A few hours in, The Bard's Tale 4 is a captivating dungeon crawler

Three hours into the beta of The Bard's Tale 4, I realized how late I'd stayed up puzzling my way through the labyrinth beneath a wizard's castle and thought: Damn, this is a really good dungeon. I was engrossed. For the first time, my surrounds were beautiful and fantastical: ethereal light from tall windows cutting through the haze, elaborate gilded statues lining the halls, secret passages rumbling open in innocuous stone walls. The puzzles were clever and quickly escalated from gimmes to satisfying headscratchers. While it takes a couple hours to get going, this feels like exactly the game I hoped The Bard's tale 4 would be: a proper dungeon crawler with a creative combat system that doesn't feel beholden to the past.

Even in just a few hours, there's a promising richness to this combat.

The first "dungeon" you'll explore in The Bard's Tale 4 is not a maze of gloomy underground tunnels, absent of life but for the skeletons and goblins you have to kill. It's the lively, un-dungeon-y town of Skara Brae, where NPCs mill around selling soup and armor and commenting on the day's batch of hangings. There's no time wasted here: The local religious order has it out for heretics and adventurers like you, a classic RPG story if ever there was one. But the ability to move freely around without a grid, with characters to talk to and ample voice acting, helps decouple The Bard's Tale 4 from dungeon crawling tradition, especially when you put together your first party of adventurers. 

The opening couple hours serve as a tutorial: you'll recruit some named characters from the game's non-human races, an elf and a dwarf and a trow, all of whom are in hot water with the Fatherites, that noose-happy religious group. These characters sub in for the typical dungeon crawler character creation process, so you won't be buried in stats menus for your first half hour. Your party starts small with just a couple characters before you can recruit a full six, keeping the first encounters simple as you learn the basics of combat. 

Deciding how to divide up limited action points is key to combat.

That's probably for the best, as there's a lot to learn here. Combat plays out on a grid, and where your characters are in relation to the enemy is pivotal. Some attacks can only hit the squares directly in front, while others have more range. Abilities and movement pull from a pool of opportunity points, which you can divide up between characters as you please. Crucially, some moves don't cost opportunity, and learning how and when to use those will make bards and spellcasters key to your offense and defense. Spellcasters use spell points to cast magic, which have to be charged up during combat, while bards slam some booze and use drunk stacks to power their own spells.

So far I love this combat system, which will probably be the most controversial element of The Bard's Tale 4's design. It's a far cry from the standard RPG menu of attack/defend/magic/item, with each character proceeding in turn. But even in just a few hours, there's a promising richness to this combat. I quickly found a strategy I liked: throwing down traps that stunned enemies when they were stepped on, then using my fighter's taunt to pull a unit forward onto that space.

The AI, unfortunately, hasn't been too devious: while I've had a few tough battles, I've also fought some that should've been tougher, but ended up a breeze thanks to enemies wasting opportunity points by walking back and forth. I hope the game is still just easing into the hard stuff.

These start simple but quickly become surprisingly complex.

The first few puzzles I encountered were pitifully easy, but were just introducing concepts that would quickly get much more complex and much more fun. These cog puzzles are frequently used to open locked doors, and within a couple hours you'll be swinging them on arms, trying to line up certain cogs to spin and others to stay clear of the mechanism. The harder they get, the more I like them.

The Bard's Tale 4's exploration really started to feel right once I got past the tutorial and started exploring with no waypoints to string me along. While it's cool and exciting to have a hub like Skara Brae filled with NPCs, the town isn't a great showcase for the powerful Unreal Engine 4. You can see where inXile had to stretch its budget: an opening cutscene told via illustrations feels like a placeholder animatic, the lighting's dull, and some character models are, well, not beautiful. Then again, they're peasants; maybe that's appropriate.

The tunnels under Skara Brae, where you quickly flee to escape the Fatherites, are more atmospheric but still largely barren. But I absolutely loved the next area, beneath Kylearan's Tower. There's gorgeous foliage and effervescent mushrooms, a chamber where a spell has sent huge chunk of the ceiling (and a few goblins) floating through the air, hidden passages and treasure chests aplenty. Magic Mouths in some rooms offer clues to the puzzles in amusing verse.

The Bard's Tale 4 is frequently gorgeous, especially after its first two areas.

If the rest of The Bard's Tale 4 maintains this level of atmosphere, I'd play through it for the scenery alone. It really nails the vibe that, to me, makes the idea of the dungeon crawler compelling: the sense that a place is alive, yet empty. You're alone in an environment that feels mysterious, braving its traps to fill in the unknown. 

There have been puzzles that feel trite—I'm sorry to report you'll be pushing around plenty of blocks—but others clever enough (and presented with just the right fantasy flourish) to keep me engaged as I push deeper. And this is still, really, just the end of The Bard's Tale 4's tutorial: its first main quest, before I've even had the chance to create my own party totally from scratch. That's still an option (and grid movement will be too in the final game, for all you traditionalists out there). 

I could point out plenty of little issues I've run into after a few hours with the beta. It's crashed a few times. Characters tend to repeat the same voice lines a little too often, whenever I glance in the direction of a dangerous area or walk by a magic mouth eager to dispense a clue. There are a few typos. There's not enough variety in the character portraits you choose for your party members. Those are the kinds of issues betas are for. The Bard's Tale 4 needs polish, but the fun is already there.

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