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Pendragon Game Review: Bring my Armor!

Pendragon Game Review

There are two types of game studios. The former, like Firaxis or Bethesda, release essentially the same game over and over again. And the latter create (or at least try to create) projects that are completely different in essence. For example, the Russian Ice-Pick Lodge belongs to them. So is the British Inkle. Text adventure 80 Days, interactive game book Sorcery!, linguistic puzzle Heaven’s Vault. They were all so different from each other, as if they were made by completely different people. What these games have in common is, by and large, one thing – narrative as the basis of everything. And Pendragon continues this tradition.

Terrible age, terrible hearts!

673 AD. Camelot has fallen, and civil war is raging in the country. The Round Table is no longer there, and its knights wander around in search of themselves. However, Arthur Pendragon still has supporters – and we take on the role of one of them. Our task is to be in time for the decisive battle of Camlann in order to help Arthur in the battle with his rival son Mordred. And to do this, you will have to endure several days of travel through ruined lands in rogue-lite mode, master a couple of dozen battles, recruit at least some allies and, most importantly, do not drown in general despair. 

British Dark Ages is a very dark but interesting setting in its own way. So if you are familiar exclusively with the children’s versions of the legends about King Arthur, I strongly recommend that you join something more adult, at least the classic “Death of Arthur”. Believe me, there is more incest, cruelty and simple human meanness here than in “Hamlet” and “Game of Thrones” combined.

Pendragon Gameplay
Arthur is not required to personally slay Mordred. Moreover, he may not live to see the final battle at all.

Here we have a kind of fantasy, but very little. Spiders, of course, are large, and the heroes know some minor witchcraft, but dragons remained only in fairy tales, elves do not prowl the forests, and the giants have already exterminated everyone. In fact, the most fantastic element in Pendragon is the emancipated black female knights – with swords and armor! – sometimes found on green English lawns. SJW in Seventh Century Britain? I do not mind, if only it was interesting to play.

Pendragon is difficult to define in a specific genre: it is a tactical strategy, and a puzzle, and even a little RPG. Although the main thing here, of course, is history. More precisely, how it is narrated, how it flows and is constantly changing from even the most insignificant, seemingly, decisions: choose one of the available paths or one of two lines of dialogue.

Pendragon Dialog
You should make choices often. However, usually it is rather decorative and does not particularly affect anything.

With an obvious emphasis on the narrative of the text, there is not much here. There is almost no unnecessary chatter or artistic descriptions, everyone speaks briefly and to the point, but at the same time figuratively and with a twinkle. This is not an interactive novel, but rather a comic strip. True, unlike a good comic book, Pendragon looks rather modest. Someone will call the boldly outlined cardboard landscapes with a minimum of details and deliberately flat, as if cut out of paper characters, stylish and laconic. They just look cheap to me. In the face of some Fairy Morgan from Sir Lancelot Lakes the first time you can not tell.

Pendragon Characters
Only Guinevere and Lancelot are available at the beginning of the game. To unlock new playable characters, you need to meet them on your adventures and take them with you.

Fortunately, the inside of the heroes is worked out a little better than the outside: each of them has his own stone behind the soul. Guinevere is burdened with betrayal of her husband. Lancelot reproaches himself for betraying his best friend and overlord. Gawain cannot forgive himself a long-standing friendship with Mordred and pours wine over his grief… 

Gradually you will find ordinary, non-heroic companions, but their characters are mostly determined only at the level of prehistory, which can be described in one phrase. “She escaped from her cruel stepfather”, “is hiding from punishment for murder”, “left his native place because of forbidden love.” The only sense from such assistants is in battles, and even then not always.

Pendragon Hero Dialog
Campfire gatherings with fairy tales are remind a Dragon Age. It's a shame Pendragon doesn't have the same deep relationship with satellites.

There are people in killing those who find pleasure

The battles themselves take place according to rather interesting rules and are least of all similar to the traditional turn-based RPG combat. Here, the key role is not played by the indicators of attack or defense and not wearing clothes – the most important thing is competent positioning and systematic seizure of territory. This makes Pendragon similar to board games, and not wargames, but classical ones, like chess, checkers or go.

Pendragon Final Fight
The final duel most closely resembles deadly tic-tac-toe.

