Pendragon review

Pendragon is a new narrative tactics game from Inkle Studios, creators of 80 Days and Heaven’s Vault, and this time they are taking on the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It’s great fun, sometimes touching, sometimes heartbreaking in this pop-up book style adventure through history and it’s an entertaining genre mashup between turn-based tactics and narrative adventure.

It’s likely you’ve heard of Queen Guinevere, Sir Lancelot and the Knights of the Round Table but the clever thing about Pendragon is piecing together the story of the fall of the legendary King Arthur through each playthrough. Players select a single character at the start and then set off on their adventure uncovering narrative clues and history as you make your way to Camelann to face off against Arthur’s rival Sir Mordred.

It’s AD 673. Camelot has fallen. The jealous Sir Mordred has broken the fellowship of the Round Table with hatred and lies. Now King Arthur faces his final battle. Will Sir Lancelot be reunited with Queen Guinevere? Will she spurn him, or embrace him? Can Morgana le Fay be trusted? Where is Merlyn? Who lies buried in Mordred’s graveyard? What has become of Excalibur? Secrets will be uncovered. Hearts will be broken. People will die. But maybe, just maybe, King Arthur can be saved…

At the start of the game, players can select between Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot and each character has a different point of view – uncovering more of the whole story as you play through. Players pick up characters as they go, for example when I was playing with Lady Guinevere I met Morgana Le Fey, the evil watch of Arthurian Legends. Morgana then became an unlockable character and there’s 6 more to unlock after her. Throughout your playthrough (and hopefully playthroughs) you’ll pick up a bunch of characters and will be able to add them to your party, which you’re going to need for the final showdown against Sir Modred and his clan of Knights.

All roads point to Camelann and King Arthur facing off against his arch-rival Sir Mordred, but each time you play through you’ll make narrative choices which shape the story that unfolds before you. This plays into the strengths of Inkle Studios as they have built they’re fine reputation on wonderful narrative adventure games like 80 Days and Heaven’s Vault.

As for the other mechanics in the game, this is more of a departure for Inkle, as the combat comes in the form of a tactics-based game. On the world map, there’s a number of locations you’ll visit along the way, and each one is a board which you have to safely navigate your way across, one or two spaces at a time. Standing in your way will be enemies like wolves, spiders and Modred’s Knights or even wandering townsfolk. Your character or party then becomes like pieces on a chessboard.

Players can move in a straight line or you can switch up your stance to attack. Different enemies have different attack patterns and it’s your job to get to the other side of the board safely to make your way through an area without dying and reach your final destination and that showdown with Arthur vs Modred.

At the start of the game, there’s a nice tutorial taking you through the basics like moving, attacking and complimentary mechanics like the morale meter and rations. If you get in a real sticky situation, then you can flee, but beware – this doesn’t always work and you could be caught in a deadly situation.

As you make progress you’ll pick up new skills and abilities, like being able to push forward and gain an additional square or powerful skills like skewering two opponents in a line. The tactics elements have been boiled down to the bare essentials, which makes the game very accessible, but that doesn’t mean the game is easy by any stretch – you’ll have to keep an eye on what your enemies are doing and plan a few moves ahead. Don’t just go charging into battle as your playthrough could end very quickly. One false move and you’re dead, so do be careful.

This is where the combination of tactics and narrative come into play and is something quite unique. Jon Ingold, from Inkle Studios, recently described the game as a “Game of chess where the pieces talk to each other”. At moments in battle, you do have narrative opportunities and this can swing the outcome of a battle one way or the other. Players can escalate and de-escalate the situation with one narrative choice, so think carefully about what you say.

The battle mechanics are easy to understand and if you’re well-versed in tactics games then you’ll take to this like a duck to water. Combined with attacks and movement you have the morale meter. If you play defensively then morale will go down. It’s wise to keep morale high as it will allow unlocking abilities in battle, so try to balance the morale and keep it on the higher side. You don’t want to be backed into a corner with low morale only to find a move that could save you is disabled due to low morale… believe me, I know!

Rations are key to keeping healthy and ready for a fight throughout the game. As the days unfold in your playthrough you will need to rest and rations help you replenish health making sure you’re ready.

Replayability definitely comes to mind when I think about Pendragon. As you unlock new characters along the way you’ll want to play through again from the start with these new faces to see and hear their point of view. Lancelot proclaims his love for Guinevere and hopes Arthur will find it in himself to forgive him, whereas Guinevere longs to see her King once again. A single playthrough of the game is relatively short (perhaps an hour or so), but you won’t uncover all of the details in a single playthrough. Each time you start a new playthrough the board is randomised, so you’re going to get something new each time you play through whether that be unlocking a new playable character or finding one of the many secrets hidden within Pendragon. Finding out what Merlyn’s up to as well as the legendary sword, Excalibur was high on my todo list. There’s plenty of great secrets in the game and they will keep you coming back time after time.

There’s something about this combination of tactics and replayable storey adventure I really enjoyed with Pendragon. I vaguely knew the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but uncovering it through this series of different character perspectives is super fun and the gameplay mechanics are enjoyable too. I found the game quite tricky, but I am not a huge tactics game player – so experts in the field may have an easier time of it than I did. There are 3 main beats to the game – tactics, narrative adventure and Arthurian lore. if you’re interested any of these or a combination, then I’d definitely recommend Pendragon to you.

The game is charming with beautiful pop-up book style artwork and excellent music, so it’s a pleasure to play through again and you’ll want to as the characters are lovable and interesting. Successful playthroughs unlock higher difficulties so the more you play and the better you get, you have the option of ramping up the challenge. The overall visual design from the way the narrative unfolds to the clean UI, clearly explaining what’s going on is a massive strength of the game.

Developer: Inkle Studios
Platforms: PC via Steam and GOG
Release date: 22nd September 2020

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