Bard's Tale 4: Director's Cut post-mortem (GoG)
For reference, I did play the original games back in the 1980s. Bard's Tale 2 was the first game I ever "bought" for myself (my parents gave it to me, sort of). I'll get back to that in a moment.
There are two ways to take this game: as a sequel to Thief of Fate, and as a standalone title in the same game world. I'll deal with the latter first.
Overall the setting is quite good. There are a few sticking points - why does everyone have the same accent? - but the detail and pseudo-realism is well-thought-out. I say "pseudo" since there are no horses or mules anywhere. You see some livestock in distance shots (bison?) but that's about it. Also there's no day/night transition, and the NPCs don't really go anywhere or do anything. They just stay in the same place and the same businesses are open all the time. Not great for immersion. There are a few other details missing but it's kinda nit-picky by that point. For the most part, the world does feel "alive" until you notice that it isn't.
Music is equal parts excellent and awful. The music itself is great, but the way it is used is iffy. Sometimes you have legit background music (notably the scarier dungeons), while in other places you have music emitting from certain map positions as if it were ambient audio. The latter doesn't always work. I understand why the women working in Skara Brae are a positional audio source for one particular song (the one they're singing), but the music in Fettercairn is really hit-or-miss. Walk into one part of town and you hear music, but some other part of town and you don't? The Wyre docks have this problem, Wyre has this problem twice (some parts of Wyre get music near the prayer circle which sort-of makes sense, maybe) with the bar being a standout problem. You hear music coming from the tavern door, but if you go in the tavern . . . no music! What? Torr Fion sort-of has this problem as well (the only spot where music makes any real sense is the quarry). Also the ambient positional music cuts out if you start a conversaion. There's music near Nain, but if you talk to anyone near her, it abruptly cuts out. Overall, there's great music, but more care should be given to how you use it. You did a great job with persistence of music in the puzzle area beyond Fiona's house, and arguably that is one of the best pieces of in-game music you've got. Rabbi playing in the Old AG is also pretty good (though the fully-instrumented versions of those songs in the endgame is much better, and he hardly ever plays the song about BT3). You actually hear the music in the entire guild, and it fades out if you go downstairs which is a great touch.
Travel is highly linearized. Even in larger maps with lots of places to go (under Skara Brae), you're basically running on predetermined paths. A few areas mask this fact, but for the most part, it feels pretty claustrophobic. You don't have the option of going around combat encounters very often, even with Hide in Shadows, unless there's an alternate path (and there usually isn't). I don't expect Bard's Tale 4 to be open-world, but having a little more freedom to explore maps would have been nice. Autorun would have been nice (couldn't find a setting for that in-game; might be that I'm blind). I have no real problem with the save points, though every time you use a save point it reactivates every other save point, meaning you can plan out infinite saves and infinite healing by just ping-ponging between two saves. At that point you may as well just let people quicksave, which admittedly you do kinda let people do now (didn't originally). There's very little out-of-combat that you can do with your character abilities which is disappointing even without taking the original series into account (see below). Sometimes you get leftover spellpoints from the last battle that you can use to cast Flesh Restore if you have a holy class, which you won't until later in the game. At least crafting is easy, and components are plentiful if you look for them. The "travel songs" are okay, but they feel gimmicky. It seems like you expected people to keep Melodie, so it would make sense if she could learn and use songs like that. Parties with no bard can still use them. Seems a bit off thematically-speaking (see below).
Itemization is partly tied to combat, but I will say that there are some serious flaws before even taking that into account. Notably, berserker armor is widely-unavailable by the end of the game. All you ever get are pieces from the officer's set. It's like the designers made a big deal about making sure berserker-set gear was available around Torr Fion (and slightly beforehand), but after that? Nothing. There isn't a single suit of the stuff in Haernhold where you get most of the game's best gear. If your party depends on anything other than officer's, ancestral, sorcerer's, archmage's, or elven, you're out of luck. You will miss out on the game's best gear. I do sort-of like how weapons enhance certain abilities, but I hate how you stripped those enhancements out of the Elven puzzle weapons. The puzzle weapons are rendered mostly useless for a lot of classes - particularly warriors and rogues.
