Pendragon Review – Endless Legends

Legends are slippery things. One tells of Arthur, the once and future King of Britain who united the realm against the Saxon invaders. Where historical fact is elusive, literary fancy has imagined Arthur’s idyllic court of Camelot, its chambers populated with knights, wizards, and witches, its halls reverberating with chivalry, romance, and betrayal. In exploring the legend of Arthur, Pendragon mixes interactive fiction and tactical combat within a short-form roguelike structure to tell myriad tales. As a study of how myths are formed from countless half-truths, it’s effective. But as a narrative journey, it feels slight, its more admirable efforts undermined by repetition and an uneasy relationship with combat.

In this particular rendition of Arthurian legend, the story always begins in 673 A.D., about a week before Arthur reaches the castle of Camlann to face his son, Mordred, whose challenge for the throne has ignited a civil war. Each time you roll a new game, you’ll play as one of Arthur’s court–his estranged wife Guinevere, her possible lover Sir Lancelot, the enigmatic Merlin, to name three of the more familiar characters–dashing across Britain to aid the king in the climactic showdown. En route, you will run into characters that you can convince to ride with your banner, others you’ll need to put to the sword, and an alarming number of wolves, snakes, giant spiders, and rats to fight or flee from. Though rest and rations will help the wounded recover, all members of your party–even your starting character–can die permanently, and the journey is over if everyone falls in battle. A complete run will typically take only 20-30 minutes, depending on how quickly you find Camlann.

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The rapid turnaround of a run serves to highlight the dynamic nature of Pendragon’s storytelling. By embarking on a new journey, you’ll quickly find yourself exploring a reconfigured map, discovering new locations and story events, and accumulating alternate perspectives on the core myths of the land. And the game does a remarkable job tying together the many disparate narrative threads you can follow throughout one run. In one run, I began as Morgana Le Fay before meeting and recruiting Guinevere. Morgana was later wounded in battle while Guinevere fled, leaving me to play on as the latter. By the time I reached Camlann, Guinevere too had perished and so I ended up facing Mordred’s knights with just Arthur’s brother, Sir Kay, and a strong-armed peasant blacksmith in tow. What’s impressive is that the dialogue doesn’t miss a beat; conversations feel coherent and reactive to whatever choice and chaos has occurred along the way.

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Pendragon Review – History Repeating

Legends are slippery things. One tells of Arthur, the once and future King of Britain who united the realm against the Saxon invaders. Where historical fact is elusive, literary fancy has imagined Arthur’s idyllic court of Camelot, its chambers populated with knights, wizards, and witches, its halls reverberating with chivalry, romance, and betrayal. In exploring the legend of Arthur, Pendragon mixes interactive fiction and tactical combat within a short-form roguelike structure to tell myriad tales. As a study of how myths are formed from countless half-truths, it’s effective. But as a narrative journey, it feels slight, its more admirable efforts undermined by repetition and an uneasy relationship with combat.

In this particular rendition of Arthurian legend, the story always begins in 673 A.D., about a week before Arthur reaches the castle of Camlann to face his son, Mordred, whose challenge for the throne has ignited a civil war. Each time you roll a new game, you’ll play as one of Arthur’s court–his estranged wife Guinevere, her possible lover Sir Lancelot, the enigmatic Merlin, to name three of the more familiar characters–dashing across Britain to aid the king in the climactic showdown. En route, you will run into characters that you can convince to ride with your banner, others you’ll need to put to the sword, and an alarming number of wolves, snakes, giant spiders, and rats to fight or flee from. Though rest and rations will help the wounded recover, all members of your party–even your starting character–can die permanently, and the journey is over if everyone falls in battle. A complete run will typically take only 20-30 minutes, depending on how quickly you find Camlann.

No Caption Provided

The rapid turnaround of a run serves to highlight the dynamic nature of Pendragon’s storytelling. By embarking on a new journey, you’ll quickly find yourself exploring a reconfigured map, discovering new locations and story events, and accumulating alternate perspectives on the core myths of the land. And the game does a remarkable job tying together the many disparate narrative threads you can follow throughout one run. In one run, I began as Morgana Le Fay before meeting and recruiting Guinevere. Morgana was later wounded in battle while Guinevere fled, leaving me to play on as the latter. By the time I reached Camlann, Guinevere too had perished and so I ended up facing Mordred’s knights with just Arthur’s brother, Sir Kay, and a strong-armed peasant blacksmith in tow. What’s impressive is that the dialogue doesn’t miss a beat; conversations feel coherent and reactive to whatever choice and chaos has occurred along the way.

