I rather enjoy games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead. It always interested me to see how each choice affects the progressions of the story, but I could never shake the feeling these narrative experiences could be something more. It wasn’t until I played the excellent Banner Saga trilogy by Stoic Studio that I finally got what I wanted: A game that combines the replayability of constantly branching storylines with mechanically sound gameplay. While Inkle is a smaller studio than the already tiny Stoic, the number of corners that were cut in the creation of Pendragon is unacceptable. It does, however, succeed at tying story and gameplay so closely together, it’s hard to talk about one without the other.
STORY (& GAMEPLAY) – ONE INTERRUPTS THE OTHER
There are a few events set in stone on every playthrough: Sir Mordred, son of King Arthur, betrayed his father and wages war against him. The Knights of the Round Table, and other legendary characters, are scattered across the realm, each disgraced for their own reasons. Arthur will face Mordred at Camlann, and it’s up to the hero of your choice to make it there in time to help save the kingdom. As premises go, this one is rock solid. Who wouldn’t want to become part of one of the most influential myths in history?
The exact story you’ll be experiencing will be different depending on your character – you can choose between Guinevere and Lancelot, with more unlocking as you encounter them – and the choices you make. You’ll be visiting a number of locations on your way north to Camlann, most of which will contain short encounters. These range from straight-forward combat, to half-dialogue-half-battles and the occasional ab-so-lute-ly nothing. Why have these? Why have an event that requires me to walk right five to ten times without any story, dialogue, challenge or plot significance?
Anyway, if you encounter wild animals, you basically just fight it out. The text-only narrator will try to make the sprites sliding around a little more interesting. Instead of a wolf simply moving one space, the game describes the way it stalks you through the tall grass. There are more than a few lines that describe common gameplay events, specific to different creatures, and they do somewhat make up for the poor sound and visual design. They do, however, pop up far too often; you’ll probably start seeing several repeats during your first playthrough, which hurts immersion every time it happens.
The same goes for the pool of random encounters each location draws from. There are only so many events that can occur in the many villages and castles, and on your second run, you are likely to meet two villagers with different names, but the same backstory as the ones you came across before. While even the best rogue-likes can’t avoid this occurrence, it’s in how every encounter is handled where Pendragon falls flat. After playing FTL: Faster Than Light for long enough, there will be events you’ve dealt with before. In FTL, you can simply read the first few lines of text, remember which event it is, and quickly make a choice based on your current situation. In Pendragon, when dealing with the villagers, you have to move around aimlessly for a couple of turns until they are done arguing.
It was satisfying to figure out that I don’t have to fight them, yes, but that trick only works once. The five times I’ve run into them since then were just a waste of time. Simply giving the player a dialogue option to “Say nothing and listen” after finding a peaceful solution once would prevent this frustration. This is by no means the only event this applies to, and the issue only gets more grating every time it happens.
I wouldn’t mind the constant interruptions nearly as much if the writing was any good. There are exactly two characters – Arthur and Mordred – who have unique personalities. Everyone else’s dialogue is literally interchangeable. There are collections of lines for all kinds of situations, but very few of them are character specific. Be they Guinevere, Gawain or Gruff Villager; they’ll have the same voice most of the time.
Credit where credit is due: If your story ends in a duel between Arthur and Mordred, you’ll get a genuinely phenomenal exchange. Without spoiling too much, combining Arthur’s love and sadness with his son’s anger and hatred makes for an honestly heartbreaking scene. It’s clear that the writers are very talented, but the attempts at procedurally generating a story just result in a procedurally generic mess. None of the characters have defined, well, characters. The Queen of Britain might sound like Lancelot, might sound like Merlyn. Pendragon’s writing could have worked, but it needed infinitely more text to give the heroes their own identities.
