‘Pendragon’ review: chess and Arthurian legend collide to generate stories both beautiful and tragic

Tense tactical battles amidst a wild, ancient Britain

There’s a fair bit of drama packed into the game of chess by default. Often strategies involve making moves known as sacrifices; you move a piece into a disadvantageous position, letting your opponent take it, but in turn giving yourself an overall tactical edge. You lose the battle, but win the war. Sometimes you’ll even sacrifice your most powerful piece, the Queen.

These kinds of edge-of-your-seat moves are core to Pendragon – only here developer Inkle has also added a considerable amount more heart to their particular chess-em-up. Your pieces are characters that talk as you shift them around the board, and through quick decisive sacrifices and killer moves they grow and begin to form relationships with one another. A pawn’s sacrifice or Queen’s prowess will be remembered after the battle, and carried on into the next encounter.

Pendragon
Pendragon. Credit: Ewan Wilson / Inkle

Pendragon is a story-generator. Your goal is always the same – to take your chosen character North to Camlann to meet King Arthur, and help defeat the evil Mordred – but your journey and what happens on it is always different. You’ll wind your way across a randomly generated Dark Ages Britain, picking up companions, getting into scraps and sharing tales around the campfire. The whole game has a kind of muddy, post-apocalyptic Anglo-Saxon mood. Camelot has fallen, the Round Table is shattered and everywhere deep disillusion and shadows linger.

The map, which is great at capturing that sense of a rolling English landscape, is a beautiful thing. Between you and Camlann lies various villages, gnarled forests, ruined abbeys, crumbling keeps and ghastly burial grounds, all nestled in the valleys or stood atop great hump-like hills. As you pick your route around ancient Britain, each location unfurls into a procedurally generated chess board for you to do battle upon.

Combat is a simple but deadly, often a to-and-fro affair. Both characters and enemies are downed in a single hit, leading to lots of chin-stroking and a fair amount of stalemate situations… at least until you take the plunge and make that much needed heroic sacrifice. Your board pieces can switch between two different stances: linear movement where they can attack ahead, behind and to the sides, and diagonal movement where you’re left vulnerable. As your pieces advance, they paint the board red (while your enemies leave a trail of blue), which allows you can move more quickly and charge further forward.

There are also raised ground tiles, which allow you to shift between stances instantly. These introduce an element of area control, as you try to literally paint your opponent into a corner and outmaneuver them, eventually moving in for that swift finish. Depending on how you play these encounters, and what specific moves you make, it’s possible for one or more of your characters to develop and learn a unique ability, like being able to attack diagonally.

Pendragon
Pendragon. Credit: Ewan Wilson / Inkle

Not every encounter on the board ends in violence. As you move characters around they converse with one another, and often there’s a certain amount of sizing each other up. This can lead to tense exchanges where you’re unsure of the intentions or allegiance of those you face. I’ve wandered too close to someone I thought was friendly and paid the price – but I’ve also won people over through words. It reminds me of Monkey Island’s infamous “insult sword-fighting”, as you dance around the board attempting to out-wit your opponent with logic, rhetoric and poetry.

As you make your way further North, winning people over and increasing your party size, it’s possible for a sense of hope to take hold. Of course, things can just as easily be wrecked, as the rations run thin and your morale is weakened, you’ll start on the board with diminished abilities. It’s easy for things to come crashing to a halt in Pendragon, with just a handful of fatal mistakes wiping your party out and bringing your grand odyssey to an all-too swift end.

The first few times you play, these botched conclusions feel painful – you’ll die in the mud before ever reaching Camlann. However, the more you play the more you realise that there’s great storytelling potential in these failures. Some of the most memorable attempts against Mordred take unexpected turns and can even end disastrously, but many of the best stories are tragedies.

Pendragon
Pendragon. Credit: Ewan Wilson / Inkle

What I like about Pendragon is how unexpected it can be. It takes a tactical board game like chess – something rigid, logical, even cold – and collides it with things Inkle has always excelled at: stories, poetry, warmth. And it works. You grow to care about the pieces on the board, and not once does it feel forced or contrived.

Pendragon is also, like pretty much all of Inkle’s previous work, beautifully written. Sparse narration and the setting of each scene brought to life with nimble prose and figurative language. There’s also just a great atmosphere to this ancient, wild rendition of Arthurian Britain – its blustery weather and its howling winds and rain given full force in the audio design, while the shaped characters and the red and blue battlefields have this gorgeous stained glass aesthetic.

‘Pendragon’ is out now for PC.

Our Verdict

Pendragon combines tense, tactical encounters where you dance around, painting the battlefield red, with beautifully simple storytelling. From campfire camaraderie to heroic sacrifices and tragic blunders, every run of this story-generating chess-em-up will tell a tale unique to you depending on your, often disastrous, decisions.

Pros

  • A very successful mash-up of terse, tactical combat and heart-felt storytelling
  • Random generation and taking even small actions into account means a wide range of potential stories
  • Very atmospheric – ancient Britain and Arthurian legend brought to life
  • Both the map screen and the tiled boards are beautiful to look at

Cons

  • Like in real chess, there can be some awkward stale-mate situations
  • Can sometimes have very useful abilities overwritten by less useful ones
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