The solution was obvious: Bard’s Tale 4 becomes a much, much more pleasant experience when you turn the voices off. Sure, there are still pages of dialogue to skip through, but the bad British accents, the screechy goblin voices, the shit-covered peasants, they all calm down and now Bard’s Tale 4 is the quiet, calm dungeon crawler it was meant to be. There are still characters who appear and monologue at me, say nothing interesting, and disappear, and I think the game thinks the encounter is inherently interesting and its own reward, and boy do I disagree–but at least they’re silent.
I have no idea what’s going on–or rather, I’ve played so goddamn many RPGs that I know exactly what’s going on, but the game’s done nothing to make me care about the details. The plot so far boils down to [Backstory from the first three games that came out 30 years ago and I didn’t play], and now you’ve got to stop it from returning. That is, essentially, the exact plot of Dragon Quest XI–and every other RPG that’s ever been made–and I’m at a point where I need a lot to get me interested in your plot.
But everything that Bard’s Tale 4 is doing, on a surface level at least, is a cliche. Its humor is typical geek fantasy humor, its world is Tolkien filtered through Monty Python. Its humans are the same wizards and peasants that you see in every fantasy game with no interest in style, its creatures unspiring and plasticy. That last is a particular shame considering just how evocative I find the monster portraits in screenshots of the original trilogy. It’s, you know, just an ugly game. Everything I am looking at feels like the first lazy decision, with no encouragement to make it weird or interesting. It is fantasy from people with no narrative or visual imagination.
And, Lord, does this game have an inexcusable inventory. It is a multi-page grid inventory with no way to autosort, with crafting ingredients mixed in with armor mixed in with accessories (very powerful in this game) mixed in with potions and hot damn is the thing a mess. If you have a stack of items, and then craft another stack, they will not be combined but rather will take up two spots in your inventory. Its UI in general is bad–no keyboard commands for selecting characters in battle, no way to adjust the way-to-slow mouse sensitivity, ugly text. If you’re an old-school RPG gamer, you’re used to janky inventories and weird controls, but a lot of that can be excused as part of developers experimenting with new technologies and display possibilities, or not yet realizing that certain aspects of tabletop gaming don’t translate well to a single-player experience, to not simply knowing any better because, well, like, Richard Garriott was a scrawny nerd growing up in Texas who affected a British accent because he thought it would make him sound cool and who coded his earliest games from his room. It is almost a miracle that they are playable today, a miracle they existed in the first place, and if you get into the weeds of gaming history you’ll find it littered with the corpses of games that weren’t even that good, that fell up against the technical challenges of essentially creating a genre from scratch.
So awkward humor and weird interfaces are something you kind of accept when you play older games. You have to squint a lot to see what’s in Might and Magic I, but there is a wonderfully solid game there. And that is the case with Bard’s Tale 4. I saw it described somewhere as Myst done as an RPG, and that’s kind of the case. Maybe The Witness is a bit better of an example–certainly the game takes a lot more inspiration from puzzle games than most RPGs. Instead of opening doors with that same shitty Bethesda lockpicking minigame that long ago ceased to be challenging for any of us and has simply become the quicktime event of RPG puzzles, doors are opened with various setpieces. There are traditional sliding block-type puzzles (and I’m expecting pressure plates any moment now), and some more elaborate ones like cogs and gears that need to be manipulated or something called Fairy Golf which I am finding a lot of fun. You develop several Metrovania-style abilities which open other paths and reveal treasures. The areas are all large and sprawling and feature shortcuts and backpaths. The environment is its own hook. I am playing Bard’s Tale 4 not because I care about the story, not because it’s nice to look at, not even because I enjoy the combat all that much–although it’s a pretty decent system which I’ll get to at some point–but because it is the kind of large exploratory puzzle that requires you to pick at threads here and there, testing for weak spots, circling around and reconsidering until you’ve unraveled the whole thing.
You need to squint a lot to see what’s good about Bard’s Tale 4, and I guess I wonder how excusable that all is. This would be a much better game with a very different skin. And they don’t have the same luxuries to explain away why the wrapping is so bad. I guess that the team does have a long pedigree of games that are well-regarded despite–maybe even because of–their jankiness, but I wish they would have learned more from their and others’ mistakes, because so many of its issues are problems solved by other games. It is an excellent game that is held back because of a lot of very poor aesthetic decisions.