GAMEPLAY – CHESS WITHOUT THE ELEGANCE
Combat is weirdly both simplistic and needlessly obtuse. Each side takes one action per turn. You can choose to move, switch stance, use a special ability, or place another party member on the board. Human characters can take ownership of tiles they walk on, with your team coloring them red, and the opponent turning them blue. While in an attack stance, you can “charge” multiple squares in a straight line across your territory. This is a surprisingly important mechanic, as you often can’t approach enemies without getting cut down otherwise. Pendragon does find a way to restrict the use of it in the most arbitrary way possible: Your team can only charge up and to the right, while your opponents can only do so down and to the left. This does encourage more aggressive strategies, but those are generally a terrible idea. Move onto an enemy’s space to kill them. If they do the same to you, your character is wounded or killed, depending on their health. If your starting hero dies, your adventure ends.
There are two stances: the linear attack stance and the diagonal scout stance. Unless you have a special ability that says otherwise, you can only attack moving linearly, which is fine. What isn’t fine is the counter-intuitive use of the words “linear” and “diagonal”. The game board is viewed from a 45° angle, and what is called “diagonal” is actually the cardinal directions, straight up, left, down and right, while “linear” is… diagonal from the player’s perspective.
Yes, you can get used to it, and I did after a while, but it’s such a ridiculously stupid bit of design. Imagine playing Super Mario Bros., except in order to go right, you have to press up – because that’s forward from Mario’s point of view. It’s as dumb as tank controls in a 2D platformer.
There’s a limited variety of enemies you’ll encounter, each with different skills and movement patterns. These do actually require drastically different tactics, which is commendable. Just get ready to be screwed over by identical-looking units. There are wolves and black wolves; you can’t tell the difference between the two unless you right-click them to see what they can do. You might have the perfect plan for dealing with one enemy, only to suddenly find out that you’ve been dealing with a slightly different foe who just so happens to be able to dash across half the board and murder your buddies.
You win an encounter by reaching a specified spot on the map or by defeating all enemies. I like the option of a less violent approach, and out-maneuvering your opponent is often more satisfying than cutting them down. There are a number of ways you can lose; obviously, getting your entire party killed will do the trick. On each playthrough, you have – I think – two chances to run from battle. These retreats are real life-savers, as the battle ends instantly, even if your hero is in a position where avoiding death is otherwise impossible. Lastly, your party’s morale slowly decreases while playing defensively. If it reaches zero, you immediately lose the battle and flee, leaving any wounded party members behind.
This system will force you to make bad decisions, but doesn’t seem to affect your enemies. They can form a perfect line of defense and just sit there, waiting for you to make a mistake. I do believe that party-based rogue-likes are at their best when they force you to weigh the value of each companion’s life in every battle, but regularly having to get allies killed to break stalemates becomes exhausting, and honestly doesn’t feel fair.
How often you have to endure these stand-offs heavily depends on the difficulty level. After every successful run, you unlock the next difficulty. More challenging runs don’t just bump up the AI’s skill, but also reduce character health and the likelihood of finding rations. Without food, heroes lose one hit point per day, but they won’t die from hunger. I found this mechanic particularly bizarre; once I’ve made it to the harder half of the difficulty slider, I couldn’t find any food anywhere across two full playthroughs. At this point, you might as well just remove rations completely and set everyone’s health to one.
GRAPHICS & AUDIO – PLAIN GLASS WINDOW
This is where Pendragon fails too hard to be redeemable. You can like the stained-glass art style all you want – I don’t – but a complete lack of animation makes the game horribly boring to look at. Every character only has a few poses, and watching them slide across the world map with both feet planted on the ground is funny once, and awful every other time. In battle, you might use the vault ability to jump over an obstacle – your hero will glide through the wall while standing perfectly still. Most indies can’t afford the beautiful rotoscoped visuals of Banner Saga, I get that, but Darkest Dungeon managed to make simplistic animations look and feel fantastic – and they’re only slightly more complex than Pendragon’s. I would cut Inkle some slack, had they included a huge variety of these motionless sprites, but they didn’t even bother to recolor the generic units. Unless the studio doesn’t employ a single artist, there’s no excuse for this dreadfully drab aesthetic.
Sound design is fairly basic. There’s no voice acting. Characters have little barks when fighting, and there are some unimpressive impact sounds. There are a couple of standout songs in the OST, and they elevate the action on the screen into epicness for just a few moments.
Pendragon was reviewed on PC. A review copy was provided by Inkle.