The first episode of Pendula Swing is one that plants a lot of seeds. It’s a point-and-click adventure with an enticing premise: all your favorite high-fantasy humanoids (dwarves, elves, orcs and goblins) occupy a time and place similar to 1920s America. You play as a retired hero, an old dwarven woman who lost her wife to illness centuries ago. In and of itself, this exposition makes the game enticing — how often is such a unique perspective and world made accessible to us as players?
The first episode is rather brief and serves as an introduction to Pendula Swing’s world and narrative. At first, when you are within the confines of Brialynne’s home, the setting feels quite familiar. The habitat is cozy — all wood and stone and fireplace, with a friendly cat to boot. The first objectives of the game are simple and familiar as well, in the form of easy fetch quests. Get dressed, retrieve and wash the dishes, gather your chickens’ eggs… The point-and-click mechanics are traditional and serve their purpose well, and it’s enjoyable enough to spend several minutes examining objects in the dwarf’s home to discover their significance. Several object descriptions reference people from Brialynne’s past as a hero, which are distinct enough to make the player wonder about their significance and about their potential appearance in-game.
The plot twist hits when Brialynne discovers that her beloved axe has been stolen and that her floor and yard are marred by what appears to be goblin tracks. Outraged, she chooses to befriend a traveling salesman who can take her away from her cozy cottage and into the city to investigate the disappearance.
This is when the game opens up a bit. At the entrance to Duberdon, Brialynne encounters a great many individuals. Most are waiting outside a customs checkpoint of sorts, each with something to say to the protagonist. This is also the point where the Pendula Swing’s twenties aesthetic is initially revealed. Whereas Brialynne’s home could easily be the opening setting of any fantasy game, the entrance to Duberdon has a distinct sense of place that is impressively original. A man next to a newstand shouts out the latest events while displaced goblins lounge on the cobblestones nearby. The assortment of goblins, elves, dwarves and orcs all wear clothes that are neither contemporary nor medieval, in keeping with the roaring-twenties aesthetic.
Pendula Swing also seems interested not just in the aesthetic of the era, but in the politics of it, as well. A bit of lore revealed to the player details that goblins and orcs are peoples of a shadowy deity, while elves and dwarves are peoples of a sunnier one. These fantasy races are used as clear stand-ins for people of color and white people, respectively. At the gates of Durberdon, the player can strike up conversations with characters hoping to enter the city. Several goblins and orcs describe the way that the gatekeepers have denied them entrance due to their mistrust of races deemed too untrustworthy or primitive or violent.
This sort of discrimination is an obvious reference to the discrimination of non-white folks in America’s history. This treatment of the orcs and goblins is framed as unjust, and I can appreciate the intent of this framework. However, in the first episode, I found the parallels heavy-handed and lacking nuance or depth. Beyond that, I find the parallels rather reductive thus far. They fail to deliver any semblance of a compelling commentary or address the player’s position of relative privilege (and ignorance) as Brialynne, who has so much more social capital than those waiting outside the gates to the city. While there is time yet for the racial commentary to deepen and expand in coming episodes, I find the introduction to this dynamic both heavy-handed and underdeveloped.
As far as gameplay goes, Pendula Swing is quite engaging. Episode 1 confronts Brialynne with several minor obstacles, which can be addressed in a variety of ways. The ability to explore and problem-solve in creative ways is liberating, and makes you feel as though you created solutions yourself rather than simply taking cues from the characters in the game. Though the maps are small, they feel similar to an open-world environment. The only drawback of this is that, while speaking to some of the NPCs leads to new plot developments, most NPCs have very little to offer. I found myself spending an inordinate amount of time speaking to each character (thanks to my irritatingly completionist nature) only to find contrived backstories with no real relevance to the rest of the game. In this regard, I found the world a bit too open — to find gems of information and narrative, I had to sift through many long and unproductive dialogues.
In all, this brief introduction (at around twenty minutes long) gives you a world that’s worth exploring. If following episodes focus more on substantive dialogue and less on vague racial allegory, Pendula Swing could truly shine.
You can find the first two episodes of Pendula Swing on Steam.