Actually, it is not always necessary to fight in principle. To win, it is usually enough to walk from the lower left square of the playing field to the upper right square. All. Of course, opponents will interfere with you in every possible way, but, say, a giant rat cornered will simply run away, and an aggressive dog can be easily bypassed. True, sometimes the developers are let down by a sense of proportion: we are overwhelmed with meat, immersed in obviously losing conditions, forced to circle around the board, dodging incoming enemies. The combat system stumbles seriously at such moments.

The fact is that the levels for the most part, as I understand it, are generated randomly. Therefore, battles, which, in theory, should turn into neat puzzles with a strictly limited number of moves, as in Into the Breach, are more often like trampling on half-drunk students in a rural disco. It’s as fun as chasing two chess kings on an empty board.

Branwen Hero Attack
Branwen, with her ranged attacks, is one of the most combat-friendly heroines around. If only there were enough points of determination, which play the role of energy for special moves.

Special abilities save the situation a little. Morgan le Fay and Merlin can do a little magic, Branwen can shoot a bow, and the Scottish alcoholic Sir Gawain can throw enemies over him. But pumping is deliberately primitive and so unobvious that it turns into a banal lottery. You never know at what point they will give you a new ability or replace an old one, and what you will end up with: the ability to hit diagonally or jump over bushes.

Pendragon Map Screen
We are not always allowed to choose the path.

The youth bloomed in vechor, but today he died

The game cannot be called boring or monotonous, just like checkers cannot be called boring or monotonous. However, the combat mechanics would definitely use polishing. In addition, the lack of content begins to be felt already in the second race: the same enemies, the same locations, the same fairy tales by the fire…

I went through the game five times, and this was enough for me to understand: no matter how many characters there are, there is not much difference between them. Even though they formally have different goals, interests and sometimes abilities, there are simply no fundamental differences. And the point here is not that a couple of hours (it takes so much for one race) is not enough to properly reveal the characters and get used to them – it’s just that Pendragon is far from such empathy.

Pendragon Enemies
More serious enemies appear on new difficulty levels, but don't expect much variety anyway.

The irreversible decisions that we make along the way determine not so much the plot or the characters of the heroes, but our attitude towards them. It doesn’t matter if Guinevere really loves Arthur or wants to help him only out of a sense of duty – she will still go to the end and do what needs to be done. Whatever we choose, wherever we fold, the basis of history, its core, does not change. Many, myself included, have scolded The Walking Dead and other Telltale projects for shallow, illusory choices. 

So, the player’s decisions had a greater influence on the development of the plot than in Pendragon. Because any serious choice was followed by inevitable consequences. Because the essentially linear scenario provided for every, even the smallest, fork and always drew the player’s attention to this.

Pendragon Village Fight
Not everyone loves Arthur.

In theory, the abundance of elements should have neutralized the plot poverty. But, as I said, there is too little stuffing in Pendragon for that: enemies, companions, skills. Each new step here does not give the feeling of progress and development that it could – and should! – to give to the player. In the same way, every decision made does not feel as important and meaningful to the plot as it should be.

And even if on the page on Steam we are promised “an infinitely replayable epic”, I did not notice in Pendragon neither special epic, nor infinite potential for replaying. Yes, this is not a bad adventure: atmospheric, sometimes even gloomy, forcing you to strain your brains and remember thoroughly half-forgotten heroes of the British epic. But nothing more.

Pendragon Mass Fight
Some battles look impressive, but, in general, eight people on the field are rare

The attempt to combine a story-driven game and rogue-lite turned out to be interesting – it’s a pity, not brought to mind. Of course, the talent of the Inkle team has not gone anywhere, and in the end we have some good fun for a couple of nights. But I doubt that many will seriously want to knock out all the achievements, open all the increased difficulty levels and discuss the history of the Battle of Camlann on thematic forums.

But the combat system turned out to be very interesting. It would be worth polishing it up a bit and turning Pendragon into a linear game with a full-fledged plot, which is diluted with tactical puzzles created by hand. Then we would get the new The Banner Saga. In the meantime, this is the maximum prototype.

Advantages

Pendragon Advantages
  • unusual narrative;
  • extraordinary heroes;
  • strong atmosphere;
  • a combat system with great potential.

Disadvantages

Pendragon Disadvantages
  • controversial visual style;
  • not always interesting tactical battles;
  • lack of content;
  • the plot sometimes depends on chance.

Verdict

The game is not bad, but a little unfinished. There is too much emphasis on history when, in fact, the puzzles in the game are much more important.

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