These are dark days for Britain. As chaos engulfs the land, a venal and vicious ruler has risen up, interested only in seizing power by whatever means are at hand. Some have sunk into despair while others have abandoned their morals and thrown in with their twisted rulers. Amidst collapse, disease, and the dying throes of a nation turning in upon itself, you must gather your courage and your friends and make your way to the Field of Camlann, where King Arthur awaits your aid.
Wait, what did you think I was talking about?
Inkle Studios’ newest game, Pendragon, arrives at a fortuitously relevant time (for it). Its themes of loneliness, loss, and struggle in the midst of desperate times might cut a little close to the bone for some players, but that struggle also heightens the rewards of connections both new and renewed and reminders that hope is never entirely lost.
Inkle has a strong heritage in narrative games, with both the wonderful 80 Days (if you’ve never played it, seek it out—on almost any platform at this stage) and the more recent Heaven’s Vault, an archaeology-themed translate-‘em-up that’s only available on PC but is highly rewarding for those willing to delve into its science fiction worlds. Pendragon is a game on a smaller scale than Heaven’s Vault but it’s just as creative and rewarding.
The core gameplay of Pendragon consists of a series of chess-like encounters between Arthur’s followers, friends, and family as they crisscross Britain in their quest to reach Camlann before the once-and-future king’s final encounter with his bastard son, Mordred. A single play through of the game takes less than an hour in most cases, but with the opportunity to tackle different difficulty levels, unlock a variety of starting characters, and experience the twists and turns of the game’s narrative engine, there’s ample encouragement for replay.
The chess-like gameplay strikes a careful balance between being too intimidating and too simple. The basic concepts of threat and territory control are easy to figure out and amply signposted by the interface, with the special skills of certain characters suggesting particular strategies. Each encounter takes place on a limited battlefield, and though it can become crowded with enemies, their abilities and preferred tactics are likewise clearly signposted. Every battle provides the information that the player needs to win it, though victory isn’t always possible, and sometimes necessity or failing morale will see you fleeing the field.
In fact, victory is rarely a simple matter. Learning Pendragon takes the player along a specific path: First, learn the basics and simple strategies. Then learn to think a few moves ahead so that you don’t end up in a trap. Then learn how enemies act and where their weaknesses are. Then learn how to lure them into traps and dispose of them safely. Then … well, that’s as far as I’ve gotten so far. I’ve yet to even hit the middling difficulty levels.
Amid all of this tactical back and forth, Pendragon’s story engine does its best to weave a compelling tale. Each starting character has their own reasons for seeking out Arthur. You begin with the disgraced knight Lancelot and his lover Guinevere, both freighted with guilt, but other collectible characters who join on the journey do so out of a love of battle, a need to make amends, or sheer vicious spite. In addition to these main characters, there are others who may become your allies, their motivations created randomly and shifting in response to the choices you make.
These characters join you both on the battlefield, where their own skills open up new tactics, and around the campfire, where tales can be shared each evening of knights, faeries, and other Arthuriana. One of the game’s greatest strengths is how well it nails the feeling of the Arthur stories. The ultimately doomed nature of the best intentions in the face of time and dissolution is a recurring theme within both the original stories and Pendragon’s Britain. The world is unkind, and it only takes one person with bad intentions to make it far worse. Only through trust and determination can something better endure.
Mechanically, Pendragon has clearly been honed through multiple iterations. The short duration of each attempt at the game is a priority, with the constantly depleting morale counter pushing the player ever onwards. Characters can sacrifice themselves on the battlefield, to be rescued when the day is won, but this is a trick that can only be repeated so many times, with the food that extends its use always being in short supply.
In short, even on the lower difficulty levels, Pendragon instils in the player the sense that they’re racing against time. Both within battles, due to that falling morale, and on the longer journey as food runs out. Even once Camlann is reached, the pressure of time remains as you face Mordred, who grows stronger as the final battle proceeds, regardless of who faces him.
Mordred is, perhaps, the game’s biggest weakness. Depending on your character’s talents and the randomly generated battlefield you face him on, it’s possible for the final battle to feel unwinnable (in some cases it can even be unwinnable). This is exacerbated by the decision in this confrontation to remove the need to confirm moves, which is present all through the rest of the game. Changing the gameplay in such a way seems an oddly artificial way to up the stakes, and all it achieved was to annoy me when I lost twice to Mordred as a result of misplaced clicks. To have a quest end in such an anticlimax undercuts all the hard work done by the game’s narrative.
In a year like 2020, Pendragon will either match your mindset or undercut it. With its themes of learning how to cope with adversity, of maintaining the struggle even when things seem bleakest, it might feel a little too downbeat for some. For me though, the atmospheric narrative and gorgeous stained-glass art style kept me going through the initial stumbles of plumbing its gameplay depths. This is a tale of camaraderie and persistence in the face of a crumbling world. We could all do with a little of that.
For the moment, Pendragon is only available on PC and Mac, but it’s not an expensive purchase. Moreover, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it follow 80 Days onto a range of other platforms. If it drops onto one that you frequent, do take a look.
I’m not as good at keeping this blog up to date as I was in the LiveJournal days. Sorry about that. The good news to report is that as of the most recent doctor’s visit, everything seems to be holding steady. I am a little worried about my medicine-induced low heart rate and the encroaching winter combining to turn me into a hibernating blob, but my workplace’s decision to run a “Walktober” event is at least encouraging my more active habits. We’ll see how well that lasts when the weather turns nasty.
There is also the issue of the ongoing global bastard (as one of my favoured YouTube channels calls it). Numbers are spiking in Ireland, especially in the North, which means that I may become even more housebound than I have been in recent months. My immune system is okay, but avoiding any trouble for my lungs seems sensible. I hope you’re keeping safe too, wherever you are. If we’ve ever met or talked, rest assured that you’ve been in my thoughts at some point during all of this.