Obsidian Entertainment's newest RPG Pentiment is out! Here's our review!
There are not many things in gaming that get me as excited as Obsidian Entertainment's original game with heavy RPG elements directed and written by Josh Sawyer. You know, the Josh Sawyer of Fallout New Vegas and Pillars of Eternity fame. So I already knew I was in for a treat when I first heard about it. But what might had others scratch their head, had me frothing from the mouth.
Auf ins Kloster
An adventure game with an art direction influenced by illustrations and prints of the late renaissance era, set at the cusp of the German reformation.
I'm German! I know these things! So seeing this age being brought to life in a video game, made by an American studio got me even more excited. Because you don't get into this particular point in time to make a video game, without being weirdly obsessed with the topic at hand. And now that I've finished it I can boldly claim that this game got so overindulgent with its setting that I can not help but admire it.
And Pentiment isn't exactly what you might believe it is, either. Sure, it's an adventure game centered around a murder mystery, but it's also a perfect example of how we can use the power of video games to explore history. So, let's get started.
Es war einmal ein Maler
The player takes on the role of artist Andreas Maler of Nürnburg; an aspiring artist and university dropout working on his masterpiece in the abbey overseeing the quaint town of Tassing somewhere in the Bavarian alps. Here has been here for a while, but is mostly a stranger to the town and its people. His days consist of being poked awake by the adorable daughter of his host family, working, socializing over supper, daydreaming about his future wife, and the prospect of being a master artist with his own workshop.
This doesn't last as a murder shakes up the entire town, and one of Andreas' closest friends gets accused of being the culprit. Andreas can't let that stand and sets off on his own investigation to find the real culprit behind the murder.
And normally that would be the entire game, but the story of Pentiment is not just this murder case. I'm going to spoil you here a little, but the actual story of Pentiment plays over the course of 25 years. I tell you this because Pentiment's biggest strength is how it plays into the passage of time. Your actions have consequences and they're not just little narrations during the credits that show you how everyone's story ended up. You'll get to stew in your decisions, regret them, or be glad you made the right one. And I'm gonna stop here because I want people to experience the ins and out on their own.
Spiel des Lebens
Now let's talk about the actual gameplay of Pentiment, here some will probably argue that Pentiment isn't a real video game. And I would agree had I not wasted most of my years skimming through poorly translated visual novels.
Most of Pentiment's gameplay lies within its dialog choices, the light RPG elements that influence them, and being able to see those choices play out.
The best way I can describe it is that Pentiment is like a gigantic puzzle box. You're asked to investigate the murder and find clues and evidence to present to a judge. This happens in just a few days and time is precious, so you go around and talk to the townsfolk and monks in search of answers. Sometimes you'll get a hint about an objective or you can spend some time advancing one of the various plot threads. Another little spoiler here, you won't be able to find all the clues and follow up on any advice. When you make any progress in your investigation, time will advance.
Being under the gun of a timer as well as barely knowing any of the people and locations, makes the first playthrough of Pentiment interesting. While the game constantly gives you clues in brilliantly written dialog, you never know where to go next. Not in a being lost kind of way, you can always check your log but rather that there are so many clues to follow up on that you never know what to prioritize. And to me, that's what makes the game so enjoyable. Through its relatively open structure, you get easily pulled into Andreas' mindset once you're invested in the story and the game knows how to weaponize that investment later on.
And during the initial dialog, you get to shape Andreas' character a bit. You get to define his background in various ways that can open up new dialog paths that potentially open new solutions to problems. They can also get in the way because just you are very educated in some subject matters it might not be the best idea to flex in front of a small peasant girl. You get a good bit of variety through lovingly created minigames that'll have you cutting firewood or making cookies.
The game ends up being more on the laid-back side of things. It serves mainly as a means for you to explore its highly detailed world and engage with the various characters and things you come across. The only problem I ever had was fumbling with various menus. Because they follow the logic of flipping through pages of notes in a book, you have to uninstall your game brain that is used to modern comforts. But there was something oddly satisfying and engaging in flipping through note entries of some of the various clues, so I can't even be mad at it.
Kunst ist im Auge des Betrachters
Time to derail this nifty little review by gushing over the art style a bit. The loving detail that went into every single respect of the assets of this game blew me away. These days, highly detailed renders and photo-realistic graphics don't wow me anymore. But, if you make a game that plays and looks like the pages of an old book coming alive, I get super giddy.
All of this starts with the beautifully drawn backgrounds with their incorrect perspectives of objects. Even the coloration has this quality of someone painstakingly tapping a brush onto the parchment to not soak it too much. Things as small as the changing texture on the ink strokes that make up most of the geography; when you use a quill with ink and apply too much pressure, you scratch the paper, which will also make your stroke look inconsistent.
