Pendragon impressions

Although theoretically I’ve beaten Pendragon twice, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what the game has to offer, yet it is so distinctly clear what the game is, who it is aimed at, and what it does well (and what it doesn’t do as well), that I decided to write something about it and call it impressions instead, as I will continue to chip away at it periodically, without thinking about it in the terms of an article.

Deciding whether you will enjoy Pendragon is as easy as answering a couple of straightforward questions; just ask yourself if you like strategy/turn based combat and dynamic, unscripted stories formulating from gameplay systems and characters. If the answer is yes to both, then get this game! I’m not so hot on strategy myself, but since I’ve had quite a few exceptions to that assumption, and since Pendragon is the latest from the “80 days” and “Heaven’s Vault” people, I decided to give it a go. Truth be told, I’m not excited to play Pendragon, because of the slower pace and the need to strategize in harder difficulties, but the systems very interesting; it is a strategy game first, with characters having more in common with chess pieces than the rough and rugged soldiers of X-COM, and that allows players to strategize and plan a lot better. There are no percentage chances to screw you over or elaborate mechanics; you start each run as the character of your choice on a specific tile in the overworld and you have to go to King Arthur who will face Mordred. You have a certain number of resources and each stop can deplete or add to them (if you are lucky), but getting to the end goal and facing Mordred will probably contain a lot of fighting. Each night, you will have a chance to rest at a site you cleared and there you can listen to one of the many stories written for the game, depending on the characters you have in your squad.

Before I get into the meta game stuff, lets talk combat; the best analogy I can come up with it that its like “The Witness” in that it looks deceptively simple on first inspection. Your character can move linearly (up, down, left, right) or diagonally, depending on your stance, which also determines what tile you can attack; each move or change of stance takes one turn. At easier difficulties, Pendragon is a breeze and a good way to get acquainted with the strategy, because it is surprisingly deep; enemies will react to your stances and will guard themselves appropriately. The combat also has a timer (of sorts) in the form of your morale; the more the fight drags, the lower your morale will fall; the less morale, the less leeway you’ll have later on other fights and that could cost you if you have a downed member, but no time to save them. This is a game that benefits from high levels of challenge, as the best moments in the game come from making decisions under duress. The combat isn’t really the thing that drew me to this game, but it is fairly important to the experience; overall, I thought that it was interesting and neat to engage with.

What drew me to the game was the developers’ previous work and the emphasis of the game on dynamic storytelling, which is where the game excels at. Pendragon has given me a few strong stories to tell after only a couple of hours with it and at the easiest difficulties and that is why I want to cover this game now and enjoy it on my own terms. You should do that too; this is a game and story(ies) that benefit from patience. I’ve seen a lot of people (myself included) finish our first run and immediately go “is this it?”, because it is an hour long and fairly easy to get to Mordred the first time round. But, as the difficulty rises and the combat begins to get significantly deadlier and more challenging, then the story that is surprisingly sparse in an inkle game starts becoming memorable and unique; characters that oppose you may have more to say in their dialogue if you give them time and space (or they could just be baiting you to lose significant time and tiles), loosing a character will shape your story in a unique way as is almost losing a character but ultimately saving them. Even upgrading the characters to have new moves is contextualized as story moments, where choosing what happens in the story will decide what ability that character will have (for example, Guinevere still loving Arthur will give her one ability, while denying him will give her another option). In all honesty, I don’t want to start explaining everything that I like about this game, because I feel like the reason, I like it so much is that I went completely blind into it. Instead, I’ll leave you with my favorite dynamic story moment and let that sell you…

I am playing as Sir Lancelot, back from self-imposed exile to help his dear friend defeat his wicked enemy. As I played Lancelot’s mistress before (Queen Guinevere), I start moving towards her general vicinity to meet my former lover and unite to help our common king and brother in arms; along the way, I encounter a villager (I forgot her name, because I’m bad with names, but lets call her Karen for shits and giggles) who wants to defend Arthur as much as I do and I allow her the time and space to see that and join me. After a few battles and many disappointments, we decide to head towards Arthur rather than the Queen, where to our surprise we meet a drunk that says he is willing to fight with us; he does look familiar…Sir Gawaine!! All three of us will surely reach Arthur in no time, but alas, fate is a cruel mistress who will send spiders to trap you in their webs. I am alone against two, gigantic spiders and I have one cornered, as I, Sir Lancelot, champion of the Queen, need no assistance in dealing with these fowl creatures; why one even begins to run away…towards our camp… A scream shatters the stunned silence, as Karen runs screaming from my dying comrade; I can hear his last words. “I wish I was drunk” he says before the spider slid his throat and ends his sober, miserable last moments. I manage to kill the other spider, but the one that killed my friend and scared Karen away, was gone. I have to make it to Arthur now, I have to make his life mean something, Mordred has to die…

This story encapsulates what Pendragon does best: Teaching you what it is through gameplay and narrative to contextualize it. Before that battle, I had no idea my camp, where I start each encounter, is a physical space that enemies can target; I literally thought that the spider was running away. Add a bit of comedy and the connection I had with Karen, ending in her screaming and running away, creates a memorable story. This was on the second difficulty, by the way, and with a starting character, with lots more characters available to unlock or to find in the game (like Karen) that create their own unique stories. If you like games that allow you to have these moments, then Pendragon should be on the top of your list.

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