The Bard’s Tale 4 first look: Reinventing the dungeon crawler

The Bard’s Tale 4 first look: Reinventing the dungeon crawler

We’re standing in the most beautiful dungeon I’ve ever seen in a game—which happens to be a lush green forest peppered with highlights of orange and red, not the dank catacombs I think of when I hear the word ‘dungeon.’ And when we start walking forward, peering side-to-side and climbing a set of stony stairs, there’s something else odd: our free, unconstrained movement, a far cry from the rigid step-by-step, block-by-block exploration of classic dungeon crawlers. This is what it looks like to build a new game in a genre as old as PC gaming itself.

Developer inXile has invited me to its studio for an early look at The Bard’s Tale 4, the first game in the series since 1991. After the blinding glare of a bright southern California morning, the inXile office, a floor above a local surf shop, feels a bit like a dungeon itself. But a cool one—it’s small and intimate, decked out with Christmas lights and artwork for Wasteland 2 and only the occasional baby doll hanging from the rafters. For the next hour, I’ll get to see a game that feels at once delightfully old-fashioned and tantalizingly new. The Bard’s Tale 4 is the first dungeon crawler that’s really grabbed my interest since I sat on my dad’s lap playing the original Bard’s Tale circa 1993, getting lost in the endless streets and abandoned houses of Skara Brae. Partially because, damn, is it ever pretty, but mostly because inXile is walking a tricky tightrope of nostalgia and innovation.

The Bard’s Tale 4 is the first dungeon crawler that’s really grabbed my interest since I sat on my dad’s lap playing the original Bard’s Tale circa 1993.

“We’re keeping the important parts of Bard’s Tale, incorporating that into a package keeping modern sensibilities in mind,” says Brian Fargo, who helped design The Bard’s Tale with his friend Michael Cranford in 1984. It was one of the first games developed at Interplay, which he founded in the early 1980s and left in 2000 after a corporate buyout dramatically changed the company. His team at inXile, which he founded in 2002, is small—Fargo likes to talk about them being scrappy, and finding clever ways to punch above their weight with games like The Bard’s Tale 4—though they’re a bit bigger than the team of a half-dozen that made The Bard’s Tale one of the most popular RPGs of the 1980s.

Fargo lays out how much of this new Bard’s Tale is staying true to the classic dungeon crawler formula. Party-based? Naturally. Turn-based combat? Of course. Exploration is still core to the game, and you’ll be finding secret doors and treasures even when you’re wandering the Forest of Inschriach, where our demo started.

“We even allow you to keep on a grid-based system,” Fargo says. “There’s something to be said for the precision of true-mapping. When things are just pure open world, it’s a different mapping sequence than when I can know exactly what square I’m on. So that’s another option here, that you can lock onto a grid and know where you are, even though it looks like free movement. Which it is—you can have it either way, basically.”

inXile hard at work.

Building the world of The Bard’s Tale

The Bard’s Tale 4 isn’t the first dungeon crawler to have above-ground ‘dungeons,’ of course—2014’s Legend of Grimrock 2 starts on a picturesque beach—but it’s amazing how different a dungeon crawler feels the second you’re not snapped to a grid. Creative director David Rogers explains that in level design, everything is aligned to a grid, so fans can break out the graph paper and map their own dungeons if they wish. “They can play on hardcore mode and be able to orient themselves in a dungeon, and have a sense that maybe there’s a secret room behind here, because I’ve mapped this out and I can tell there’s a gap, and I feel like there might be something behind this wall,” he says.

VP of Development Chris Keenan chimes in that at the same time, it was important to them that The Bard’s Tale 4 didn’t look look it was on a grid. “Sometimes I’ve seen, like, Legend of Grimrock and those types of games, it still has that feel—everything is very squared off and angled,” he said.

The Bard’s Tale has long borrowed names from Scotland, but this time the team went to Skara Brae for inspiration (and photos).

One thing The Bard’s Tale 4 definitely has in common with other dungeon crawlers is the eerie stillness of its world. There is animation, of course: Particles float in the air, plants sway slightly in the breeze. Later, when we enter a proper dungeon beneath a castle, goblins patrol its stone hallways. But this is more like walking through a painting than the busier simulation of a world like Skyrim’s or The Witcher 3’s.

