Pentiment is perhaps the ultimate proof that Microsoft wasn’t lying when they promised they’d give newly-acquired studios like Obsidian Entertainment the creative freedom to do what they want. The passion project of Fallout: New Vegas and Pillars of Eternity designer Josh Sawyer, Pentiment is a sober, well-researched 16th century murder mystery that will challenge the nerdiest history nut’s knowledge of the era. Even most indie studios would probably think twice about embarking on a project like this, and yet here it is, published by Xbox themselves.
Of course, a good game requires more than just passion. Have Josh Sawyer and the small dev team at Obsidian produced a unique piece of art, or have they gone and painted themselves into a corner? Time to determine Pentiment’s place in history.
Pentiment takes place in the early 1500s at a time when the Protestant Reformation and Renaissance had begun to sweep away the period of stagnation that had long gripped Europe. You begin the game playing as Andreas Maler, a journeyman artist looking to become a master by completing his masterpiece (yes, that’s where the term came from). Andreas finds himself in the small Bavarian town of Tassing, which is under the rule of the Holy Roman Empire. Tassing is unique because its abbey still has a scriptorium where monks create illuminated manuscripts and other works of art (the job had mostly become the purview of professional secular artists like Andreas by the early 1500s).
Andreas’ time in Tassing is unfolding somewhat unremarkably until a brash baron with a penchant for discussing Martin Luther and his new ideas rolls into town and starts ruffling feathers. Soon the baron is dead, and one of your trusted monk friends from the scriptorium stands accused. It’s up to you to find enough evidence to clear your friend and spare him the executioner’s sword.
Pentiment has been compared to Disco Elysium before its release, but that’s not exactly accurate. There are some resemblances, as Pentiment doesn’t have any combat and you can determine certain traits by deciding where you came from, what you studied at university, your interests, personality, etc. (these traits will determine how you’re able to respond during conversations). That said, it would be a stretch to call this an RPG. You’re given a fair amount of leeway to determine what kind of character you want to play as, but once your traits are set, they’re set, and can’t be changed or leveled up.
Pentiment’s overall structure follows the rhythms of village life in 16th-century Bavaria. The Catholic Church is omnipresent in everyday life and the difference between the haves and have-nots is vast and sometimes brutal. Time progresses as you complete various tasks and you have to find time to fit in various everyday activities like eating lunch, gathering firewood, or punching out Christmas cookies. Once you have a mystery on your hands, the game falls into a fairly regular pattern – you have various threads to follow up on and it’s up to you to choose which to pursue. Usually, these just involve talking to people to get information, but sometimes you may find yourself doing chores for a stubborn old widow, exploring Roman ruins, or other assorted things. Pentiment provides you with a journal that usually does a good job of telling you what things you can do, as this is a game more about strategically planning your next step rather than figuring out what that step should be.
Conversations present plenty of dialogue options and periodic skill checks of sorts, as you can sometimes persuade characters to your side provided you’ve said the right things in the past. The game does a good job of clarifying why your persuasion was successful or not. At times you’ll kick yourself for past choices. Persuading people isn’t always just a case of buttering them up, as being nice can have unintended consequences. In one instance, my attempt to persuade a nun to leave the abbey fell flat due to all the polite platitudes I had said about the place earlier. That’s just a minor example – good intentions can have much graver consequences as well.
While Pentiment’s dialogue and daily structure are well-designed, there are issues with some of the more basic stuff. The game’s map offers a traditional overhead view, while the game itself is played on a 2D plane, which makes interpreting exactly where things are in relation to each other trickier than it ought to be. The game also forces you to do a lot of running back and forth through the village and abbey without any fast-travel system.
Visually, Pentiment is designed to resemble woodcuts and manuscripts of the era, and for the most part, the look works, with still shots of the game often looking quite lovely. Still, it’s clear Obsidian was working with a rather limited budget, with characters animating stiffly and dashing around on tiptoes like awkward marionettes. Pentiment’s soundtrack is generally low-key but fits the game’s theme, although the loud scrawling noise that accompanies dialogue appearing in text boxes set my teeth on edge (I had to completely turn down all sound effects to get rid of the incessant scribbling sounds).
Ultimately though, a game like Pentiment lives or dies by its writing, and thankfully, that’s where it truly excels. This is a game about a lot of things – religion, the nature of power, art, and the personal toll it takes on creators – but at the core of it all is Tassing itself. The village is packed with richly-drawn characters, all of which have their own journeys and relationships you can help shape. Pentiment’s story unfolds over roughly 25 years, during which we see how a community can be led astray, succumbing to its own worst instincts, but also how it can heal itself.
Each of Pentiment’s three acts call on you either solve a murder or make other more personal decisions. You’ll uncover information that will help you in these decisions, but definitive proof is never provided. When it came time to implicate somebody for the first murder of the baron, I had two main choices -- somebody who had a strong motive to do it but was otherwise likable and deeply sympathetic, and somebody with no clear motive but the means and nasty personality to do it. I chose the latter suspect. Was that the right choice? The game never told me. While Pentiment does definitively resolve some of its mysteries, you’re not going to get all the answers and absolution that you did the right thing. That may sound unsatisfying, and it is, to some degree, but Pentiment is more about the consequences of your choices and why you made them.
Your actions cast long shadows on both the town and yourself. Some people will never forget the things you’ve done and what may seem like lighthearted moments early in the game can have serious life-altering consequences down the road. Andreas may come off as a bit of a shallow fop at first, but new and truly heartbreaking layers to the character are revealed as the game progresses.
Pentiment delivers some fantastic dramatic high points, but I should warn you, it’s also a game that demands some patience. It takes its time to set up its world. It can be dry. It takes nearly two hours for the first murder to happen. That said, those who stick it out will be rewarded. The game’s second act, which sees Andreas return to Tassing to investigate another murder amongst a potential peasant rebellion, is particularly gripping. A change in perspective in the third act lowers the intensity from a boil to more of a laid-back simmer, but the story builds back up to a proper finale.
Pentiment is fairly substantial, with a single playthrough requiring at least a dozen hours, and after the credits rolled, I did something I rarely do with a story-driven title – I immediately started a new game. I suspect I won’t be alone in that. Once Pentiment gets its hooks in you, history will repeat itself.
This review was based on a PC copy of Pentiment provided by publisher Xbox Game Studios.