Heedfully crafted by a small team of thirteen developers at Obsidian Entertainment, Pentiment is a passion project for lead designer Josh Sawyer. There are sparingly few games quite like it — a self-described historical narrative-driven adventure that’s one part murder mystery and one part time capsule of 16th-century Bavaria. Separated into three acts and lasting about twenty hours for a single runthrough, Pentiment explores medieval life through multiple generations of the fictional village of Tassing and the nearby Keirsau Abbey. Since the plot touches upon rather heavy subjects, like the struggle of the peasantry and the friction between paganism and Christianity, the game sometimes becomes more serious than it needs to be. But its academic appreciation for historical authenticity through its dialogue and art style is impressive and original.
As sober as a priest
Let me be clear — Pentiment is not "fun" in the typical sense of a video game. While it's set during medieval times, the game sheds the typical fantasy elements that come with the genre. There's no magic, no dragons, no clashes between knights or kings, no legendary heroes on a mythical journey, no political intrigue over the succession of a throne. Even compared to other adventure games, it has neither the humor of Return to Monkey Island, the intensity of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, nor the surrealism of Kentucky Route Zero.
Instead, it’s better to view the game as mature edutainment, where the “fun” is about learning in and of itself, and interacting with characters who are designed to be realistic portrayals of people who lived during the early 1500s. I must admit that I’m neither a medieval history buff nor an expert on Christianity. But after finishing the game, I came away with more knowledge about Peschta, patron saints, transubstantiation, and the formal room names of Christian monasteries like the sacristy and refectory. At any rate, if you have even a mild interest for theology, sociology, or anthropology, you'll likely have a strong appreciation of what Pentiment is trying to do.
The developers understand that the scope of the game can be specific and esoteric, so they have made learning the terminology and references throughout the story easier to digest. Whenever you find an underlined word or phrase that you may not know about during dialogue or commentary, you can view a short definition or description of the subject in question. The camera zooms out, turning the screen into a picture inside a manuscript and providing the definitions along the border margins. This becomes useful in comprehending the context of a conversation, since the narrative throws out a lot of proper nouns, like the names of old books and historical figures. The game will also underline the names of NPCs, in case you get lost with the game’s high number of characters across multiple generations.
What hath God wrought
Pentiment focuses on a journeyman artist named Andreas, who is preoccupied creating an illuminated manuscript at Kiersau Abbey when he suddenly becomes the primary investigator of a murder. As he’s not bound by the strict rules of the monastery, Andreas is allowed to speak freely with the nearby townsfolk, and you’ll spend the bulk of your time conversing with characters throughout Tassing, Kiersau Abbey, and the bordering forest. As he is a boarder at the Gertner Farm, it’s not long until you hear about the increased taxation on the farmers by the new abbot and resentment from some elders on the loss of pagan traditions. At the same time, the scriptorium of the abbey is facing financial difficulties due to the growing ubiquity of the printing press.
Without going into spoiler territory, the plot does have several cutscenes that can't be changed much, but there are a few ways that you can move the needle toward different variations. Your dialogue choices can influence whether you can persuade a character to do an action down the road, and you'll be notified with a Telltale-like prompt that an NPC will remember what Andreas says. On occasion, you'll spot a cloud beneath the dialogue options that you can select to have Andreas mull through his options. You can also select different backgrounds for Andreas, like what he studied in university, to give him a broader range of specialized responses.
Then on a broader level, you will need to decide which threads of the investigation you wish to pull. The game will present several leads for Andreas to pursue, but you only have a limited number of time blocks, like in the Shin Megami Tensei Persona series, to track down evidence. It will be up to you to decide who deserves to be punished and whether to go with the evidence or with what result you think would benefit the town most. While there's no narrative tracking system that tells you how far you can swing the story in an alternate direction, looking at the Achievements list will provide some hints.
From a bird’s eye perspective, Pentiment delivers a solid plot that shows how tensions rise between the ruling and working classes, and how it’s difficult to separate pagan, Roman, and Christian customs in a town influenced by all three. Beyond the murder mystery, it becomes clear after the first act that there’s a larger conspiracy at play, one that is nicely, if not unexpectedly, resolved by the end. The beautiful, unique art style, reminiscent of the animated film Secret of Kells, and the various fonts used in the dialogue pull you into the game’s 16th-century orbit without being flashy or forced. A lot of work has gone into making the graphics look like a genuine manuscript, and that effort isn’t squandered.
Some spilled ink
That said, the story has some pacing issues and a general lack of levity. The game throws you right into the deep end when it comes to learning all of the characters, and once it feels like you might have your bearings, a large part of the cast changes. It’s not unlike the first season of HBO’s House of the Dragon, where it can take multiple replays to get everyone’s name sorted due to the time skips. In an attempt to loosen the seriousness of the story, numerous mini-games are brought into the fold. None of them are difficult, and apart from one card game, they’re brief and innocuous. Ultimately, they don’t do enough to liven the tone, and I found myself on more than one occasion drifting off or needing a break from the game’s solemnity, particularly in the beginning of the third act.
Several features could have quickened the game's pace too. A fast travel between the scriptorium and the town commons would have been welcome, since it takes almost a minute to do so. On top of that, adding the ability to run would have cut down walking time significantly. As for the music, the game takes a few moments to highlight several songs, providing a nice breather from time to time. But the general absence of exploration music creates a lot of dead air. In fact, I actually searched for German medieval music on YouTube so that it could play in the background.
A game like Pentiment doesn’t come around often. Top developers like Obsidian Entertainment usually leave smaller productions like this on the editing floor. The vast majority of games with fantastic stories usually ask players to kill something, solve puzzles, or have some other gimmick to it so that they remain engaged. Pentiment dares instead to rely on its craftsmanship, authenticity, and choice-based dialogue, trusting that the murder mystery is enough of a draw to pull players in. And despite some minor quibbles, Pentiment succeeds in its pursuit, creating a fantastic generational period drama with a wonderfully original vision.
This review is based on a digital Xbox copy of the game supplied by the publisher. Pentiment comes out on Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and Windows PC on November 15, 2022.
- Compelling murder mystery and generational period drama
- Realistic portrayal of characters and themes
- Interesting choice-based dialogue with many variations
- Gorgeous, manuscript-like art style and fonts
- An original vision
- Can be a bit too staid and serious at times
- Could have fast travel or running speed
- Lack of exploration music
Nick Tan posted a new article, Pentiment review: God willing
This is a great review, thank you. Installed it on gamepass, hope to give it a try soon. I'll give a shout out to another medieval mystery game, more of a traditional point-and-click, which also heavily leans on the Name of the Rose story: https://store.steampowered.com/app/313200/The_Abbey/ I got partway in this and petered out in favor of more exciting titles, but should get back to it, it's actually pretty fun.