Pendula Swing: Episodes 1-3 review
Billed by Swedish developers Valiant Game Studio as "Tolkien meets The Great Gatsby", Pendula Swing is a bit of an odd duck. Currently four parts into a seven-episode story arc, it’s an intriguing mix of elements, with fantasy staples such as dwarves and elves living in a land very much like America in the roaring ‘20s, but its heart very much set on modern social commentary. You won't find any grand battles here, and magic's used not to kill or curse but to chill ice cream. Instead, the focus is on discrimination (racial and otherwise), different cultures, and immigration issues. In place of complex puzzles, you have an intricate web of choices to make as you navigate your way around Pendula. Will you embrace diversity, or give in to stereotypes? Trumpet your warrior past, or fly under the radar? Where some may see it as slow, serious, and more or less challenge-free, to others it'll be a welcome change and a chance to explore real issues in a fictional setting.
Brialynne is a dwarvish heroine, famed for slaying the foul orc Nakirik. That was a long time ago, though (350 years or so), and since then she's settled down on a quiet island to live out her days, farming and mourning the death of her beloved wife Taheena. It's been so long since she last left her peaceful island, in fact, that her boat is half-submerged by the shore. She tends to her chickens, takes care of her talking cat (and former elf) Katya and brews dwarven ale. All that changes, though, when she wakes up one day to find that her axe, which had been hanging on her living room wall for centuries, is gone, and there are tiny goblin footprints leading out the door. Why would anyone do this to a half-forgotten hero after all this time? Playing as Brialynne, it's your job to find out and reconnect with the wider world of Pendula along the way.
Time hasn't stood still while Brialynne has been away. The world she remembers, with epic sagas of heroes and swords, magic and chivalry, has given way to something we humans would recognise as much more modern. Pendula, and its capital Duberdon in particular, has embraced the jazz age, with elvish flappers jitterbugging the night away and speakeasies offering the illicit delights of super strong dwarvish beer. Humans have found a way to make moving pictures without magic, and even take to the skies in great flying machines.
Not everyone sees this as progress. Indeed, many of the non-human residents view it as a human bid to take control and sideline both them and their cultures. There's a definite pecking order at play here, with the humans and elves at the top, followed closely by the dwarves, then the orcs and goblins bringing up the rear. Yes, the humans may have replaced elvish magic with their science and technology, but the elves still shine on the silver screen and behave like the aristocrats they are. The dwarves and orcs, meanwhile, take care of the heavy lifting, and the goblins... Well, the goblins are pretty much seen as riff-raff and criminals.
Pendula Swing, as is hopefully becoming clear, is not your typical fantasy tale. The only actual fighting takes place in an excerpt from a film about Brialynne's life, shown at the start to set the stage. Instead, it aims to explore the social issues facing this multicultural world – and by extension, our own. Everyone you meet (and there are a lot of them) has a story to tell, and every race has its own traditions, mores, and scores to settle. There are orcs looking to defy their dumb brute image by becoming professors and teachers. A dwarf that wants to get away from mining and brewing to become a stockbroker. Polyamorous goblins that just want a fair deal. An elvish war hero who suffers from PTSD and is down on his luck. And that's before we even get to the issues raised by interracial love affairs and half-breed children.
All of this is presented in attractive isometric 3D and set to a lively jazz soundtrack. Brialynne's island is a pastoral idyll, with a rustic cottage surrounded by woodland and chickens pecking in the yard, while Duberdon is a bustling metropolis full of grand buildings and peaceful piazzas. On the higher graphics settings it looks great: lovingly and realistically rendered with a slight vintage sepia tint and lots of little incidental details. That said, everything's viewed from quite far away, and there's relatively little in the way of ambient animation. Duberdon in particular is packed, but everyone's generally just standing or sitting around, giving it the static feel of a ‘90s RPG.
