As the hitman Jules observes in Pulp Fiction, "a dog's got personality. Personality goes a long way." Not that I'm directly comparing the latest iteration of InXile's Bard's Tale to man's best friend, of course, but if there's a reason to be interested in this dungeon-crawling RPG over the obvious competitors, it comes down to what it does differently. This is a world that may not have some of the fancier bells and whistles of today's super-productions, but what it does have is charm, humour, and booze by the barrel-load.
The Bard's Tale IV plays out in two styles. While exploring you move around in firstperson, chatting away to NPCs, poking your nose into crannies, gathering ye olde loots and so on. As I was playing the opening hour or so of the game, the early town area shuttled me between some chats to establish what was going on, and guided me to the Bard's Guild where everything starts proper: the rest of the time was more combat and quest-oriented, so I didn't get a sense of how the exploration might open up afterwards.
You start fights by running into enemies and, if you get the drop on them, this allows for a first strike. Combat in BTIV moves seamlessly from the firstperson exploration view into a turn-based system built atop a positioning grid. This makes movement a big part of the fights and something the enemies soon start to take advantage of — attacks that damage whole columns, spells that go across multiple squares, and so on. You can of course execute similar moves yourself, as well as setting up defences: a successful tactic for me, in tougher moments, was lining up my party behind one member, who would cast a protection spell while they all buffed up for the next turn behind him.
Everyone's played a hundred turn-based combat games, so I won't go on about the familiar elements, but what distinguishes BTIV is first of all the surprising number of ways the grid affects your tactics, and then the nature of alcohol. Grid-based systems are not new but this has the kind of flexibility and ability to 'exploit' certain moves that suggests there are serious depths to come. Even using it in a basic style is fun, but it's when you start getting pissed-up that things really take off. I'm a bit of a sucker for games where booze plays a key role and here, just as in the real world, it is gloriously OP until you drink too much. I'm not sure what the lore is but a bard in this game is, to all intents and purposes, a wizard with a lute and a drinking problem. Your spells have a certain level of power, but start getting lubricated and their effectiveness will increase, up to a point where you're really nailing fools left and right. Your characters are angry drunks which, in a purely fictional context, is exactly what you want (they can even hurl empty drinking vessels at enemies, which you've just got to applaud.)
So drink a little bit and, not only are you fine, you're actually better off for it. This is me on the pool table during the first couple of pints, sinking shots with swagger like there's no tomorrow.If you drink too much, unfortunately, your character basically blacks out. I think there's a chance they also get belligerent and start attacking their mates, but in my experience of getting drunk several times all they did was basically switch from Gandalf-on-steroids one moment into a snoring lump the next. Making them useless in a fight they started.
Yes BTIV is set in Britain, funnily enough, though the jumping off point for this world's fantasy is the Scottish Island of Skara Brae. This turns out to be one of the best aspects of the entire thing because, despite being made by a team in sunny California, the drive towards authenticity can be heard and seen everywhere. There's something pungent in the atmosphere, and the thick Scottish accents (mixed in with others) give this place both a jolly folksy quality and, at times, a sudden switch into growling and sinister.
While moving around you'll also, appropriately enough, overhear snatches of song, and can stop to listen to the whole thing. The lyrics include 'legends' from the game's world that, if followed, may result in you finding something, but the songs themselves are gorgeous things and give the whole atmosphere an otherworldly tinge.
It's important to realise that BTIV is not quite the game it might look like in screenshots. The first-person aspects and the transitions into combat are perfectly decent, but anyone buying this expecting a Skyrim-style adventure is in for a disappointment. It clearly doesn't have the kind of budget that certain other games can throw around, and if you want to go in there and find rough edges you probably will.The attraction here is the systems, the world, and the atmosphere the game is trying to create around your party's journey. Will it be able to hold players' attention spans over the long stretch, and draw them in? I can't tell but, while I was playing, I did notice little detail after detail that impressed. One of the developers pointed out to me that the title screen is a reproduction of the original game's box art. That's nice enough. Then he pointed me to a different save file which, once selected, saw the view zoom in on that very scene, as the bard sang a song of the hero's journey so far.
It's an endearing touch, as well as of real practical value, and crafts a hearth-flecked illusion that fires your imagination. Everyone gathered round the fire, the drinks flowing, the grand storyteller tuning his strings, and then — hours pass, barely noticed, as the next stretch of some sprawling, bawdy and mellifluous saga is sung.