Inkle is probably one of my favourite studios ever, due to their understanding of what actual role-playing involves. The idea of driving a story forward through your choices that does not necessarily have to revolve around combat, adds to the layers of interactivity that I believe traditional RPGs can tend to miss. This is not to imply that all RPGs need this setup, but when stories can take such a foothold within this genre, it makes me happy to see studios like Inkle showcasing how creative and immersive role-playing can be.
From the team behind the wonderful Sorcery!-series and the brilliant 80 days, we got Pendragon; a tactical RPG that focuses on storytelling yet again. This game actually shares the same name with an old tabletop RPG, which is probably no coincidence since they both base their settings on the mythologies surrounding King Arthur. The TRPG was even made by Greg Stafford, a man you should recognise if you are even the slightest versed in tabletop gaming. With this in mind, I want to elaborate upon why I believe Pendragon will go down in history as one of the finest titles ever made.
A legend retold multiple times
The game is set in the year 673 AD. Camelot has fallen, the Knights of the Round Table is no more, and Sir Mordred is after the throne of England. With the land sent into chaos, Arthur is about to face him in combat and take his place as king again. However, you are not playing as the legendary king himself. Instead, you choose one of many characters to start off this tale with in order to reach Arthur and aid him before it is too late. Be it journeying through this land as his unfaithful, yet loyal wife Guinevere, the reckless Gawaine the Red or even the suspicious Morgana, each tale will start out differently and be effected by the choices you make.
Thanks to Inkle’s strong focus on how to tell a story, the choices you will have to make will be varied, come in plenty, and contain consequences to take into consideration. Will you fight against the hostile civilians or try to lower their tension? Should you check out the empty castle or the nearby town where there might be rations to find? Are you certain you will not be betrayed by those who lend you a hand? These are just some of the questions you will encounter upon your travels, giving you plenty of scenarios to be immersed by through your actions.
It is not just your choices that will matter, but also who you will play as. Every character has a backstory and knowledge that can provide you with different outcomes, making for plenty of varied stories to be played out. One example is Lancelot, as he is a renowned and skilled fighter who is rumoured to be having an affair with Guinevere, portraying him as both a possible traitor and a force to be reckoned with. All of the playable characters share the same strength in having a diverse personality, and they all change through your choices on how they will act and why they are on this quest, giving you a lot of character developments that can even affect the gameplay.
While the story is about your decisions and the characters you meet, the bigger cause is the main focus and always present. It is fantastic that the plot never overshadows the cast, but rather strengthens them by being constantly showcased through your adventure, such as how villagers are being split about Arthur’s regime compared to Mordred’s. This really makes the world feel alive and clearly on our protagonists’ minds, but the game never shuns away from letting the characters chat to show compassion, doubt or stronger attachments for one another. I am amazed how this is all perfectly balanced, almost like how simple yarns can become a beautiful tapestry.
This is further enhanced by how this title truly feels like passionate sessions from a role-playing campaign. Every description is beautifully painted out about the characters’ emotions, the actions occurring, and how the environments look, giving you a wonderful form of immersion. If that was not enough, your choices will not necessarily result in your favour, and none of the consequences feel forced or unreasonable. Strengthening the atmosphere even more, are the details put everywhere. Attires and areas are representing the era perfectly, and there are even nice details in what characters you will encounter from this mythology. We even have Rhiannon who comes with a ton of lore to her and the loyal Sir Kay who has a strong love for the finer things in life.
Because of all of these wonderful elements, Pendragon becomes a truly fantastic game to experience on multiple playthroughs. This is very reminiscent to actual role-playing sessions, where people afterwards share tales from their journeys with other players. Every campaign is about an hour long with every moment being engaging, which made me easily get three different stories in one sitting. There is such a beauty with how much this title focuses on making this world immersive, the characters interesting, the plot strong, and your choices important. This is storytelling at its best, and many studios could really learn from Inkle.
