The maps in developer Inkle’s Pendragon are all small grids of no more than a few squares across. Even just four characters can feel like a crowd. You maneuver a chosen Arthurian hero — a Sir Lancelot, a Queen Guinevere, a Morgana le Fay — through these miniature renditions of Dark Ages Britain, which look like they’ve been transplanted from stained-glass windows. Moving over a square paints it your color (red) to capture territory, which is useful for advancing toward the opposition; you can move quickly over multiple squares of your own territory, which means you can strike at enemies loitering just outside of it.
The crux of Pendragon, though, is that not every encounter leads to armed conflict. You’re on the way to Camlann to join the deposed King Arthur’s fight against his treacherous son, Mordred, and at each stop through randomly-generated Britain, you meet different people. Maybe they’re local villagers wary of thieves, or they’re overrun by wild animals. Maybe an unhappy daughter wants to take up arms with your party, or a merchant is trying to pawn off a weapon in exchange for food, or a party of rogues has accosted you in the hills. Whoever they are and whatever they want, your characters speak to them right there on the battlefield, with all the maneuvers and territory grabs playing out even in totally peaceful conversations. Just in case.
Because the talks can break down. The villagers might reveal that Arthur’s snooty isolation in the big, cushy chair at Camelot has pushed them firmly toward Team Mordred. The tide of battle turns quickly, too, as enemies flee when you cut down one of their brethren, you’re overwhelmed by reinforcements, or a new ally joins the fight just in time. The best moments of Pendragon feel like standoffs, where characters circle the field with hands on hilts as they suss out one another’s intentions. You can even slip past your opponents entirely, hitting the exit square on the other end of the board to bloodlessly “win” the confrontation.
When the conversation and tactical elements click, they feel downright magical. A successful run to Camlann takes no more than an hour, so the game maintains an openness to dramatic sacrifice and last-minute rescue without feeling like you’ve obliterated so much hard-earned progress. You can abandon your fallen comrades, fleeing blindly into the wilderness to fight another day. If you’re not careful and an enemy reaches your flag designating the units you haven’t yet called onto the field, they can outright kill some of your party members or otherwise scatter them to the winds. Pendragon excels precisely because it resists a rigid combat system of killing everyone to proceed, and the stories it can potentially tell are so much richer for it.
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Quest for Camlann
A lot of these lines and situations repeat — it is quite common to arrive at an abbey to find it overrun by creatures — but that feels appropriate for what is essentially an Arthurian myth generator, tweaking the details each time while keeping the broad strokes. Party composition depends on where you visit and who you find along the way — Guinevere, for example, has some idea where Lancelot went into exile, but it’s possible to never encounter him. My first playthrough found her instead forming a bond with the reluctant Sir Cully, who was chased off by enemies midway through the run only to heroically return for the last stand at Camlann.
Sometimes your characters don’t make it to Camlann at all, sometimes they lose to Mordred in the final battle, sometimes Arthur himself falls to a nameless grunt once you link up with him. There is a melancholic pall over the proceedings that makes every outcome feel appropriate — even victories end with the round table broken, Camelot in flames. You’ve come in at the end to do what you can, steeped in regret all the while.
With that said, not every story is a twisting tale of shifting allegiances and dramatic rescues. When you’re surrounded by such tight-lipped opponents as bears, wolves, and giant spiders, you often rely solely on the game’s tactical layer, which feels streamlined to the point of monotony. Everyone goes down in a single hit, and though you accumulate special abilities based on how the story goes and who you’re interacting with, they tend not to stack. An ability to tame animals might be replaced by the ability to attack diagonally, all of which grow more costly with use.
Pendragon commits to restricting your toolset rather than expanding it, seemingly in accordance with its bite-sized nature. But the great strategy games generate anecdotes from the wider variety of tactical choices, and Pendragon never quite feels the same when it has you prancing around the board for an opening to gut the umpteenth angry bear. Even the rather straightforward confrontations with loyal knights of Mordred are preferable since they’ve all got mouths on them, taunting that they’ll use your bones to win at dice or see badgers raise young in the hollow of your skull.
Completing a run might unlock another playable hero if you encountered one and bump up the difficulty, but the challenge is never the problem. What gives Pendragon its juice is its variety of situations in the service of its story, and where combat is concerned, one of those storytelling tools feels much more limited than the rest.