The subtitle of this review serves as an explanation for Obsidian Entertainment's new title. To be precise, the word "pentimento" contains the concept of repentance and described the process by which an artist would change their mind in the process of creating a work. In a sense, therefore, he was building on already established foundations the course his work would take while he was about "halfway through", without starting from scratch. This word also describes the process of the player's engagement with Pentiment: while we have established our viewpoint - theoretically firmly - a small element comes along to distract us and pull us towards its side to a new course. But let's take things from the beginning.
Right since the announcement of Pentiment, Obsidian, in its almost predictably self-referential way, has announced that it's an "unexpected" narrative adventure under the art direction of Josh Sawyer. In addition to the over-the-top artwork, the game was advertised as a murder-mystery game set in 16th century Bavaria. In fact Pentiment, in a meta-approach to the name itself; it recycles and merges key ideas from both Obsidian's past and the broader literature touching on the German Peasants' War period. If I were to characterize this curious blend (with no intention of diminishing the game's achievements in the slightest) I would say it's an amalgam of The Name of the Rose (by Umberto Eco), Luther Blissett's unparalleled "Q", South Park's gameplay, the narrative approach of recent Telltale games, along with the convoluted, branching dialogue tree of Fallout: New Vegas. Confused? Great, let's explain it all one by one.
The main plot takes place in the village of Tassing in Bavaria. Martin Luther has already nailed his Ninety-Five Theses and the country is in turmoil. We are Andreas Mahler an artist who has come to do his "farming" at the local abbey of the Benedictine monks painting his Aristurion as part of the abbey's book copy shop, while we are staying in a family's hut in the village. Life goes smoothly until a visit from Baron Lorenz of Rothvogel, who takes a keen interest in both Andreas and what is happening at the abbey. All this until the thread of his life is cut prematurely that evening, following a meal with the monks. Earlier, brief interactions with the local villagers have created an extensive list of suspects that we as artist-investigators are called upon to investigate further. In truth, there are several apparent similarities to Disco Elysium, but such a comparison does not do justice to any RPG let alone Pentiment which has no such intention nor execution.
You see Pentiment may be launched as a whodunnit game, but that's the façade around the core aspect of the game which is none other than the exploration of the characters themselves, the circumstances, and the consequences of our choices. The game is really a study in historical materialism, the interaction of different groups of people working with little and with access to even fewer resources. How this access of resources determines laws depending on which group has the legal and governing power, how a seemingly small choice can have dramatic developments on a long term scale. How the advent of new technologies (see typography) renders an entire way of life obsolete, while opening up vast horizons, redefining the rules. This Hegelian formulation of the quantitative accumulation of small elements leading to a qualitative leap is embossed even in the Pentiment dialogues themselves. Each dialogue check depends on what you have said or how you have behaved to that person to gain their favor. The dialogues are usually simple and the choices we have are also determined by the background we have chosen for Andreas himself (where he has studied, what subjects he did at university, etc.).
The story of the game takes place over 27 years and many of the decisions we make in the first act of the game will have a different development and therefore a different outcome in the third and final act. This is not easy to predict, because the plot is based on two main elements: the abundance of choices and then the limitations of their execution. If we take the first act, for example, we have four suspects about whom we have to gather evidence, and we have two days to do so. The days are divided into different "game states", either eating with families (and around the table there is a lot of interesting things said) or going to work and other activities that usually have to do with investigating the suspects and collecting clues. Each game state ends after we have explored a main lead/objective, at which point we move on to the next monastic hour. So if we hypothetically have 12 leads to follow, realistically we will only be able to thoroughly investigate 7, plus possibly any others that come up along the way. It is extremely important to stress that there is no "right" or "wrong" choice, nothing is canon, so there is no pressure to see the predicted progression. The choices are never clear-cut and the empathy with the characters on which the dialogue relies brings an extra layer of emotion to the decision that confronts the player with their own temperament each time.
In this sense, Pentiment manages in a peculiar way to immerse the player in its world, to make them face what message it wants to relay but also hesitate under the gravity of their choices' consequences. This type of gameplay is quite "heavy" as the game reads more like a book than played as a video game. It couldn't be otherwise anyway, due to the complete lack of voice-overs. From this perspective, it was more of an interactive book that had 16th century themes (we already mentioned The Name of the Rose and Q as good references) and the engagement had roughly the same requirements. Despite the existence of minigames, which broke the flow of the reading, there were times when I wanted to take a break from Pentiment, to be able to "breathe" from the abundance of information, to process what I had seen and read. However, I admit that I was completely engrossed and mesmerized by its content just as I am when reading a good book.
The game's visualisation also contributed to this. I can only use a few words for the art direction of the game, as already from the announcement trailer the images spoke (pun not intended) for themselves. Each frame can be analysed as a case study in a seminar, the artists have taken great care in the depiction of each character and the everyday activities, which borrows elements of the style of the era it was set in. Older characters are depicted differently typical example is the African monk who has visited the abbey (I would advise you to accept his invitation for lunch), who has a completely different art style from the other characters originating from Germany. All gameplay takes place on a 2D canvas with navigation taking place along predetermined paths, as seen in Stick of Truth.
The differences also extend to the display of the font. As already mentioned Pentiment has no voice-overs but reads like a book. To give identity to each NPC that comes across our path, Obsidian adopts different fonts for each character depending on the payment that Andreas believes he has. So for example, the Benedictines have a heavy, strict gothic font while the peasants have one that more closely resembles free writing as one writes a letter. It should be emphasized that this script changes depending on Andreas's view of the character he is conversing with: a monk may reveal details of his past and change his font from Gothic to one that looks like it came from a printing press. However, great care has been taken to make the game as accessible as possible, and the choice of different fonts is optional, and there is a text-to-speech option.
As I said for the twenty or so hours that the game took to finish, trying to see everything and not leave dialogue behind in every game state, I was completely engrossed. From the ambient sounds occasionally cut by music sounds, the "need" to see the implications of my choices and whether I actually found the killer, to the climax of the third act, I felt like I needed to get as much out of it as possible both in terms of historical depiction and plot development. Despite the murder mystery hovering in the atmosphere, what personally drew me in was the depth of historical study done to illustrate and frame the mystery than the mystery itself. A testament to this are all the sources they cite in the credits, evidence that the work done for the game was extensive and serious enough to show the conditions people lived under at the time. In other words, it was not limited to the study of the artistic movement, but gives in a realistic way the life of peasants and monastic life, and raises concerns that are relevant to social issues of today (e.g. the position of women, the role of property in people's relationships, etc.).
We have stressed many times on this site that we rate any game as a necessary evil: we try to quantify an experience through a subjective prism with as objective criteria as possible. The main criterion in my opinion is whether the game delivers what it promises in its genre, both technically and in terms of plot and mechanics. Pentiment intertwines art, story, and even philosophy itself into a game that ought to be a benchmark for narrative games. Obsidian took the essence of the games that they are reknowned for, which is none other than the "cause and effect" in terms of our choices and places them in a historical context. It promised an "unexpected" adventure and delivered a gem with a branching plot, interesting characters, magnetic art direction. Yes, the game is not for everyone and it states so from the start. Few will know beforehand that they will enjoy it. Many more will be the ones who will realize that they had such interests and Pentiment will be a trigger for their engagement with European medieval history. This is a special, virtually flawless title that we highly recommend to all those who love history and narrative games.
We kindly thank Microsoft for providing us a review key upon which this review was based.