Set in Arthurian England in 673 AD, Pendragon is a narrative turn-based strategy game from Inkle, the indie studio behind 80 Days and Heaven’s Vault. Opening shortly after the dissolution of the Knights of the Round Table, you are tasked with rallying to King Arthur’s side as he prepares to confront the evil Mordred in the battle at Camlann. At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Pendragon is a simple game when compared to Inkle’s previous titles, but there’s a lot more to this Arthurian tale than first meets the eye – or indeed, the first playthrough.
You can make your way through the main story and arrive at the final battle in a relatively short amount of time, but Pendragon is meant to be played multiple times and each adventure will allow you to unlock higher difficulties. Because of this, you may well find that it’s not until the second or third playthrough that you really begin to appreciate the nuances of the gameplay and the many options and paths that are available to you.
Initially, you’ll get to choose between two champions – Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot – with more becoming available as and when you encounter them during the story, but it’s not just about the hero you choose or the path you take that affects how the story plays out. Everything you do in Pendragon is significant and can alter the choices that are offered and the abilities your character can learn.
Hints and warnings are turned on by default and give Pendragon a refreshingly gentle learning curve, though these tutorial options can be toggled off in the menu if you so choose. In fact, the game does so well at holding your hand throughout your first playthrough that you may well blunder into the final battle filled with overconfidence, only to find yourself thoroughly defeated by a rather smug Mordred. Or was that just me?
Once you move away from the first area, you’ll be presented with a map of rolling hills and a number of locations will open up for you to explore. You’ll need to choose which way you want to go and you may find that selecting one route will lock access to another. Much like the starting area, each location is set out as a series of squares and you’ll need to manoeuvre your character across the board while taking out or avoiding enemies that may try to stop you. The aim is to move your character from the starting position to the glowy exit square on the opposite side. Seems easy, right? Well it’s not quite as simple as that.
Different stances dictate whether your character can move diagonally across the board or whether they can only move to adjacent squares. Your ability to attack is also limited depending on your stance, so you’ll need to take that into account before making your move.
Be aware that the enemies you encounter also have different ways of moving and attacking – I got caught out by this a few times. You can find out more about an unfamiliar enemy by clicking on them to discover their abilities and plan your own moves accordingly. As you move across the board, you gain ownership of the squares you pass over, as does the enemy in most cases. This ownership dictates how both you and the enemy can move, so you need to be aware of your surroundings if you want to survive long enough to reach King Arthur in Camlann.
As you progress through the story and uncover new areas, you’ll often come across peasants, knights or other strangers. While they may seem hostile at first, it’s worth giving them a bit of space to see if they might become potential allies; rather than going straight in on the attack, it’s often prudent to find out if it’s someone you can recruit before you cut them down. While it’s true that you can only take one party member to the final confrontation with Mordred, there is good reason to expand your team as you journey to reach Arthur.
Each follower you recruit will have their own set of abilities and will interact with your chosen hero based on their own character path. This interaction often takes place around a campfire where you exchange stories while resting up for the night, but it can also come into play on the battlefield. Some allies will have their own unique abilities that may be invaluable in certain situations while others may be less than trustworthy. I’m looking at you, Morgana!
A lot of the areas will allow you to choose which member of your party you want to lead and you can bring additional members onto the board as needed. It’s worth noting though that you can only perform one action per turn, so you should be careful not to endanger one character while you’re positioning another. You may have to make tough decisions to sacrifice one ally in order to save another to continue with your journey.
Rather than going in with guns (or swords, in this case) blazing, you may find that doing nothing is the best option. Choosing to ‘Hold…’ can come in handy if you want to progress dialogue without moving into what may be perceived as a threatening position or if you simply want to see what an enemy is going to do next. These conversations can also lead to different dialogue options or they might offer up a new ability along with a change to your character’s Core Story.
There is a caveat to inaction; stand around doing nothing for too long and you’ll run into the real danger of your morale decreasing to zero and the party members you’ve acquired may well abandon you. Pendragon is a strategy game after all and there are certain resources such as this that you’ll need to keep an eye on as you make your way to Camlann.
Health can be restored by using Rations but these are fairly scarce so, depending on the size of your party, you may need to use these sparingly. Resolve is something else you’ll want to keep an eye on. While you don’t need resolve to move or perform a basic attack, you’ll need it if you want to use one of your abilities. It may seem like an easy win to use Branwen’s ranged attack to take down an enemy quickly, for example, but burning through your resolve can leave you in a tricky situation later on. Luckily, most areas have resolve ready to be collected and you just have to move to the relevant squares to collect it.
At the end of each playthrough – whether you manage to reach Camlann and defeat Mordred or not – you’ll be presented with a nifty timeline which shows you the choices you made, the allies you recruited and the path you chose. Each of your adventures will be different in Inkle’s imagining of Arthurian England, and despite first impressions, there’s a lot more to enjoy than one playthrough can possibly cover.