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Can music carry a game? A look at The Bard’s Tale IV

When people talk about a game being “carried” by something, it is usually an element that is more “directly” involved with that game’s core appeal or premise, such as gameplay feel and/or mechanics, story, graphics, etc. But, rarely if ever I’ve heard of a game that is “carried” by music and there’s a good reason for that; if music is the worthwhile element in a game, you can just buy the soundtrack and never interact with the game. However, the sentence “element X carries the game” has evolved over the years just like video games; it doesn’t mean anymore that a specific element is great and that makes the whole product worthwhile, even if all the others are sub-par. To me, saying that sentence now eludes to a product that is generally good (like most games are nowadays) but is made great (and thus, worthwhile in today’s overpopulated market) thanks to a single element elevating the experience.

The Bard’s Tale IV is “carried” by its music, because without the qualities of that soundtrack, it is simply a good dungeon-crawler RPG. Combat-wise, it’s a surprisingly engaging turn-based system that had me staring at the screen for minutes, trying to figure out the best strategy for each encounter, before thinking for hours about achieving the perfect synergy between the available characters; the occasional puzzles had the perfect balance of not being too easy, but not being difficult enough to halt momentum; the skill trees for each character offered various, separate paths that lead to entirely different builds, alongside more disappointing stat-based changes, but overall offered a satisfying progression that was worthwhile and exciting; the writing was largely forgettable when it came to the actual narrative, but in terms of comedy it was excellent as it had me in stiches on several occasions; the loot was not as plentiful as in more modern loot-based games, but was exciting and game-changing each time as it not only provides weaponry, armor, and accessories of higher quality that have bigger numbers, but also usually provides characters with unique abilities or passive skills.

The reason I listed all the things that I like about this game, is to show you that the one reason I love it and stands head and shoulders above everything else is not an exemption, it’s just a feature that was done so well, it’s on a different level than everything else. That doesn’t mean that the game has no issues – far from it, the technical state of the game on Xbox One S would make a lot of people give up on it fairly easy, with consistent frame rate drops, occasional blurriness and texture loading, and a couple of hard crashes. All these technical troubles for a game that does look very pretty from afar, but once you get up close and personal you realize that a lot of the textures and character models look last gen. But, the most damning criticism of the game is that it’s just not that remarkable; it’s a fairly challenging game, but character names and behaviors just fade away the minute you stop playing; it’s a hilarious game, but the story and the world mostly fall flat; it’s an engaging and satisfying progression system, but so what? I haven’t formed a connection with my character, the world or its inhabitants, and the story or the stakes at play.

In reality, the reason I wanted to progress, I fought every battle I could, talked to every character I could find, and done every quest I could get my hands on, was the same reason I’m writing this article and why I love this game. I may have halted my game progression because of recent releases like The Outer Worlds, and as a consequence have forgotten pretty much everything about the game, but I still hum on a daily basis that title screen song. All of the exploration, the side and main content I saw, the battles I sought, and the time spent in Bard’s Tale was primarily because my ears were loving every single note played and sung.

Again, I don’t want this to seem like I’m knocking down every other part of the game, besides the music; I’ve spent hundreds of hours listening to the OST of Crypt of the Necrodancer, but only a couple with the game because I just didn’t like it as much, but I was more than happy to pay extra for the soundtrack and spent the following weeks only listening to that on repeat. Instead, what I’m trying to communicate is that The Bard’s Tale IV is a great game elevated to excellent by its music. It’s not a bad game made good, a good game made great, but a great game made excellent, and that’s why you should play the game AND look up the soundtrack, not just the latter. It’s also the perfect example of a game being “carried” by one of its components, because it’s not a singular component making the game worthwhile (nothing can “carry” a bad game into good territory) but a good/great game carried into being even better because of the excellence amongst one of the parts.

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