For me, It’s always super fun to see a new take on a classic. Pendula Swing is exactly that, subverting the classics formula of a fantasy adventure by advancing the setting into the equivalent of the 1920’s, with all it’s jazz, speakeasy’s and iron horses to match.
SPOILER WARNING: This review contains spoilers for the first half of Episode 1 (Essentially the set up of the game’s narrative), but does not contain major plot spoilers after that point.
While the graphics and character animations leave a bit to be desired, and the game is plagued by long load times, the world building and story being told are first class and well worth exploring, handling some fairly timely topics through the lens of fantasy.
Title: Pendula Swing – Ep. 1 (Tired and Retired) & Ep. 2 (The Old Hero’s New Journey)
Developer: Valiant Game Studio
Game Version: Final
Review Copy: Provided by Developer
Interface: Keyboard & Mouse
Available on Steam
Pendula Swing invites you to explore a beautiful hand painted fantasy version of the American Roaring 20’s through the eyes of a once famous Dwarven hero. Discover a glamorous and optimistic society, shadowed by complex social issues between goblins, elves, orcs, humans and dwarves.
Episode one serves as an introduction to both our main character, and to this unique take on the fantasy world. This is the story of a ex-hero: you play as a dwarf named Brialynne. Brialynne is a retired hero, with quite the record: Her name is well known enough that if you name drop it, it’ll be recognized and respected. But Brialynne has been out of the loop for a few centuries: she lives a lone on a secluded island after her partner died some time before the events of the game take place, her only company being her talking cat. I really enjoyed the character of Brialynne: It’s interesting and different to be playing a retired hero, and one whose world view could be considered quite antiquated, or perhaps even backwards depending on how you play her. It’s a welcome change from the standard “chosen one” archetype.
The game begins with you setting about your daily chores, only to discover that your famous axe has been stolen. After some quick deduction, you learn it’s been stolen by a goblin, and follow the footprints out only to find them fleeing to the docks towards Dunberdon. Brialynne seems reluctant to take the mantle of hero on again, but would need to head in to Dunberdon anyway to report the theft to the police, so, after finishing some chores and getting set to go out into the world again, you hitch a ride with a traveling salesman to the immigration checkpoint at the Dunberdon Docks.
This is where Pendula Swing really starts showing it’s cards as an interesting narrative and as a well thought out inversion of the classic Fantasy tropes. At this check point, there’s a mix of elves, dwarves, goblins, humans and orcs milling about, lined up to get entry to the city of Dunberdon. Brialynne is almost immediately shocked by the fact the orcs and goblins, peoples that she actively fought “back in her day” are being allowed into the city, and you can play this off in various degrees of subtle or not so subtle racism. This isn’t played as a direct parallel to any one instance of racism in history, but rather is a layered examination of prejudice, assumptions and stereotyping.
I’m not going to spoil anything about the specifics of the interactions you have, or the choices you’ll need to make, but suffice to say this moment shows that you’ll have to be dealing with some more serious issues than you might have thought when you fired up Pendula Swing.
Episode two begins as you enter Dunberdon, a sprawling and almost overwhelming city. There’s so much going on it’s easy to feel pulled in a hundred different directions, but your goal is simple enough: find the police station and report the theft. Of course, that’s easier said than done though. Again, I won’t spoil the specifics for you, but suffice to say there’s a lot going on in Dunberdon, and a lot for Brialynne to poke her nose into as she comes out of retirement.
While I really loved the types of issue being examined and how they were being examined in these first two episodes, the tone did feel a little sporadic at times. One minute you’d be discussing the racial profiling of orcs and the next you’d be trying to find a sandwich for a guard. Honestly, I believe this is at least in part due to these being the first couple episodes: things have to get rolling, you’ve got to learn the mechanics and what to expect and the world is being established. I’ll hold judgement until I’ve played a few more episodes of Pendula Swing, but I do hope the game doesn’t shy away from using this world to tackle some tough philosophical and societal issues.
While I very much enjoyed the core experience of Pendula Swing, there were hurdles. Chief among these were the load times when entering Dunberdon, either for the first time or when exiting the buildings in the city. These where terrible. I’m not sure if this was just a problem with my own computer or not, but I honestly though my game had frozen up multiple times, and force quite things more than once. This is no doubt connected to the incredible detail in the city itself, but that doesn’t change how much of a problem this was for me, and I consider myself a patient person.
I’m also torn on Pendula Swing‘s aesthetic. I absolutely love the art style the game is going for: It’s a brilliant mix of classic style from the 1920’s, fantasy tropes and more than a little commentary, and the world building done is utterly fantastic. However, the actual character models leave something to be desired. They look outdated at times, but I cannot deny that they’re incredibly nostalgic, reminding me of some of the classic adventure games I played growing up. A bit like my issues on the game’s tone, it just feels like two different elements are being smashed together, and the game feels like it looses something in it.
Pendula Swing is a fantastic concept, with a rich and innovative setting dripping with detail, and complex characters that subvert the norms of the genre. The writing is snappy, the music is jazzy and the issues make you think. The game is held back a bit by a tone that seems to flip-flop more than it should, as well as some aesthetic and technical issues, but I think the series has incredible potential, and I am eager to see how it develops over it’s seven episode run.