The music varies from the gentle folksy feel of Brialynne's island to various shades of traditional jazz on the mainland, from gentle cafe tunes to dancehall stompers. That's all mixed with unobtrusive background effects, such as waves lapping on the shore, traffic roaring, and people chatting amongst themselves. There are also newfangled radios scattered throughout the city, playing the latest hits. That last one's a bit of a mixed blessing though: it seems like a nice idea, but the radio music ends up playing over the regular background score in the area, often creating a bit of a din and leading me to switch them off. It's an odd misstep in an otherwise well-executed soundscape, but it's indicative of the game as a whole: inventive, but often a little lacking in polish.
There's no voice acting in Pendula Swing, but you can choose to have the actors mumble while you read for atmosphere, if you wish. The lack of voice-over is entirely understandable, however, as there's a lot of dialogue, with seemingly every character you meet ready to discuss their life and times in detail with a complete stranger. Not that you're always a stranger, but we'll get to that in a bit.
The interface is pretty straightforward, but the developers get extra points for the way it's connected to the gameplay. For example, you need to pick up a leather backpack in your bedroom, at which point the bag appears in the lower right of the screen and acts as your inventory. (Disappointingly, Brialynne doesn't seem to actually wear the backpack on-screen.) Likewise, an in-game map appears next to the bag after a salesman you meet early on gives it to you, and there's a journal in the bottom left that keeps track of your current objectives. Icons to show all hotspots and bring up the menu round out the interface. The hint system is also smoothly integrated in the form of the dwarf detective you meet toward the end of Episode 2. Aidan is not too forthcoming about his motives, but he's ready to help out when you get stuck if you call him from any nearby phone booth.
The game's conversational focus is reinforced by the fact that there's no way to directly use items. Instead, you talk to the person you want to give an object to and select the appropriate dialogue option. Conversations are multiple-choice affairs with options you can select either by clicking on them or pressing the appropriate number key. They're also a little glitchy, with responses sometimes overflowing the box provided and the screen occasionally becoming stuck for a while when you try to leave.
These issues, unfortunately, are symptomatic of a more general bugginess. For example, you can sometimes ask a character (such as Katya) to tag along with you in your travels, but if you then quit the game and return to it, as often as not the character has either disappeared entirely or is glitchy, such as your elf friend apparently sitting in mid-air down at the docks. Loading times can also be weirdly long, especially as you get further into the game: at the beginning it started almost instantly, but by the time I got to the third episode, it was taking the better part of a minute to load.
As the series is still ongoing, it's best to see it as an early access game rather than a finished product, because to their credit the developers are working hard to iron out the bugs and polish the experience. It has already improved by leaps and bounds since I first played it several months ago. They're adding significant amounts of new content too: on my first playthrough, Brialynne's island was all alone in the ocean, but when I came back to play it again there was a whole neighbouring island to explore, complete with new puzzles. Given that, I'm fairly confident the issues I encountered will eventually be worked out, and none of them are game-breaking even now, but this is definitely still a work in progress.
In keeping with the emphasis on social issues, there are few puzzles more complicated than finding the right person to speak to. If you explore the world fully, this can develop into a satisfying web of connections, where helping one person gives you the item you need to help another, but as these are generally unexpected gifts it's rarely an exercise in problem solving and more a series of happy accidents for you to pursue. And if you prefer not to be so completist (or just annoy the wrong person) that's fine too, as you can generally just buy the items you need or deal with issues another way. Unlike many adventures, money isn't in short supply here: Brialynne's days of war and plunder have left her very wealthy, and she's only limited by the amount of gold she can carry at any one time.
The main storyline so far is painfully brief; you could finish the first episode in around ten minutes if you were determined to speedrun it. But then you'd be missing the point: it's all about the journey, not the destination. The ostensible plot (Brialynne's quest to track down her axe) is really just a thread to tie together your exploration of Duberdon and get to know its citizens. There are only a handful of main tasks, but the game's brimming with optional sidequests, from helping budding romances to sorting out disputes at the docks. Engage with everyone you meet and that ten-minute speedrun can easily turn into more than an hour per episode.