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Serious Sam 4 Review – The Fourth Encounter

In Serious Sam 4, the long-running FPS series may have finally found a workable identity. Through each entry, developer Croteam has held onto the core gameplay loop that defined Sam’s initial jaunt across Egypt. You will always back-pedal, you will always circle-strafe, and you will always fight dozens of Sam’s memorable cadre of alien enemies at once. But, at times, that loop has been obscured by some of the strange decisions Croteam has made with the series. It was never broken, but each game finds the developer trying to fix it.

Enter Serious Sam 4, yet another reinvention that seems to draw from every period of the series’ long life. As in Serious Sam 3, the graphics are realistic (though a little stiff). As in Serious Sam 2, there’s vehicular combat and humor to spare (and a surprising portion of the jokes land). And, as in First and Second Encounter, the gameplay is razor-sharp and front-and-center. It’s been nine years since the last mainline entry, and in that time we’ve witnessed the revival of circle-strafing shooters thanks to games both big (Doom) and small (Dusk). But, in this newly crowded landscape, Serious Sam 4 has a secret weapon. Croteam is simply willing to throw a ridiculous number of enemies at you at all times and it has the tech to pull it off.

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In this outing, which functions as a prequel to The First Encounter, Sam and a small group of resistance fighters are attempting to push back the villainous Mental’s assault on Earth. The alien horde has already won, but the resistance hopes to score a strategic advantage by tracking down the Holy Grail, which is actually an alien artifact hidden somewhere among the art and architecture of an impressively unspoiled Italy.

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NBA 2K21 Review – Ball Another Day

With NBA 2K21, you just know what you’re getting into–a basketball simulation with the presentation chops, star power, and gameplay mechanics to embody the sport on a professional and cultural level. You know you’ll build a custom player to go through a story that leads into a full career and take to the streets and rec center for pick up games. You know you can play a management sim through MyGM or build a playable fantasy team through card packs in MyTeam. And you also know all too well about the scheme of VC that looms over it all, which remains one of the prominent offenders of intrusive microtransactions.

At this point, NBA 2K21 suggests that the franchise is out of surprises. It comes with a robust suite of modes, but despite minor remixing year after year, the annual releases are starting to blend together (if they haven’t already). Mechanics get minor tweaks or additions, but largely remain untouched. So, for those embedded in the 2K cycle, you know what the deal is, but because this year’s game changes things mostly on a surface level, it’s hard to be excited about yet another entry.

Your player in MyCareer starts in high school, goes through college for a short time, then gets drafted.
Your player in MyCareer starts in high school, goes through college for a short time, then gets drafted.

Don’t get me wrong, as a lifelong basketball fan who embraced the culture as a wee lad and cherishes street ball memories from back home, I’m still a bit in awe of how well the sport has translated into video game form (I said as much in my NBA 2K19 review). And that doesn’t just come from the player likenesses, character creation tools, or the broadcast-style presentation; it’s a matter of the core gameplay, too.

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Mafia: Definitive Edition Review – An Offer You Could Probably Refuse

Mafia: Definitive Edition may look like a contemporary video game, but it doesn’t exactly play like one. This shouldn’t be too surprising considering it’s a remake of the classic 2002 mobster epic, but it also doesn’t play like that game either. This is a remake that’s been built entirely from the ground up, with a stunning visual overhaul, expanded story, and greater sense of place. Yet its gameplay systems have only been modernised to a limited extent. As a result, Mafia: Definitive Edition feels archaic as it covers the well-trodden ground of its contemporaries, hindered by many of the same ailments that held back Mafia III, despite that game’s strong narrative.

The same is true here, as Mafia: Definitive Edition’s story is far and away the best part of this remake. You play as Tommy Angelo, a timid cab driver who gradually turns to a life of crime in the fictional city of Lost Heaven during the 1930s. Tommy’s an interesting and often conflicted protagonist, and a few new scenes have been added to the original story to flesh out the rest of the cast and inject some levity into Tommy’s tale. Characters like Don Salieri have been given more ambiguous motivations, while weapons supplier Vincenzo is now a point of comic relief instead of the self-serious tough guy he was before.

Dialogue has also been reworked and sharpened throughout, although the main story beats of the original game are still present. It’s clichéd at times, and sometimes relies on homages to classic gangster cinema, but it’s easy to become attached to its relatively small cast of characters, particularly now that each one has been enhanced with new voice work and facial capture from its accomplished cast. Aside from looking a whole lot better, these new performances allow for more subtlety in each scene, as facial expressions are able to express more than words often can.

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