I just actually comprehended Pendragon after I almost lost it all. All the heroes I banked my hopes on had actually passed away. Lancelot, Morgana le Fey, Aonghas, Gawaine: all dead. How would I conserve King Arthur now? My story had actually broken down. But rather of quiting, I continued.
And in doing so the story altered. It ended up being about somebody else, an average villager who endured through everything. Aida “the anxious girl”, as the video game called her. She made it to Arthur’s side versus excellent chances and although she didn’t eventually dominate versus Mordred, Arthur’s wicked boy, it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter since as her epilogue played out prior to me in a series of turning point occasions, I understood what really mattered was the story I informed.
Pendragon is the brand-new video game from inkle, the little studio behind 80 Days and Heaven’s Vault and the Sorcery! adjustments – video games which provide lively, nuanced spins on interactive fiction. Pendragon, in essence, is a roguelike in which you’re riding to assist King Arthur as he gets ready for a climactic fight, and you play it on a series of tiled boards strung throughout a series of maps, each happening in a various place and moving the narrative onwards.
You start by picking a character from Arthurian legend to play as. Guinevere and Lancelot are offered from the beginning, and every hero has their own beginning location and inspiration for riding to Arthur’s help. Who you can select to start with depends not on XP acquired or store upgrades, however on who you have actually satisfied in previous playthroughs. Like the misconceptions it develops on, Pendragon’s stories get richer in the retelling.
There are 2 elements to the circulation of the video game. One is the map, in which you outline your course throughout Britain as you hunt for Arthur’s last battlefield. The other are the circumstances (the tiled parlor game) that enable the story to unfold.
The map is for essential choices: where to go next. Waypoints will look like you experience onwards and you will require to choose whether you wish to go to keeps, towns, woods or ruins, each with their own possible mistakes. Food is another factor to consider. Run out of provisions and, when you sleep, you will lose spirits and a heart of health.
The circumstances have to do with specific encounters. On the tiled boards, characters both buddy and enemy typically move one area at a time, either linearly (up, down, left, right) or diagonally, however they can just beat another character while in direct mode – one piece moving onto another’s area. Characters can change in between direct and diagonal modes, however doing so deviates, which is very important since a lot can take place in a turn. Winning a situation includes either clearing a board of opponents or getting to an end-tile on the other side. It’s chess, however it’s likewise American Football.
That is Pendragon at its easiest, however there are extra layers that complicate it. There are raised tiles which enable you to move off of them in either mode, which is effective, and there are various characters with various capabilities which modify the regular rhythm of things. It’s likewise extremely crucial how you colour a board by strolling throughout tiles, since your characters will move more easily, and have the ability to assault more strongly, from your own colour. Morale is extremely crucial too.
Morale is very important since there are celebrations in Pendragon where you will not wish to battle. This might be because you’re talking to a potential ally and are waiting for dialogue to unfold, turn by turn, or because you’re in a tactical deadlock and don’t desire to give any ground. One wrong move can be devastating in Pendragon. There’s always a chance the enemy’s collective nerve will buckle and they flee, but then again, so might yours. It’s morale that governs this. It’s a kind of timer which depletes the longer you’re in play. Let it drop too low you will be forced to flee, leaving any downed allies to die, and forfeiting any choice over what scenario you will end up in next.
I hope you’re beginning to see that Pendragon is more than it initially seems to be. I remember my misplaced concern after I reached the end of it on my first go. I was Guinevere and it took me about an hour, probably less, to get to Arthur. I didn’t defeat Mordred but I remember thinking, ‘Was that it?’
Was that it? Theoretically, I’d reached the end, but to suggest I had appreciated everything Pendragon had to offer would be absurd. The beauty of Pendragon comes out in the learning. Now when I look at a scenario I see so much more. I see tactics in play, I see weaknesses and opportunities and danger. But all this I had to slowly learn on subsequent playthroughs. It’s not the new things you acquire with each run, but actual knowledge and skill you start to pick up. It’s why I’m being deliberately vague about how things work now because I want you to figure them out for yourself. That is the game.
Mordred turned out to be a great leveller. Yes you can reach him within an hour, but it would go on to take me 10 more before I defeated him, and that wasn’t on the game’s harder difficulties. And in the cycle of trying again and again, I discovered storytelling.
Again, to begin with, storytelling seemed bizarrely absent, given inkle’s other story-rich games. There was the bolted-down story of Arthur facing Mordred, but I didn’t seem to have much effect on it. All I seemed to be doing was going along with it. Characters would say things, and there was some scene setting and light narration, but to me it all looked like fluff and flavour. Bit by bit, though, it began piling up.
Pendragon is clever. And it’s clever with thrift. Characters only seem to tell you crucial information and never in more than a sentence or two, and yet, within those boundaries, a lot can be delivered. “Damnit Arthur, I wish I’d never met you,” says Sir Gawaine to himself. Then, “With your justice and your peace and your happy little laugh.” So much evoked with so little.
It’s the same with narration. It’s not always there but occasionally it pops up to accentuate a scene. You can trigger it simply by moving. I moved Gawaine against a wolf and an invisible narrator told me: “A second spectral wolf paces forward… Unaware that it has emerged into Sir Gawaine’s path…” Then, when I moved Aonghas: “Sir Aonghas moved like the seasons, like the tide. Nothing could turn him aside.” It’s like having a personal poet.
Cleverer still is how Pendragon uses story and dialogue to govern character abilities. A box will appear at a poignant moment with a big “Story Changed!” or “Core Story!” alert and usually a choice of special ability for the character. Does Guinevere love Arthur? Her answer will dictate her ability. Or take my heroic villager Aida: she got an ability since, and I quote, “I went to the edge… but I survived!” Yes, she most certainly did.
In fact, one of the most failsafe and interesting ways to shake the story up, and alter the narrative bonds between characters, is by nearly dying – lucky, really, given how punishing Pendragon can be. Should one character save another from death, they’ll almost certainly see one another in a different light afterwards, and maybe you’ll benefit mechanically too. And you’ll never care more about a character than when their staying alive is the only thing between you and defeat, let me tell you.
I think this is the game’s way of saying, “Hey don’t worry about a perfect run. Enjoy the twists and turns. We’ll write a more interesting story around you since of it.” And everything I’ve seen seems to bear this out: the way a new knight will suddenly appear to join you when you’re about to provide up; the way a villager like Aida can fly into a rage and save you in the most dire of situations. Everywhere the invisible hand of inkle, nudging the story in an interesting way.
I haven’t even talked about the beautiful stained glass appearance or the wonderful way Britain is condensed into camel-like humpy hills. Nor have I mentioned the gorgeous musical score or the powerful restraint with which it underscores a scene, like how an opponent will appear accompanied by the foreboding sound of a single, low, piano note, echoing the change in mood.
Pendragon appears to reveal its mechanics in a glance or two, however this is actually a game to be learned gradually, a story that grows richer gradually and retelling. The tiled maps and the extra text are simply the surface area of it, and every layer much deeper you come down is a pleasure.