Story Score: 10/10
After choosing which character you want to start out your journey with, you are set in a strategy-title with multiple choices on how you wish to proceed onward. Each location you travel to on the overworld map is played out on a tile-based structure, with your playable characters being on the left side of the field and the opponents on the right. How you decide to proceed will ultimately affect the battle and you can choose many options besides combat. Sure, you can take on the enemies head on and try to defeat them, but you can also try to reach their base and leave the fight, stall in order to strike a conversation with dialogue options if possible or fall back and flee. Every battle will have an affect on your party and your journey, so you will have to choose wisely on how to act.
However, Pendragon has many more mechanics implemented that makes this title into a fascinating take on its genre. To start out with, you can choose between two stands that either makes your character move diagonally or straight. The straight stand will make them able to attack an opponent, while moving diagonally will cover four tiles (one in each non-diagonally area) in your teams colour at the risk of not being able to fight. This is a severely important aspect of the game, as characters can move more than one space towards the enemies in a straight line if more tiles are in their teams colour, providing big opportunities to make leaping attacks.
This is further expanded by subtle ideas to take into consideration on the battlefield, such as that you can move in any direction on a tall tile, fields of water cannot be claimed (or coloured if you will), and some obstacles might need to be cut down in order to get through. Just as important to remember, are the different types of enemies you will be fighting against as they will act differently depending on what creatures they are. A good example is how spiders will only move diagonally and are aggressive, but unintelligent. Meanwhile, soldiers will try to take you off guard and move accordingly to what your next move might be.
All are dangerous fiends to be recognised with, and depending on the difficulty you selected, the fights can become severely demanding. Even your characters might have quirks to consider, such as some not wanting to attack humans. Adding to this tension, is that each side can only make one move each turn for their whole team. Switching stand, calling in more characters to fight on your side or simply moving a character, all are considered as one move. This makes Pendragon reminiscent to chess in a way, where you have to think of possible outcomes multiple turns ahead. I love this challenging setup, as no match is on a too big of a field or contain too many characters, yet asks the player to put their head in the game.
Furthermore, through the choices you have your characters making, you can even provide them with special moves that can turn the tide of a fight. Some of my favourite abilities were attacking diagonally while standing still and one that made a character leap over a tile, and all of these moves will give you some form of a tactical advantage each and are a nice way to make the fighters unique. However, you need tokens known as resolves in order to perform these moves, which are shared amongst the team and only found on the battlefield.
This makes them rare in itself, but they are also used to summon more characters than your first one to the battlefield, making them severely valuable assets and each action can require a different amount of them. Lastly, you cannot let battles take too long, since it will affect your teams moral. Yes, you have a morality meter and having it decay will make your party struggle in battles, with a low amount making them even flee fights automatically. Luckily, you can fill it up by performing generous deeds, such as giving your companions food.
This might sound like there is a lot to take in, but these are rather important details in small and confined battles, making the fights always exciting and easy to take in. The game is also helpful by having plenty of tips and hints on what to remember, the dire outcomes are always highlighted, and even the characters might suggest moves you can either agree to or not. These features are nice for giving the player some leniency, and non of them become intrusive. For those of you who want to be truly on the edge, you can thankfully turn these options off.
You are going to need all the help though, as one hit means a character is gone from the battle. When this happens, they will loose one of their hearts and letting one companion loose all of them will end their life. You will also automatically loose a fight and a character, if one of your opponents reaches your base. This is quite devastating, as there are no items for resurrecting a companion, and you are always responsible for who survives and who bites the dust. All members of the party must die before the game is over, where you will have to start a new campaign from the beginning.
This is actually a fantastic form of punishment, because of how short each playthrough can be and that you only need one surviving character for the last fight, regardless of whether it is the one you started the adventure with or not. However, while the battles are a dominant part of the game, the role-playing and the overworld map will be just as important. Every decision you make, will matter on how the story progresses and none are as simple as black and white. It all boils down to what you think are the best choices and hope the outcomes will be the preferred ones.
