Born of Microsoft’s acquisition of Obsidian, Pentiment arrives as a testament to the potential that this relationship may foster. A humble choice-driven adventure that looks like a point-and-click medieval thriller at a glance, this title is an indulgent fictional saga set in the small 16th-century town of Tassing in the south of Germany. Players will immerse themselves in a rustic community under the governance of a neighbouring Abbey and rule of the Holy Roman Empire. The 13-person development team has adopted stylings of art typical of western medieval Europe, with a text-heavy adventure penned in various fashions of the time that would denote status and education. The fantastic presentation is visually stylised in late medieval woodcuts, and mistakes abound in the written dialogue which are then scratched over in a delightful modernist inclusion of flaws and corrections. The details and trappings that summarise Pentiment read as mundane at best, but it’s nonetheless a thrilling murder mystery that sparks intergenerational complications for the people of Tassing.
Players will fill out the stockings and foppish attire of journeyman artist Andreas Maler. A temporary resident at Keirsau Abbey, he benefits from walking comfortably in both the world of the profane peasants and the monastic adherents. When an elderly monk is found next to a murdered baron with a bloodied knife in hand, Andreas takes it upon himself to investigate the matter and save his mild friend from unjust retribution. This will involve exploring the dark secrets underlying Tassing and the Abbey, at times quite literally as he delves into the mysterious Roman ruins buried beneath the land. Despite plain appearances, the simple townsfolk carry a dark pagan history with them, and they struggle against an evil force pulling the strings of the town and causing chaos.
Characters aren’t defined by their lot or vocation, but by how they see the world reflected through their circumstances
Pentiment defies popular genre trappings, a vision perfectly executed unto itself. To call Pentiment a point-and-click game is too reductive. There is a small smattering of puzzles sprinkled in between for variety’s sake, but nothing that will interrupt the flow of gameplay or burn the brain cells. It is true that the story unfolds as the player interacts with fixtures in the world such as characters and objects, but in a dialogue-driven manner closer to the classic role-playing videogame Planescape: Torment. Neither is Pentiment an atypical adventure game, as there is no destination we seek outside of Tassing. Rather, this decades-spanning narrative concerns itself with a localised dark saga affecting the lives of this humble cast of characters over subsequent generations.
Without a defined word to encapsulate one’s expectations of this title’s gameplay, I would instead describe it as mostly a game of conversations and the far-reaching consequences of words. Of how speech connects the unwritten past to the present through oral histories, but also how communication can be weaponised to assert power and determine morality in unstable times.
You will spend a lot of time moving across linear 2D pathways between the town of Tassing and the neighbouring Kierseu Abbey. Andreas will indulge the lording Benedictine monks and sisters and their supplicant peasantry over the course of a couple of dozen hours, choosing responses to their every statement which will determine their affinity towards you and endear their innermost feelings. Likewise, poorly chosen dialogue may sow enmity that may fester over years.
Spreading the Gospel, obviously
Time passes as the player interacts with this world, with events and characters being overlooked depending on what threads the player chooses to tug on during a given period of day or night.
Depending on traits chosen at select points during the game, you may flirt with, fight, or persuade those around you. My Andreas was a lascivious orator who dropped out of university while studying abroad in Ghent. As a well-travelled reveller, I would seduce the secrets of comely maids and dine with visiting aristocracy to heighten my standing and unlock avenues of privilege over the monks and townspeople. Andreas may discover unexpected threads with dark consequences depending on what languages and studied topics the player decides he is proficient in – and similarly miss crucial debates with visiting travellers whose tongue he cannot interpret.
Where the exceptional Immortality toyed with the power of visual language and performance in a transcendent manner, Pentiment pulls off an equally compelling illusion by making the players the arbiter of the fortunes of Tassing’s occupants for generations as a result of seemingly mundane dialogue.
Good wisdom never ages
The game’s sound design is a minimalist pleasure, with the sparing use of music saved for moments of drama in favour of ambient noise. Aside from the diegetic sounds of the birds singing and animals bleating, much of the audio is occupied solely by the satisfying scratchings of ink upon course parchment. Likewise, the printing press became more commonplace in the early 1500s, with the dialogue bubbles of print masters accompanied by the mechanical clatter of a press. This fills the otherwise voiceless space that dialogue occupies with novel, almost ASMR-like character.
There is such heart fostered in spending mundane moments with the residents of Tassing. Finding a family or individual with whom to break bread at meal times, and indulging their idle gossip and curiosity that further feeds the pagan and Christian myths sown into the town’s foundations is never a chore. It speaks volumes that social interaction drives the vast majority of the game, and envelopes one’s attention in choosing each response.
The kindness of this peasant community was enough to move me emotionally on several occasions. Likewise, navigating the politics of faith that govern the rustic world of Tassing means that ideological differences will develop, with grey areas in broad strokes and personal enemies that the player will provoke of their own volition.
Choosing whom to dine with can lead to beautiful moments like this, that the next player may miss
As the first act’s murder mystery crept towards its conclusion and the days timed towards the elderly brother’s trial, it dawned on me. I was emotionally invested. I felt a genuine sense of anxiety, though it was one that felt safe and virtual. The interconnectedness of this society meant that my investigative voyeurism also carried responsibility for the impending consequences on the chosen party deemed responsible for the murder (whether they turned out to be truly the perpetrator or just an innocent I wanted disposed of). We are not merely picking an individual to bear the guilt of murder. We are writing the history of a town that will alter the course of every individual with whom we have shared intimate moments of vulnerability and camaraderie. This is the kind of emotional solicitation that player-driven narratives have craved for decades, providing an agency that perhaps rivals or even surpasses that of the heights of Divinity: Original Sin 2, Baldur’s Gate 2, and even Telltale’s games. And this is only the first act of many!
Blindfolding the player to the gamification of player benefits resulting from moral choice results in a magic trick that could only be achieved in Pentiment. No morality or relationship meters are shown to the player, relegated instead to the backend of the game in favour of narrative immersion. Reprobate, benefactor, or observer, Andreas is the shell of a character born and moulded by this passionately realised world and you, the player. In the driver’s seat, Andreas provides the perfect voyeur into a world so far removed from our own and entrenched in myth, yet so presently familiar with its politics and cultural aspirations. Its grounded historical narrative is as dense and imaginative as any middle-fantasy role-playing campaign, a resounding achievement from a studio known for producing RPG classics.
History and classics nerds rejoice, for I doubt there has ever been such a fascinating, passionate, and humorous rendition of mundane medieval life met with extraordinary circumstances this century. Just as religion and emerging humanism contend with the innovations of art and its gatekeeping, so too does this game indulge a period in a manner that overrides everything we’ve come to expect in this medium. Obsidian has travelled great distances and far lands to deliver us this masterpiece.
Reviewed on Xbox Series X // Review code supplied by publisher
- Obsidian Entertainment
- Xbox Game Studios
- Xbox Series X|S / Xbox One / PC
- November 15, 2022