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Bard's Tale IV Preview at PC Gamer
Preview - posted by Infinitron on Fri 7 July 2017, 19:59:30Tags: Brian Fargo; Chris Keenan; David Rogers; InXile Entertainment; The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep
I recently wished that inXile would show us more of The Bard's Tale IV, which is due to come out sometime next year. Today they've obliged that wish by offering a hands-on preview to the lucky folks at PC Gamer. Much of the preview article is dedicated to describing the game's combat system, supplementing what we learned in the recent combat video. I'll quote that part here:
Like most dungeon crawlers, you roam the halls of The Bard's Tale 4 in first person, and control and represent a whole party—up to six characters, in this case—not an individual protagonist. Once you get into combat, though, The Bard's Tale 4 does combat differently than any dungeon crawler I've seen. Suddenly it's like a mini tactics game: a 4x4 grid slides into view, and battles place a heavy emphasis on positioning. Your heroes get eight spaces, and the enemy party gets eight spaces. Every character has a 'move' ability, but some attack abilities also integrate movement.
I start to get an idea for how complex these battles could become when Rogers runs into a bumbling crowd of goblins. Combat starts and the goblins bicker with one another in an example of a 'flavor moment' inXile plans to build more of into combat. Rogers uses an ability called Passing Slash to slice one of the goblins as he moves past it.
"That's really great for focusing fire, because I get to select a target to move through, and sort of like a sword dancer they're able to leap to another position and change places with another character, putting them in position to attack," he says. "So we do a lot of positional play. I can knock enemies away, levitate and move them. There's a dagger attack called Slinking Strike that advances them backwards, so it's really great to have a rogue in the front row, and he uses that attack and that can switch a Fighter or something into position to guard for him."
Keenan offers another example: bleed an enemy, causing them to take damage whenever they move, then ping-pong them around the map with other strikes to compound the hurt. It's a huge shift from traditional dungeon crawling, where your individual heroes have no positioning to account for whatsoever.
"When you think about the Might & Magic 10s and those types of games, the design space is already set up for you. If you're going to play a priest or a wizard, they're going to be in the back row," Keenan explains. "There's never a good situation where you put them up front. Same thing with warriors, they're always going to be in the front row. It really only left a couple classes that you could kinda switch around. That's when we started thinking, it doesn't leave for a lot of room for possibilities. So that's where the movement came from. Now we kinda tempt the player to take their cloth, weak-armored characters, move them up to the front row for a huge attack, and put them in harm's way as well."
It's a bold challenge to convention for a sequel to a game that essentially defined those conventions. But another core concept in Bard's Tale 4 is even more heretical: getting rid of basic attack and defend. You equip each character with four abilities ('move' is a universal fifth). Each turn, you'll have a limited pool of 'opportunity points'—Rogers likens these to mana in Hearthstone of Magic: the Gathering—which you can spend on the abilities of any character in the party. If you want to spend an entire turn blowing through your Fighter's entire repertoire of attacks and ignoring the rest of the party, that's up to you.
This opens up some exciting risk-reward tradeoffs. Focus on certain party members too much and you might blow through all their ability cooldowns, leaving them helpless later in the fight. But if half your party goes down in a tough battle, you'll still have just as many opportunity points to use with the remaining characters, an advantage you don't have when every party member gets a single-action turn.
In addition to opportunity points, there are also spell points magic users spend to cast abilities. These attacks will be low cooldown, but wizards will have to meditate to build up spell points in battle, limiting how often they can fire off powerful spells. It's a simple system, but again quite a departure from the usual RPG setup, where each character enters battle with a mana pool that balloons as they level up.
Also simple: there are three basic types of damage in The Bard's Tale 4. Physical, mental, and true. Physical damage has to surpass armor, while mental damage can circumvent it. Crucially, mental damage also affects a mechanic called focus. Units can go into focus when they trigger a defensive stance or a powerful charge-up attack, and hitting them with enough mental attacks can break them out of it. True damage, like poison, can't be reduced by armor or buffs and has no effect on focus.
In one of our first battles, a goblin huddles into a focus move called a coward's defense, and Rogers uses a bard's attack—fueled by drinking a little elven wine on the battlefield—to break its focus and open it up to physical attacks. Later, a lumbering enemy called a Fachan charges up a powerful blast attack that will clearly decimate any of our units lined up in front of it. He's got to break its focus or get out of its way. He chooses the latter, using a levitate spell to move it to another row, where its attack will fire off harmlessly.
The numbers driving all this are easy to calculate—in the battles I saw, most attacks were in the single digits and health pools were in the low double-digits, and those won't be growing exponentially. InXile wants the math to be discernible at a glance.
"We wanted to make sure a lot of it was about the kit you have equipped," Keenan says, as Rogers barely scrapes by in a battle against a handful of goblins and two more powerful Fachan. "He would have access to way more skills than he has placed on his bar right now. As you go through dungeons you get a sense of what things are working and what aren't, and you change your kit around a little bit."
"You can't switch them out in combat, but as you progress your character you gain access to new and different weapons, and the weapons carry abilities with them," Rogers adds. "So you might be using this one skill combo you've been using for awhile, and you like it but you've been doing it over and over again. That's when we hand you this new type of weapon with objectively better stats. It's really tempting for you to now bring that in, because it's better, but now you have to think about how can I incorporate this clearly better weapon and this new ability into my combo, and what new things can I really switch around to optimize it?"
As if the tactics game connection wasn't blatant enough, you learn new abilities from weapons and get to permanently equip them once you've mastered them, just like Final Fantasy Tactics.
"Which, for the record, is my favorite Final Fantasy of all of them," Rogers grins. "I actually borrowed my friend's PlayStation to play that."