Who will keep the dream of Camelot alive?
That is a question you shall answer in the first few minutes of Pendragon. Camelot has fallen, and it is up to you—Lancelot, Guinevere, Gawaine, or one of many other figures of Arthurian legend—to rescue Arthur from his doom. The ending is always roughly the same (should you survive): arrive at the Battle of Camlann at the eleventh hour, rescue the King from the jaws of defeat, and curb Mordred’s dreadful ambitions. It’s the start, and how you get there, that changes with each run, and herein lies Pendragon’s appeal: with a wide range of tales, characters, places, and interactions to see and experience, all brought to life through Inkle’s award-winning writing, this is not a game to be played only once or twice. Having gone through this two hour long (more or less) adventure a fair amount of times, I can report that Pendragon is special and unique.
Let’s start with how the game works: after selecting a character to play as (from a roster that expands as you meet and recruit them in the game), you’re given a brief introduction and sent to your first encounter. These encounters all play out in similar fashion: you are placed on a tiled board and have to either make your way to the other side, or slay all your enemies. Combat is closer to chess than any other TRPG that I can think of, with fight results being entirely binary (if you attack an enemy, they die; if they attack you, you die or are knocked out for the rest of the encounter) and movement happening as if you were a pawn. You can alternate between linear and diagonal stances, changing the directions you can move in, and every action taken in the game ends your turn, be it moving, attacking, or summoning a new character to the board. Enemies play by the same rules that you do, though they might have different abilities or movesets. As you progress, your characters might unlock new skills, allowing them to attack in different directions or cover greater distances on the board. There are some other important rules, such as the ability to cover multiple tiles if they’ve already been ‘painted’ by your side and you’re going in the enemy’s direction, but all in all it’s a very straightforward system.
For the most part, it works. It’s easy to grasp and a quick look at the board gives you most of the information required to plot out your movements. Most, but not all. Here is where Pendragon’s combat falters. There are some elements that are partially or completely opaque to the player, such as enemies that might show up unannounced or a morale bar that you’re never quite sure when will run out. Because the chess-like resolution of battles gives you limited leeway in terms of failure (specially in higher difficulties), these unexpected interventions—being cornered by a new enemy or forced to flee sooner than you’d thought—can have disastrous effects, such as losing one of your characters or failing an objective. I can understand the narrative benefits of having spontaneous interventions like these, but it often felt as frustrating as someone plucking a pawn off your chessboard in the middle of a game. There were a handful of aggravating moments where I was advancing toward victory, having outplayed my enemy, only to be forced to flee from combat because I couldn’t tell just how many turns I had left—they were few and far between, but contrasted negatively with Pendragon’s otherwise clear systems. That said, I did enjoy the gameplay and thought its flaws were relatively small; in a genre that often bogs you down in stats and mechanics, Pendragon’s minimal take is a breath of fresh air.
After finishing an encounter, you’ll go back to the overworld and will be given two or three possible locations to visit, where you might find enemies, allies, supplies or hints to where treasures or secrets are hidden. As your character (or party, after you recruit followers) walks across Britain’s map, they’ll make remarks about the adventure so far and what is yet to happen, turning what is basically a loading screen into a character-building moment. The whole game is peppered with these micro interactions, maintaining a constant narrative flow that helps with world and character building.
I would hear your tale…
It’s Pendragon’s story, and how it’s told, that kept me coming back for “just one more run”. As with any interactive fiction game that has you run through its plot multiple times, there are some recurring elements that become a sort of white noise after a while, but Pendragon manages to mostly circumvent this by offering the player a sizeable roster to pick from, each with a different beginning, personality, and inter-character relationships. Guinevere might be willing to ally herself to Morgana, while Sir Kay would never entertain the thought, etc. The writing is superb and usually delivered in short lines, painting each character’s different personality and motivations quite well, and it’s spread throughout the entire game: the battlefield and overworld are both canvases for the game’s storytelling, and there were nearly no moments of silence as I journeyed towards Arthur. This procedural aspect to who you will encounter while playing a specific character imbues subsequent runs with the potential to see new and pretty words, which is half the reason I play a game such as Pendragon. Elusive goals, such as recovering Excalibur or finding Merlyn, also motivated me to re-visit Arthur’s Mordred’s Britain time and again.
I particularly liked the ‘Tales’ system: when you opt to camp and have any followers with you, either your character or one of them will volunteer to tell a story. These short stories can be anything from horror tales to quests for revenge or witty comedies, and they have some fun back-and-forth between storyteller and audience. Understanding them or the game’s overall plot does not require previous knowledge of Arthurian legend, but it was interesting to see how Inkle rendered these characters and stories which, over the centuries, were told in many different ways.
As with Inkle’s other titles, Pendragon oozes with charm and style: this time, they’ve opted for a sort of stained-glass look, which gives both the characters and the environments a very distinctive visual that is easily parsed at a glance (something several TRPGs neglect). I won’t spend too much time describing it because you can just look at a picture or watch a video, but the artstyle and sound design/soundtrack were both superb and continue to be an important part of why I consider Inkle’s games a sort of gold standard in the interactive fiction genre.
Ride with me!
Pendragon’s intersection between procedural storytelling and tactical gameplay is excellent, with a couple of minor flaws that don’t tarnish the overall picture. It represents a novel way to interact with the legends many of us read as kids, and it does so with writing whose quality is rarely matched in the gaming industry. Inkle shows us that it can continue to take its combination of storytelling and AI-generated circumstances to interesting new directions, both in terms of setting and gameplay.