which really make combat interesting. The first is opportunity points. Almost every action requires opportunity points, but this pool is shared. If your fighter is best positioned to do damage, then he can use all the opportunity points to dish out damage. Similarly the rogue can use the opportunity points when the fighter's abilities are on cooldown or not really useful for the situation. The second innovation is how spell points are implemented. Spell points are generated starting when combat begins. Depending on how you build your character, they may gain spell points every round, or meditate or drink potions for extra spell points, or use a stance that increases spell point generation. Bards are the exception to this. While they can gain spell points through potions, they mainly gain spell points through drinking. A bard can drink alcohol to gain spell points and stacks of the drunk condition. More stacks of the drunk condition can cause bard songs (their versions of spells) to have extra effects, but drink too much (more than the bard's intelligence), and they pass out for a round.  Bard songs tend to focus on buffs and debuffs (including generating spell points) rather than direct damage. Practioners (the generic name for magic users) can buff, force enemies to move, summon, and do direct damage. Spells and bard songs don't require opportunity points to use, so they form a separate pool of actions bards and practitioners can perform, but many of the ways they gain spell points require opportunity points. It gives the combat an interesting mechanic, where practitioners and bards need several rounds to build up to their most powerful abilities, while the fighter and rogue (and bard, who can drink and fight at the same time) hold the line.

Another, not entirely novel, piece of the combat puzzle are damage types. There are three types of damage: normal, mental, and true. Normal damage can be blocked by armor, so if you're using normal damage you either need to do a lot of it to overcome the armor, or you need to first remove the armor, which you can do with certain abilities and items. Mental damage can bypass armor, and it also attacks focus. Enemies, and you, need to focus to perform certain actions, which require you to wait until your next turn to complete them. Meanwhile, you have a focus bar, which has a number of points depending on your intelligence. Mental damage affects the focus bar first, and if the enemy destroys all your focus, the action is canceled, so focus limits certain powerful abilities, and attacks that do mental damage allow you to interrupt your enemy's attempt to use those abilities. Finally, there's true damage. True damage bypasses both armor and focus.

There are four basic classes in the game. Bards have bard songs, but also a lot of combat capabilities (many of the same ones the fighter has). Rogues tend to be straight damage dealers with a lot of tricks. They're the only ones who get extra damage from critical hits (other classes recharge abilities or gain spell points). Fighters also deal decent damage, but also have abilities that draw enemy fire and protect their allies. They have the best defense in the game, and can use the best armor. Practitioners can have a lot of variety, with lots of different types of spells, and specializations--and you can specialize in all the specializations. You need to specialize in at least three of them to become an archmage, which gives you a large collection of powerful spells.

Every level, a character gains a skill point, and can use that to buy one skill in a skill tree. Every class has at least four categories of skills, most of which contain several skill trees. Everything in the game requires buying skills. Skills let you wear better armor, give you powerful combat abilities, let you craft potions and brew drinks, teach you new spells and bard songs, and provide straightforward stat bumps. As you move up a skill tree, you sometimes close off other paths, but you gain more powerful skills, including a capstone that can give your party more opportunity points, or start everyone off with an extra spell point, or mark enemies you hit with spells with an explosive mark that damages it and nearby enemies the next time someone hits them, or allow you to absorb your allies' damage, or start everyone off concealed.

And here is where, in the late game, combat tends to break down, as these powerful capstones combine to become too powerful. If you start out concealed, then you can take a round or two to build up your spell points, and then, before your enemy attacks, you can hit them with your most powerful spells. In the late game, you can end most combat encounters before the enemy gets a chance to act. It's fun, at least for a little while, to completely dominate your enemy, but eventually it starts to wear thin. I suspect that the developers will nerf this particular ability in future updates.

When your entire party starts out concealed, you can buff and charge up spell points for a combat-ending surprise attack.
Speaking of updates, the game was very buggy when it came out. Things like the rogue's critical hits doing less damage rather than more, occasionally not getting experience for battles, the inability to click on necessary items in the game world, or becoming stuck in the landscape. The bugs have certainly been reduced since the game was released (reduced damage on a critical has since been fixed, for example), but there are still quite a few.

Despite these issues, I very much enjoyed the game. It's been my favorite since Mass Effect Andromeda, and I'm hoping for more like it.

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