Nathan Long, lead writer for the upcoming RPG The Bard’s Tale IV, has updated the game’s Kickstarter page with more information about exploration in the game. The sequel to the fantasy trilogy developed by inXile Entertainment, this RPG takes players to the world of Caith, shown in the video and described by Long as “a captivating and expansive landscape,” filled with “a menagerie of creatures inspired by myth and Celtic folklore.”
Explaining that the focus of the title is free exploration, Long says that the game is fit for both players who just want to do the main story or those who wish to explore the world and get lost in its expanse. Working with gameplay designer David Rogers, Long has ensured that no matter if the player is exploring the multilevel city of Skara Brae, or the surrounding lands, the locations will “all [be] riddled with caves, ruins, dungeons, and hidden places, all ripe for exploration.”
Not everything is open to the player at the start. Instead of being able to experience everything the game has to offer right away, Long explains that the inXile team “wanted there to be doors you couldn’t open the first time you found them, or rivers you couldn’t cross, or ruins you could see but not reach.” In doing so players will have incentives to come back to previously explored areas to learn all of their secrets, and in this way play into the theme of exploration as an ongoing process no matter how far along in the story players are.
In order to enforce this balance between free exploration and “locking” players out, there are four “keys” by which players can unlock the additional content. The first key is to put high level enemies in certain areas to both signpost the rewards beyond them, but also dissuade players from trying to win a fight they will be hard-pressed to win at lower levels.
Players who wish to sneak past these tougher enemies in order to get the drop should listen to Rodgers, as he explains “These enemies have zones of perception that show where their attention is focused, and these zones can be tip-toed around by an adventuring party with good timing, or stealthed through with the help of a sneaky rogue.” Successfully negotiating this stealth approach allows players the first turn in combat, and exposes the weaker enemies, but failing puts them at a similar disadvantage to the enemy. Thus the level key uses combat to make players think twice about going into an unwinnable battle without their party properly leveled.
A more classic approach to limiting player’s exploration is requiring certain tools to access certain parts of dungeons or other secret passages. From simple lock-picks to grappling hooks, these tools make for an organic way to temporarily halt player progress until they have the right items in their inventory. The tools also add another layer of strategy as players consider how to outfit themselves before tackling a dungeon or new area.
Perhaps most unique are the song keys, fitting considering the titular troubadour. These songs permeate the gameplay, integral to telling the story and to exploring the world. Some songs will fix broken bridges or teleport players between standing stones, while others will convince NPCs to open their secret stashes or identify you as a friend. This integration of the songs into gameplay bodes well for the title, and seems like another great way to prevent some areas from being explored until the right tune is found.
A last way players can explore the world is by lore keys, picking up tips on the locations of powerful artifacts, or even needing to translate some foreign script in order to progress in an area. Another way to seamlessly integrate the blocking of player’s progress while also rewarding them for diving into the lore, this key is at once familiar but also unique in making the reward for engaging with the lore speak beyond the text.
These many keys together form a set that seems to keep the promise of free exploration in check with gameplay that limits that freedom in a way that does not feel forced but a natural part of the world. From the looks of things, The Bard’s Tales IV seems to be focusing on exploration in a way that is familiar to RPG veterans but also unique in just how integral it is to the developer’s vision for the game. Expect more updates as production continues.