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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