There’s a pub you might stumble across some ways into The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep where you’ll find a writer scribbling in his notebook. He grumbles that he’s writing a world of his own to whisk him away from the troubles of the one where he currently resides. Skara Brae, the Scottish-flavored fantasy realm of the original Bard’s Tale trilogy, as well as this successor from inXile Entertainment, has seen better days: cultists in thrall to an ancient evil wander the countryside, and a fanatical human-supremacist religion persecutes elves, dwarves, and other races. The writer hopes to dodge conflict by creating an escapist fiction of his own, one that he insists contains a better place devoid of knights or necromancers and “dungeons or dragons.”
A fourth wall-adjacent setup like this is typical of the game’s sense of humor, where enemies in turn-based battles scream “Why do we wait?!” The writer and his work parallel the very role served by Barrows Deep, which lets its players unplug from the horror of their newsfeeds for a few hours with the promise of fantasy. The game makes a comedically incisive point: that escapist entertainment, whether it’s a video game or a book being written by a character in that video game, is still often riddled with conflict. It doesn’t eschew problems so much as reframe them in ways that make them easy to digest and triumph over. Similarities between injustice in the real world and in Skara Brae don’t go anywhere profound, but they’re not really meant to. Instead, the cultists and zealots exist to provide easily identifiable opposition in a context where if you gain enough levels and learn enough of the systems, you can triumph over the bad guys in simple, straightforward fashion.
Appropriate, then, for such a straightforward philosophy to come out of what is a very straightforward role-playing game, a callback to an older style of dungeon-crawling that funnels you along linear corridors, through enemies, and into puzzle rooms. Each location is limited and squared-off as if designed for the grid-based movement of the original trilogy. Though Barrows Deep offers complete freedom of motion, it still feels admirably disinterested in the more free-form approaches that dominate modern RPG design; your way forward is firmly on a narrow path, and you will stray from it only occasionally.
Although the game includes books to read on history and mythology, its focus is less on world-building than the simple, straightforward pleasure of its main mechanics: puzzles and combat. Puzzles in Barrows Deep are clever and occasionally challenging and, above all, quite frequent. You can play long stretches without fighting at all, which lends the block-pushing and fairy-chasing and circuit-building an equal sense of purpose. Puzzles fit in well with turn-based combat that, with a focus on positioning and strategic combos, often feels like a puzzle in itself. Fights accommodate some truly powerful mixes of the right skill buffs and equipment abilities that can outright bypass the limits placed on the game’s more devastating moves.
While it’s true that the puzzles and enemies change from one area to the next, each area is long enough for similarities to grow tedious. Puzzle solutions offer little variation, while battles against the same handful of enemies rarely, if ever, force you to deviate from your usual strategies. Characters can take only a handful of skills and a single item into battle, all of which must be changed individually if you want to experiment. There’s no way to create presets to easily swap between, and switching party members means traveling all the way to the game’s main hub across several insufferably long load screens. Worse, the lack of automatic inventory sorting makes it a nightmare to find equipment that complements new skillsets. Such limitations are meant to shave a daunting array of choices down to a more manageable number, but what they actually do is make the game straightforward and monotonous.
The inventory problem, at least, is set to be addressed. Barrows Deep launched in a messy state that’s only partially been smoothed over by post-release patches for various performance issues. There’s still a ramshackle quality to the game, what with its framerate stutters, lengthy load times, and delayed animations that prolong combat. InXile’s latest doesn’t necessarily feel incomplete, but there’s clear work left to be done, and how future fixes will improve the flow of the game—or if they will at all—is anyone’s guess. As of this writing, though, Barrows Deep is a shaky throwback that, despite occasional success in its stripped-down, straightforward approach, suggests that maybe simplicity and escapism has limitations of its own.