Classes & Customization:
Too few classes at the start, and too much customization? There aren't enough class-defining characteristics, and I sort-of hated how stats are tied to skills rather than to leveling-up. I also hated how stats are tied to gear instead of leveling-up. Why am I gaining hp when I get a better sword? Because it worked for World of Warcraft so it's gonna work here too? Ehhhh. Really could have done without that. I get that cursed gear might LOWER your stats (one Foozle-slaying plot weapon comes to mind), but otherwise? It's nice that between levels 1 and ~20 classes can play vastly differently depending on how you spec them out, but the redundancy of skills between different classes sort-of makes them play the same. I can make Bards, Rogues, and Warriors wear medium armor and wield 1h swords with the same basic 1h sword abilities. I might not want to, but I can. Same gear, same abilities, same everything except for level 1 base stats. Later in the game you get so many skill points that different characters of the same class start resembling one another more while the different classes start to differentiate from one another due to the capstones. I'd still rather see the skills/perks tweaked on a per-class basis to better-fit the class, I'd like to see most stat gain tied to level instead of gear and/or skills, and I would like to see more skills that are entirely unique to classes. If I'm going to give swords to my rogue, I want him to be different markedly than a bard doing the same thing. As a minor nitpick, I was not fond of how the Rogue abilities related to mind damage (sap) were under the Subterfuge tab instead of Attack. I guess I understand why they were over there but whatever.
Takes some getting used-to. I didn't like how enemies had full animated models, but player characters were stuck with portraits (even though you had full models in the inventory screen. What?). The battlefield is small, cramped, and a bit goofy. Feels a bit like CCG combat (cough cough). That works if that's really what you want, but if it isn't? Tanking is kinda nice if you bothered to use a dwarf or two, but otherwise it's annoying how many enemies can push you into different spaces in combat. I'm not sure that's a great mechanic. Everything always hits and does the same damage, and everything always works (status effects) unless the target is immune. Spell points have to be generated in combat, but can't be generated (and generally can't be used) out of combat. No drinking except in combat. No bard music . . .except in combat. Bard's Tale 4 also seems to be on the "buffs are temporary" train which is not to my liking. I like semi-permanent and/or long-lasting buffs that can work from one fight to the next. There's very little complexity in the buff/debuff gameplay, nor is there much consistency. Status effects seemed slapped-together (hence the need for inXile to patch in certain immunities for bosses in Haernhold that could be cheesed to death with an infinite CC loop).
The opportunity system feels flawed. It's too easy to give someone a ridiculous number of actions per turn while the rest of the party sits around doing nothing. A warrior alone can swing multiple times per round using greatsword abilities, and it gets worse if you get The Peeler from Haernhold (which you can get without beating any of the bosses, I think). Just dual wield that with a greatsword of your choice and then spam Sunder Armor or All or Nothing. You will probably get 4-5 attacks per round, and you will use about 50% of the expected opportunity points doing so. Throw in a bard with Rhyme of Duotime and it gets more ridiculous. And that's not even the cheesiest opportunity exploit. Not sure if I want to publish that one, but I probably will at some point, assuming nobody else has figured it out (needs more testing on my end).
And like everyone else, I hate how you only get 4 different combat options + move + trinket. It's really bad for spellcasters. It kind of ties back in to character customization since I will wind up not using a lot of my combat abilities that are too situational. I also don't like using combat abilities from the wrong weapon. Mostly I avoided this, though I was constantly using Shiv with Wringneck while he was using a longbow.
Too few spells, and too much of magic depends on strength for my tastes. I guess it makes Bladecasting more interesting but whatever. I wish you had an SP pool that lasted between fights and that you might have to do real resource management. As it stands, you have to focus heavily on regen no matter what your build, unless maybe Bladecasting? And then Haernhold punishes you for it? I didn't play practitioners much until late game (and only for Haernhold because they're mostly mandatory) but that's how it seems. Also MORE SPELLS. Games like Tyranny and Pillars of Eternity (1) were sooooo much better in the magic department (okay Tyranny was all cooldown-based, but at least you got more spell variety). Too bad inXile wasn't taking notes.
It's pretty good, though I'm a little sick of "good guys corrupted by bad leadership" tropes. For someone not fully-immersed in Bard's Tale lore, some parts of the game may seem unapproachable. Lagoth Zanta? Whodat? Elder Scrolls gets away with it due to being a fairly-current game setting.
The steel key bug almost got me. I lucked out by completing the area and gaining access to the next stone circle before running into it. Getting trapped in Haernhold by the Enraged Redcap is beyond awful. Shame on you for that one, inXile. I had to cheat my way out of that situation with Cheat Engine, though there is an unpatched exploit that will probably let you finish that fight without external cheats/trainers.
edit: exploit confirmed. All you need is a bard with a shofar, a warrior with To Me! stance (and a banner), and a practitioner with the sorcerer's slippers that give you +1 SP when you move. Get 7 drunk stacks, activate To Me! and then have the practitioner "bump" the warrior back and forth with movement after the bard sings Rhyme of Duotime. Movement costs 0 opportunity this way and has no cooldown. Unlimited SP. All your spells have no cooldowns as well. Boom. You can do this on round one with Devil's Brew or on the second round with any other alcohol (or you can do it on round one without Devil's Brew if you have two bards using Rhyme of Duotime). Kinda wish I had used that on the enraged redcap, but since i couldn't respec my practitioner into sorcerer's robes at the time, there was no way for me to do that.