Wandering Warriors Of Woe

HIGH Unsurpassed storytelling. Fantastic takes on classic characters.          

LOW Some fiendishly difficult battles. Clues are difficult to discern.

WTF Arthur abandoned Excalibur??!?!?

Camelot is no more.  The Knights of the Round Table have scattered and Mordred’s forces are marshalling to install their new king.  Arthur, alone and scarred from battle and betrayal, travels to confront his son at Camlann to settle matters once and for all.  For devotees of the Arthurian mythos, Inkle Studios’ Pendragon is a moving experience.

At first, Pendragon appears to be a typical isometric strategy title.  As one of the remaining heroes of the realm, the player is tasked with reaching Arthur at Camlann before Mordred and his sinister legions usher in a dark age. 

Each hero begins on a map representing a hall, village, or one of numerous outdoor locations along the journey to Camlann.  The initial goal is to work one’s way down and to the right of the map, which causes an immediate win condition. Along the way obstacles are overcome and monsters are dispatched. 

Attacking an enemy is akin to capturing a piece in chess. By moving onto an opponent’s square, the player immediately defeats the foe currently occupying the space. Not so with human characters, though — rather than combat, characters jockey for position in a visual representation of conversation as they attempt to persuade or intimidate one another, alternating between different stances.

These stances are important, as the allow characters to change their disposition and tone, as well how they move around the map. For example, a combat stance allows a character to move laterally and sets an aggressive tone in conversation. A scout stance lowers weapons, engages a more conciliatory tone and allows for diagonal movement. 

In practice, the player (as Guinevere) might encounter peasants in a village.  It’s unknown if they’re friend or foe, so the player might begin moving diagonally to feel see where their loyalties lie via questions while simultaneously acquiring real estate on the map. 

If the villagers react peacefully, they’ll allow Guinevere to pass unhindered, or even offer to join in her quest as followers. If they react aggressively, a switch to combat stance prepares for battle. This may cause the villagers to flee in terror, or they may force the issue.

A full tutorial explains movement, and it becomes second nature within a few turns.  However, much like chess, learning the proper strategy to traverse levels and defeating enemies (or how to avoid them entirely) takes much longer to master, especially at higher difficulty levels. It’s a stunning system to see in action, as the dialogue flows naturally and characters react to one another organically.

As the player journeys onward, additional characters may be recruited to join their cause, and these unlockable heroes have unique abilities which provide additional tactical options. For instance, Morgana le Fay can turn an opposing enemy beast friendly for a few turns, and Branwen the archer can fire deadly volleys along vertical pathways, striking distant enemies. 

While Pendragon isn’t quite a roguelike, it offers enough variety to make each new journey interesting. The inkle scripting system seamlessly merges descriptive text depending on locations previously visited, the in-game time of day, and characters previously discovered to provide what feels like a living narrative — characters ‘react’ to what has befallen them, and those conversations alter the course of the future narrative. 

Lancelot may feel regret if he’s unable to keep a follower alive during a fraught battle, and he’ll remark on that sorrow throughout the rest of the adventure, and that failure may even change abilities he’s able to use. 

This flowing narrative system is the closest thing to having a human DM tell the story as it unfolds, and it happens almost effortlessly.  Yes, some conversations and stories may overlap or repeat, but the moment-by-moment descriptions in which the player’s avatar reacts to past decisions, successes, and failures must be seen to be believed.

Although I am enamored with the brilliance of the writing and the hybridization of conversation and combat, I so have a few complaints about Pendragon. The first is a quality-of-life issue — even with the animation speed turned up to max, traversing the overland map takes much longer than it should.

Also, the tutorial doesn’t adequately explore how stances and movement affect narrative decisions, making it difficult to befriend (or simply pass by) non-hostile characters, and at higher difficulties, fewer friends means more deaths. 

Additionally, recruiting party members requires deft movement around the map, and I was never sure what was required to get friendly units to follow me.  Am I supposed to conquer territory around them, giving them no choice? Am I supposed to remain in scout mode and present no threat? I was never sure.

Despite those shortcomings, Pendragon is an amazing achievement in storytelling and design.  Tactical movement as conversation and combat is intriguing, and inkle has masterfully incorporated this innovation into a truly wonderful blend of narrative and tactics.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed and published by inkle Ltd.  It is currently available on the PC.  This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC.  Approximately (7) hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed multiple times.  There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: The game is currently NOT RATED by the ESRB.  However, it contains some moderate language (the S-word is said, as are some adult euphemisms used as insults in dialogue) and some graphic descriptions of violence.  There is implied violence against realistic-looking animals and against human characters, although there is no depiction of gore.  Characters disappear from the screen when attacked, with a cry or yelp.  There are some implied sexual encounters between characters.

Colorblind Modes:  There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers:  All dialogue and descriptions are text-only.  All gameplay elements are denoted with pictograms or written instructions.  There are a few grunts, groans, cries, etc. from characters, but none that provide additional gameplay-based information.  Music serves only to highlight mood and does not offer any gameplay advantage.  Subtitles cannot be resized, nor are there font/color choices. This game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls:  No, this game’s controls are not remappable. This game does not offer a controller map diagram.  All controls are via mouse.  Left clicking selects all input choices (movement, combat, dialogue).  The game offers an icon driven undo feature for input selections, or the right mouse button can be used for the same purpose.

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2 years ago

Unsurpassed storytelling”

I read the whole review and I still have no idea what this means.

2 years ago
Reply to  hdefined

Hey – you make a good point. I was trying to say that the way the story was presented was unlike anything I’d experienced. Despite reading pre-generated text, the inkle system makes me feel like the narrative is being related to me buy an experienced human storyteller/GM rather than simply playing a computer game. I got hung up explaining what Pendragon WAS sometimes rather than talking more about what it meant to me.