“When you get into a dungeon crawl experience, you don’t have this really dynamic, changing environment, the frenetic feel of combat going around, constantly moving your camera,” Keenan says. That’s why Bard’s Tale 4 is being built in Unreal Engine 4, and what I’ve seen running in real time looks just as nice as the little slice of gameplay video inXile has released so far.

“We want to push as much effort into the visual effects, the characters, the animation, the personality of the guys you’re fighting against. A lot of the time these games can get pretty dry.”

The Bard’s Tale 3 was a silly game. Image via the CRPG Book Project.

Dry wasn’t a problem for The Bard’s Tale 3, which involved an element of time travel and fighting enemies including Nazi soldiers and mutant bikers. The Bard’s Tale 4 is unsurprisingly skipping that bit of the series’ history and instead expanding on the lore surrounding the city of Skara Brae and the world of Caith, which was never fleshed out in the original trilogy.

That’s a good opportunity for an early dose of nostalgia. “In the first Bard’s Tale there was a map of Skara Brae and you would expand it,” Fargo says. “[In Bard’s Tale 4] Skara Brae is now the first dungeon. A town has been built on top of Skara Brae. If you remember what Skara Brae looked like, in the grid, it’s exactly the same.”

To the south of Skara Brae is the trap-infested Forest of Inschriach, with a civilization of woodpeople inspired by the Scottish Picts tribe. Skara Brae and the forest are two of the game’s ‘culture centers,’ locations with their own personality and history and races. Rogers rattles off several others that will be in the game: Elves, Trow, Einarr, and Baed. Though I don’t see any friendly NPCs in my demo, only enemies, they’ll be in the game to talk to for quests and lore and bits of useful information.

“These are places where friendly (or at least not murderous) NPCs reside,” Rogers elaborates. “This is where you shop, get quests, talk to people about local rumors, etc.  Cultural centers are the one place in our game we don’t consider dungeons. They tend not to be trap-ridden or teeming with monsters. It’s a place where you can catch your breath and not worry about being jumped at every turn.”

Rogers says there are more than 20 dungeons in The Bard’s Tale 4, and the forest gives me a rough idea of how its world will fit together. It’s made up of five dungeons “that are connected to one another, and to some extent have relationships to one another,” he says. “There’s the hub dungeon, and then that branches off to these other dungeons that are connected to it. And then connected to that five dungeon super-dungeon are two other dungeons that you delve into through a level load. So where one dungeon starts and where one dungeon ends, to a player might be kind of hazy, but we plan them out in discrete chunks of challenge, and each one sort of has its own narrative arc that it goes through.”

We allow people to go in and get their ass kicked and kind of learn a lesson.

Chris Keenan, VP of Production

inXile wants exploration in The Bard’s Tale to let you stumble upon what it calls “aspirational content,” which is one of my favorite bits of game design that I’ve never put a name to—an alluring, insurmountable challenge discovered early on that makes you feel like you’ve discovered something off the beaten path. If you’re bold and skilled, you can push through at a low level—like, say, braving the skeleton graveyard in Dark Souls or defeating the Midgar Zolom that prowls Final Fantasy 7’s world map—but you’re more likely to return 30 hours later and beat your former tormenter into the ground.

“It is nonlinear, so we allow people to go in and get their ass kicked and kind of learn a lesson,” Keenan says. “Go OK, mark that on the map, make sure I come back later.”

That’s our cue to dive into the first live demonstration of The Bard’s Tale 4’s combat system inXile has shown to anyone outside the studio. We load up a new area, Castle Hangskall, and Rogers sets the stage: Tarjan, the villainous Mad God from The Bard’s Tale of old, has sacked the Einarr Isles and holed up in the throne room of Castle Castle Hangskall. The King has asked you to retake it, and the ghost of a former castle worker clues you in that a key you need was dragged off to the torture chamber in the pocket of another unlucky soul. We set out to go find it.