By Jason Quinn / January 15th, 2021
|Release Date||September 22nd, 2020|
|Genre||Turn Based Strategy|
Pendragon is a turn based strategy game. The story of the game is rooted in Arthurian mythology. On a large scale, the game is about King Arthur clashing with his son, Mordred. You have the option to play as a handful of characters that decide to take up arms in this conflict. This game focuses more on the small scale though, as the narrative events play out in response to your actions. Characters can be friend or foe depending on conversation choices, and battles can change at a moment’s notice depending on how you approach them. It’s a very dynamic story, and I’m not sure if it’s procedurally generated. The point is, replayability is a very large focus here. When your main character dies, you also start over from the beginning. One might be tempted to then call this game a roguelike, but aside from that, it doesn’t bear a lot of resemblance to that genre.
Well, it’s a bit hard to critique the story because the changes depend on who knows how many factors. The developers have even stated that they want some of the mechanics to be opaque so that you can’t manipulate things entirely in your favor. Though, because of the nature of the game, the overall narrative never particularly deviates from your main objective: getting to King Arthur. As such, most of the events of the game consist of things like happening upon a village, the villagers are supportive of your cause, and they give you some rations. Or some events can simply be stumbling across some bears in a forest and you need to dispatch them. The characters though have a bit more going on and are where most of the meat of the narrative lies. As you play the game, you’ll occasionally have the opportunity to sit around a campfire and exchange stories, where you learn more about characters from Arthurian myth — Lancelot, Guinevere, and Morgana la Fey, among others. I’m no expert on this subject, so I can’t speak to the accuracy, but I found the characters interesting enough to want to keep going through the game to learn more.
The narrative is also intimately tied to the gameplay. The game describes itself as a story that unfolds with every turn you take, and this is pretty accurate. The gameplay is a little hard to describe, in part because of how opaque some gameplay elements are, but I’ll do my best. Every new location you visit, you start on the left side of an isometric grid, and moving your character takes one turn, and then enemies or any neutral parties take their turn. Movement and combat are very simple. You can initially only move one square on the grid per turn. As you move, grid squares you’ve moved across come under your “influence” and it becomes possible to move further on squares that are under your influence. You can also change your stance to move diagonally, but if you’re doing so, you cannot attack enemies, and switching back to your normal stance costs a turn. Combat is incredibly simplistic, but rather brutal. In my experience, a single hit will kill you, but is also enough to kill your enemies. After I got some allies, I could occasionally withstand one or two blows, but that’s still enough to take you out of that fight immediately.
Strategy and patience are very important, as a false move can be your undoing. Fortunately one of the ways the game is transparent is what enemies can do. Selecting an enemy gives a detailed breakdown of all of their abilities and behaviors. So, if you do die, there’s little to blame besides yourself. You can also get abilities of your own, with stuff like being able to attack diagonally, additional movement, and other rather simple upgrades. Due to the nature of the game though, very simple upgrades can make a world of difference though.
Something that’s constantly hanging over your head is morale, a system that I’m not very clear on how exactly it works, and it’s intentionally obfuscated. Put simply, if your morale hits zero, then you’ll immediately retreat from whatever battle you’re involved in. Morale goes down if battles go on for too long or allies get hurt. As for what builds it up, it seems to recover naturally after a day has gone by and your party rests, but also sometimes goes up after favorable events happen. It was never a major concern for me, but if you’re not careful, it can make progressing through the game much harder.
The developers claim that each move you make unfolds the story further, and that’s pretty accurate. There’s very few just straight up fights in this game. Like other aspects of the game, it’s impossible for me to tell what exactly influences how events play out, or if some things are simply random. They really don’t want you to try to take direct control over the course of events, and I can appreciate that. The game is less trying to figure it all out and exploit all the systems to your advantage, but just kinda going along for the ride and using whatever you happen to have. “Optimal play” isn’t much of a thing in this game.
The main issue for me is that no matter how much variation there is to how the story plays out, the story itself never veers into any new directions. Even battles themselves don’t have a lot of variety to them, a consequence of just how simple and straightforward the gameplay is. There are multiple playable characters and they all present different challenges, but for me it just didn’t vary things up enough. Once you’ve fought a couple bears a few times, no matter how you go about it, it just feels like doing the same thing over again. The core idea here, a narrative that responds to your actions dynamically, is a really neat one, but I feel it’s just underdeveloped. In practice, it’s just small, incidental things that change. At best, you can learn more about the characters and the backstory; at worst, they can feel more or less like filler.
Pendragon has me a bit conflicted; there’s nothing about it that’s bad, I just wish there was more of it. It’s a bit difficult for me to recommend, too. I feel like you really gotta be into the idea of a dynamic narrative and doing playthrough after playthrough to learn more about it. Had this been a more unique setting with unique characters, it might be a different story. It all being Arthurian mythology means that I have at least some familiarity with what happened and who everyone is. How long this game lasts is gonna vary wildly. You could be like me and luck out on your second playthrough and get to the end, and decide that’s enough, but that’s not really a full experience. You could spend a few hours or maybe upwards of 10 hours if you’re into the concept enough. $17 on Steam is a pretty reasonable price, if this sounds like your thing.
Review copy was provided by the publisher.
inkle LtdPCPendragonturn-based strategy