The Bard's Tale is a series with a long tail. The Bard's Tale I was ahead of its time, presenting an epic RPG quest with magic items, various enemies and dungeons, puzzles and traps, while other games were little more than simplistic 2D platformers. Admittedly, characterisation was thin on the ground, and your party of adventurers were little more than lists of statistics used as tools in combat. But this was the eighties. Nobody was really doing this stuff. Two sequels followed in largely the same mould, introducing wilderness adventures that were essentially the same as the dungeon exploration only with the walls painted to look like trees.
So it is with a grim inevitability that we fast-forward to the modern day, and an attempt to tap into the nostalgia from its heyday. To be honest, this is always going to be a heavy lift because pretty much every aspect of the formula that the Bard's Tale used in the old school has been improved upon in the modern world. The choice is to either make a wholly modern RPG washed in a bucket-load of fan service such as characters and locations familiar to those few grognards who remember the original, or to go full old-school, and hew closely to the basic format of the source material: endless grinds, a focus on combat and exploration over quests and story, and the freedom to get yourself in way over your head and die horribly (or perhaps get incredibly lucky and take off with an armload of powerful magic items).
This new Bard's Tale? Well, I suppose it was inevitable, really. But much of the brutal, unashamedly unforgiving menace of the original trilogy has been babied down for the avocado toast-munching gamers of today. Back in my day, you see, we had to foot-slog to Roscoe's energy emporium every time we ran out of spell points, and BUY more! Or, failing that, stand around in the sunlight for a long, long time. Now, spell power regenerates between combat rounds! Save points are liberally scattered throughout the world, although if you find that a little too forgiving, you can consume them for experience points. Still, there's no traipsing back to the Adventurer's Guild every time you want to save.
Okay, I'm being a little harsh. Do we really want to spend our limited free time wandering back and forth just so that a modern game can claim to be faithful to the original? Probably not. But I did feel that the Bard's Tale IV held my hand a little more than it really needed to. Resources were usually too easy to recharge, and nothing really felt desperately consequential in terms of combat. The fighting is all handled in a kind of JRPG-esque manner that certainly conjures up impressions of the original game, albeit obviously with more of a visual element rather than the endlessly scrolling lists of numbers and combat conditions of its predecessors. Enemies utter entertaining death cries and your party of characters jeer at their foes and mutter occasionally amusing asides throughout.
There is a strong folksy music theme throughout. Dockhands will sing shanties, bards will strum away on their lutes and little fantasy-ish songs occur sometimes unexpectedly. There is a comedy theme too - the Bard's Tale isn't a game that takes itself too seriously. Outside of combat, though, this is mostly a puzzle game. You'll push blocks onto pressure plates and put items into special receptacles in order to open doors and suchlike. Sometimes this is diverting and fun but often bad design leads to quests that are either too easy or broken. I found my progress halted - and a return to a saved game many hours eariler - as a result of a quest requiring an ingredient that is used in the making of healing potions. I'd used them all to make healing potions, assuming that was what they were bloody supposed to be used for, and then found I needed to save one, and there was no way back to a shop to buy another one. Poor show in this day and age.
Of course, I wanted to love this. The little eleven-year-old boy who lives in my head and played the originals wanted to build a party of adventurers and explore the cellars beneath Kylearan's tower so much. I wanted something of Skara Brae to evoke memory of those long summer evenings spent indoors while I should have been out riding my bike, instead trying to find the silver shapes necessary to get into Mangar's tower. But that's not really what I found. I've been underwhelmed by inXile's previous nod to nostalgia, Wasteland 2, and everyone else in the universe seemed to adore it, so maybe it's me. Your mileage, as always, may vary. But if you're looking for a rock-solid, incredibly challenging nuts-and-bolts RPG with all of the quirky flair of the original trilogy, this isn't quite it.