I can speak just as lovingly of all the character designs, not only are they super consistent across the board, but they look and move like old, cut-out illustrations. Visually you can also tell them all apart quite easily. This is especially important when you have a big cast of nuns and monks who all wear the same. But everyone stands out in their own way, their appearances are easy to differentiate from another.
Then there is the music. There's not a lot of music in Pentiment because the game wants you to listen to ambiance; like the sound of nature, or the bustling of a busy town. But when it hits, it's amazing. The vocal tracks, especially, get special love from me; most of them being either German or Latin. Oh, while we're on that, can I hard steer into all the illustrations in the books and their calligraphy real quick? Especially with them being in their respective languages? And the variations of style from different ages and places… could marvel at that forever.
I actually welcome the lack of music. You feel more drawn into a world when you can listen to all the little sounds happening around you. The rattling of a windmill in the distance, or the hurried echoes of steps in the cloister. Especially the sound of dialog being written down as characters say it. That's another special little detail by the by, the handwriting associated with different characters changes as Andreas' perspective changes. And I also love the little detail of whoever writes sometimes misspelling something and erasing it, or special words being written after the fact in a different color. Fantastic!
It honestly took me till the third act to understand what Pentiment was about finally. And while it is definitely an engaging murder mystery with some surprising twists and turns, the gameplay and mystery are just a vehicle to Obsidian Entertainment's grander scheme. It's a way to explore a time and place that doesn't really get any coverage outside of some boring history lesson. But there is way more to that as well.
Usually, games, movies, and novels tend to pick more exciting narratives. Don't get me wrong Pentiment's story is absolutely worth your time, but it isn't full of the kind of drama you'd want from a game. It plays out relatively low-key and focuses more on how people influence each other and how in turn they influence the places they inhabit. Characters are insanely deep, no one is ever one note, and you never really know what is going on inside their heads. Most of the characters are just trying to get by, some don't even want to get involved with things.
And that plays out through many different dynamics, like families arguing and disagreeing with each other. There are many different ways the people of Tassing influence each other, and since the game takes place over such a long period of time, you get to see the ripple effects of your actions play out. You can influence someone's love life or maybe they'll hold a long-lasting grudge towards you because you crossed them earlier. This might not sound very special to some, but Pentiment handles it with such grace that I think it deserves praise. By the end of it, I was really engaged with this town and all its people and I felt a connection with them.
Every game that managed to draw me in so strongly, that I regret my choices the moment I make them, holds a special place in my heart. But that isn't even the aspect that made me fall in love with the game. It was the town and its history.
What amazed me the most about Pentiment, and its world, is just how real it felt. The murder mystery put aside, the setting, and the people felt so deeply soaked in reference material that I could swear it was a real place. It's not, but the little festivities and rituals you get to witness throughout the game's runtime made me feel homesick for a home I still live in. It's always hard in games and or any media to make a place feel lived in. Often they feel staged since the player just runs through and the game has to happen.
But Pentiment made the choice to make its main character not just the player-controlled Andreas, but the town of Tassing as a whole. It's a place that feels like it's been there forever with a long convoluted history no one can get right. Everyone has their own slightly different interpretations of events that get passed down to their children. Local stories that have been retold over and over again so often they fade into myth.
This is only something you can do when you limit your setting to just one small place. I can't remember the last time I played a game, or read a story, that went into insane detail about the history of one of its buildings. Or the little rituals of the town, like the festivals, seem a bit outlandish in their traditions. But I've seen this sort of thing in my everyday life. I live in a town where during the harvest festival women dress up as witches and give candy to children. And that tradition is based on some local myth no one can explain, it's just a thing people here do.
And that was the energy I got from Pentiment. The love for not just the time in which it is set in, but also the amount of effort that went into fleshing out its lovely town and history. And since it's a game, you don't just scroll through a Wikipedia article. You live in that town for just a few days and get little glimpses into the people and their troubles. That deserves extra credit.
9/10 Eine Klasse für Sich
Pentiment is a weird game to talk about or to sell to someone who isn't already on board with it. On paper, I don't think the prospect of being a painter in 1500s Germany who has to deal with stingy monks and opinionated peasants sounds fun to the average person. I completely understand when someone doesn't get it or is bored after playing it for an hour. This is a game for someone who is deeply in love with history and the prospect of being able to roleplay within it.
Everything in this game is exceptional, from the art and writing to just how much effort went into the tiniest detail. Not only does it tell an engaging story with many elements the player gets to influence, but it also lets you feel the weight of your choices. It's something many games struggle to do decent but Pentiment excels at it. Your choices always matter in large and little ways and you'll probably end up walking away from the game way more self-conscious of your own way of interacting with people. I would love to see more games like it.
Pentiment is available on PC, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S via Steam or the Xbox Game Pass.
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