To give an example, I unfortunately made one of my characters fall in battle, but she was saved by one of her companions. After this, I chose the option to make them showcase camaraderie to one another, giving one of them a new skill. This wonderful take on making the adventure more involving, is always fantastic and present in Pendragon. Furthermore, you can find rations to heal one or more of your characters once per day, discover camps to rest and hear tales at, and even take on alternative tasks instead of the best way to reach Arthur. Maybe you want to hunt for food in a forest, see what that smoking house holds or take your luck in a nearby ancient fortress?
All of the choices presented in Pendragon will have consequences to them, and that is what is so important in a role-playing game where you are in control of the story. You are shaping the journey and your comrades’ personalities, and you are doing this through your tactical capabilities in combat and your strength in charisma, making this one of the best takes on a traditional RPG ever. It has everything of what a good campaign should present, while still making it easy for anyone to jump in and get invested in its mechanics. Even tabletop RPGs struggle with this to this day.
Gameplay Score: 10/10
A gorgeous glass painting
As an interesting design-choice, Pendragon’s art is made out of medieval stained glasses, giving everything a distinct style and strong use of colours. It is a creative idea that is further highlighted by the game being presented in 2D, making everything reminiscent of a popup book. I love this bold decision, as it is not necessarily pleasing to a general crowd, but Pendragon goes all out with this setup through details such as the expressive character portraits and the borders with fitting patterns. Even the characters are wonderfully crafted to make them only have subtle animations in order to simulate figurines from an actual board game.
All the characters are distinct with unique looks that make them believable in their attires and postures. A good example here, is how King Arthur is dressed in an outfit fit for a king, but looks tired and has a heavy build. Every character is distinct with just as strong of details implemented, and this extends to the different locations as well. Castles can either be clean with soldiers guarding it or broken down and dirty with monsters in it, and the forests can be peaceful and contain a river or be fierce with tons of vegetation and animals roaming. Combine this with the lovely attention to minor animations, such as the grass waving in the swamps, the days shifting to nights, and great lighting, it is easy to admire the subtle details added in to give this art form life.
The only issue I have, revolves around the minor characters you can add to your party. While they are clearly not historically significant or even part of King Arthur’s mythology, I just wish they could have had a couple of more faces to them in order to make these NPCs more distinct. I say this, as many of these characters I started to get emotionally invested in, to the point where I even knighted one. To not make them visually memorable, hurts the experience as they are just painted as insignificant characters. Luckily, this issue is only on a small level when everything else is simply fantastic.
The music is just as beautiful as the visuals and perfectly compliments the game’s tone. It contains fitting instruments with all being utilised for adding to the different settings, such as calming harps, horns and flutes to signify importance, and mysterious clarinets and piano. Every song has variety to them with highlighted notes and rhythms, making it all simply magnificent and easy to remember. Laurence Chapman is a wonderful composer, and it was shocking to learn that there where only five musicians present here, with Laurence himself on the piano. I suppose this shows that strong and bombastic music, does come through quality and not from quantity of musicians.
Presentation Score: 9/10
Quick sessions are underrated
With plenty of characters to find and unlock for future playthroughs, multiple choices to partake in, and easy replay value due to each campaign’s short length, Pendragon is a beast that can easily have you hooked. Every successful playthrough even unlocks higher difficulty to your slider that will also affect how much you discover on your journey, making this a wonderful risk versus reward system. As a fascinating addition, you can also discover tales by the campfire for some nice collectables and they are interesting listens that adds to the atmosphere and setting. Maybe not rewarding within the game itself, but everything feels valuable, as they all add to the journeys you will partake in. Believe me, there will be plenty of those to take on after one playthrough.
Extra Score: 10/10
Going from taking inspirations from gamebooks to a full on tabletop RPG is truly a remarkable accomplishment, and Pendragon succeeds because it knows how to do so with details implemented everywhere! It is truly a remarkable title that I cannot help but to love for its dedication to its style, engaging story with important choices to make, demanding combat, and outstanding role-playing. With lots of replay value on top of that, I do not miss too much D&D sessions anymore.