Speaking of which, it's better to think of Pendula Swing as being comprised of chapters in a longer arc rather than a series of self-contained stories. Indeed, there's no attempt to mark the beginning or end of an episode, to the point that I thought I'd gotten stuck (with several outstanding quests I couldn't complete), only to discover I'd simply reached the end of the currently available content. The episodes are tied to new areas opening up, and feel more like a way of spreading the development load than anything. After all the episodes have been released, there'll likely be no real evidence it was anything but a single story.
On top of that, there are several avenues to tackle many problems, and different ways to approach people. For example, are you Brialynne the famed adventurer, or just some dwarf who's come to town to report a theft? If you play on your former glories, you'll get VIP treatment, a gaggle of fans back on your island looking for autographs, and suspicious looks from the orcs (who, understandably, see your slaying of their great and noble leader Nakirik a little differently). On the other hand, if you keep a low profile, you'll avoid the limelight and the orcs' ire, but have to work a little harder to get where you need to go. The characters you help can also pop up later on to let you know how they're doing, and plot threads can tie together in unexpected ways if you pay attention.
This flexibility is at once the game’s greatest strength and one of its more vexing elements. For one thing, you can run into issues if you try to solve the same problem in two different ways: once you achieve your objective one way, other quests that would have gotten you there another way often become uncompletable, leaving behind entries in your quest log and items in your inventory that you can't get rid of. And that's despite there being no logical reason why you couldn't have finished the alternate tasks anyway. On top of that, the game can paint itself into a corner if you choose certain options. For example, at one point you need advice from an orc – an orc who, if you've put yourself out there as the famous Nakirik-slayer, hates you. In the end, the plot wins and he gives you the advice anyway, but it all feels very unnatural that way.
That’s not the only time I had the general feeling that there are just too many balls in the air to keep track of at times, so threads can get left by the wayside. When, after helping to save a couple's relationship, you later find out he's been unfaithful, you can choose to go back and rat him out, but the response is perfunctory at best. It seems as if there should be more to that particular story, but the developers just had no time or resources left to tell it.
Despite the problems, though, it's clear that Valiant are trying to strike out in an interesting new direction with Pendula Swing. The real world, the one that exists on this side of our monitors, is of course going through troubled times right now. Many countries (including Valiant's homeland of Sweden) are working hard to handle unprecedented numbers of immigrants and LGBTQ rights are being hotly debated. Recasting all that in the context of a fantasy world with fleshed-out characters has the potential to give players a way to explore different points of view (and the consequences of their actions) in a safe and non-threatening way. In the same way that, for example, Star Trek could explore racism with aliens, here we have orcs and goblins. It's important, sometimes, to take a step back from simple adventuring to reflect on more important issues.
That said, I can't help but feel the results would work better with a little more traditional fantasy adventure stuff mixed in. As it is, it feels a little stodgy and educational at times, steering more towards thought-provoking than actually fun. Sure, there's a little humour here and there (such as the humans forming re-enactment societies, much to the derision of the elves and dwarves who were actually there) but it's never laugh-out-loud funny. And music aside, it lacks the spark and bounce you might expect of its Jazz Age backdrop, settling instead for a relaxed amble around town. Then again, I've always been more focused on puzzles and plot than character, so others may well view this absence of distractions with welcome relief.
Either way, even the harshest critic would have to agree that Pendula Swing knows exactly what it wants to be, and based on the three episodes I’ve played so far, it (largely) makes good on its promises. This is a game with a social conscience that aims to make you think about both its characters and contemporary issues. There are more than a few rough edges, the main plotline's mostly just a hook to hang the world on, and puzzle fiends should definitely look elsewhere. However, if you love to reflect on the diversity around us and sink your teeth into a world where even minor characters have their own stories, Pendula could be worth a visit, especially since the first episode’s free.