I don’t know how many endings I’ve seen in Pendragon, the latest game from Inkle creators in 80 Days. Your main goal is always the same: gather a group of warriors and go to the battlefield of Camlann to help King Arthur defeat his enemy, the villain Mordred. But what goes on on the winding, dangerous path leads to this fateful encounter every other time. The characters you meet, the places you explore, and the enemies you encounter are greatly randomized, which creates an enjoyable and unpredictable storytelling experience —though sometimes-punishing you with an unexpected and dissatisfying ending.
Pendragon is a life-like story based on Arthurian legend. Some knowledge of mythology will help you navigate the story because I have very little and feel like the game can do better than lead me into its world. The story begins after the legend round table is broken. Camelot has been killed and Arthur’s allies have fled, leaving him to face Mordred in Camlann alone. And that’s where you walk in. You choose one of several playable characters — Guinevere and Lancelot are available to start with but can unlock more — and embark on a mission across England to help him.
But here’s the thing: you’ll fail, a lot. You will die several times on your way to Camlann, sometimes only for a short time during your journey. Then, when you finally fight your way there, one of Mordred’s powerful knights can coldly attack you. But defeat in Pendragon was never like an end game; it’s like the last page of a particularly grim book. You close it, choose another one from the shelf, blow the dust off the shell and hope Arthur’s friends will be more successful in this section. Failure can discourage Pendragon, but the path to that defeat is almost always interesting.
Beating in Pendragon never feels like an end game
This marks a difference from Inkle’s previous work in that it is a turn-by-turn strategy game. The game is made up of a series of gridded tables, presented in the form of crumbling castles, dark forests and ancient boulders, to the end that will bring you closer to your final destination. Sometimes you’ll be able to walk through a chessboard un unth challenged, encounter a recruitable ally, a talkative villager, or a evocative world-building moment. But often there are enemies that stand in your way, be it territorial wolves or mordred loyal soldiers. When you move, you ‘draw’ the table, which has ownership of any squares you touch, which allows you to move faster on them.
What I like about Pendragon is that there is no real separation between strategy and story. The plot takes place naturally on the chessboard as you move and fight. A heroic sacrifice or sudden death can have a profound impact on another character, unlocking one of the game’s many special moves, such as plunging through water bricks, jumping over blocked squares or killing multiple enemies on a row. But I’d be lying if I said that every story was compelling. The ambush and random killing of giant snakes in a muddy swamp are not necessarily legends and campfires. Pendragon can be punished, even if the lowest difficulty is set.
Sometimes you’ll meet people who become controllable characters, whether it’s the cruel witch Morgana le Fay or the naughty Sir Kay. Your choice of characters will color the story, each with a personality and personality in particular. Some also have unique powers, such as Morgana’s ability to domesticated wildlife in a short time. The starting table for each hero is always the same, establishing their place in the world and motivating the journey to Camlann. But then, players randomly take over and you’re never sure what will turn around and turn the story on the long road ahead.
Every story, even if it’s not a particularly good story, is very different
Compared to the lavishly described 80 Days, Pendragon is more sparsely written, with brief conversations about economics. Well, honestly, I was a little disappointed at first. But over time, I accept that its greatest storytelling tool is not prose, but its system and how they interact. This is Inkle’s most playable game. Every story, even if it’s not a particularly good story, is very different. As a strategy game, it’s pretty low, but the way it combines narrative and gameplay is done professionally. The legend of King Arthur has been told countless times before, but never quite like this.