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“History gives answers only to those who know how to ask questions.” Upon first reading the synopsis for Pentiment, I was intrigued. However, I didn’t exactly know what the game was going for. Was it a commentary on history and religion? Was it a murder mystery? Was it a tale about life’s journey and the passing of time? It turns out the answer is, well, “yes.” But it’s also more than that and a game that is wholeheartedly grander than the sum of its parts.
Pentiment was developed by a small team of 13 within Obsidian Entertainment and led by Josh Sawyer. It has been described as a passion project with a focus almost entirely on narrative storytelling. While the characters and setting are fictional, much care was taken to ensure historical accuracy. All of the artwork and symbolism are representative of the period, and aspects such as the fonts even vary depending on the subject matter or character’s status in the world.
Pentiment begins in 16th Century Europe in a small town named Tassing. You take the role of journeyman artist from Nuremburg, Andreas Maler, who specializes in illustrated manuscripts. As you go about working with the local Abbey and interacting with the townsfolk, a grisly murder occurs which shocks the town. You take it upon yourself to uncover the truth, which sets off a string of events over three acts representing over a quarter of a century.
Your time in Tassing will be spent almost entirely interacting with the residents in discussions about their families, vocations, struggles, and backgrounds. Like peeling back an onion, you begin to uncover layers of truths and unspoken events. Getting to intimately know the townspeople, families, and members of the Abbey is fascinating. Each has a story to tell and experiences to share, piecing together a larger picture of Tassing and the neighboring lands.
Aiding you in this journey are selections you make for Andreas’ background and education. Similar to other RPGs with conversational decision-making, Pentiment offers you a few character choices that will impact your understanding of certain languages, regions, and vocations. These choices allow you to intermittently make unique conversational selections while also offering new avenues of discovery. I particularly enjoy the fact that some of the unique dialog choices you are presented with can be snarky, insulting, or downright confrontational.
Andreas also keeps a very handy journal which acts as the game’s menu system. Here you’ll find an overview of the buildings in Tassing, excerpts of your most recent conversations (which essentially act as a quest log), and, most importantly, a picture and description of every character you meet in the game. As the game takes place over a long time-period, you meet a very large number of significant people along the way, so keeping track of everyone by name can be a challenge!
Given the historical setting and references, the game also aides the player by underlining key subject matter and providing descriptions when requested. This was one of my favorite features as it was a dynamic way to add context when needed.
My favorite aspect of Pentiment is how it presents the passage of time and all of its effects. As it is set in the 16th century, Pentiment also tackles the crossroads between ancient beliefs, modern religions, and technology from different regions. These aspects factor heavily into the story and the ways in which we view history even today.
Telling a story within a game that covers such subject matter over decades is no easy task. Doing so with an intimate cast while the player has partial control over meaningful outcomes is another matter entirely. Yet the team at Obsidian accomplished just that. And it’s a joy to witness it unfold.
Tassing is primarily a small town with nearly everyone playing a role in its survival. Through the decades, residents come and go. Parents pass their legacies onto their children. Beliefs evolve. Hardships are endured. Time takes its toll.
But the people, while simple, endure. They adapt, learn, and overcome. It’s these shared experiences between Andreas, the townsfolk, and the abbey that are most interesting. While Pentiment tells a story that is wholeheartedly grounded in the 16th century, it draws parallels to any time period. And it’s these relationships with the characters that invest you fully into their lives and the stories they tell. It’s filled with personality, and there’s an aspect of artistry here that I sincerely appreciate.
Solving the mystery you’re presented with requires you to develop relationships with nearly everyone in Tassing while also exploring each of its areas. While the critical objectives can be met fairly directly, you are incentivized to explore areas more thoroughly as you never know what you’ll stumble upon. Some of my favorite moments in the game were discoveries off the beaten path that illuminated a previously hidden truth. It’s these “a-ha!” moments that will have you feeling like Sherlock Holmes while also reinforcing a sense of personal discovery.
This loop keeps you engaged as you continually find new or interesting things to speak with others about. And you never know where those conversations will lead or what further options you’ll be presented with. When combined with the many different choices and potential outcomes, your journey through Pentiment can be rather unique. While I have often felt as though some conversational games offer merely an illusion of choice, Pentiment actually delivers on the promise.
If I have one major complaint, though, it’s that playing the game in this way necessitates a frequent amount of backtracking through the town. Without any sort of fast-travel system, it can feel rather monotonous at times. I likely spent a couple of hours over the course of my 20-ish hour playthrough simply running back and forth between areas to see if I had missed anything. I have to imagine this is by design as you are often stopped by residents at specific moments and locations unexpectedly. But it’s an annoyance nonetheless.
What I didn’t expect from Pentiment was to be so enamored with its breadth of substance. On the surface is a simple game about a town’s guest solving a murder mystery. Its core, however, is a far deeper commentary on what life encapsulates for us as human beings. And though the passage of time may cause significant change, some things always remain the same. And those parallels still exist even half of a millennia later.
Over the decades spent in Tassing, you’ll witness love, loss, deception, hope, anger, depression, regret, and many more emotions that each of us deal with in our lives. It matters not our status, station, nor beliefs. At one time or another, as human-beings, we all face similar challenges. And our response to these challenges can have far-reaching consequences, many of which can be unintended. Witnessing the butterfly effect that you began, and the long-term results of it, can cause a great deal of introspection.
It’s these aspects that escalate Pentiment as a title. I’m a big proponent of games having heart and delivering experiences that provide something meaningful. Something tangible. While I enjoy the big, action-packed, blockbuster titles as much as anyone, it’s the games that relate to something real that live on in my mind long after I put them down. While I felt the third act dragged a little when compared to the first two, it culminated with one of my favorite endings in recent memory.
From its humble development and gameplay characteristics to its excellent narrative and stunningly beautiful ending, Pentiment is a game we can all relate to in one way or another. For that reason, I’m very thankful Josh Sawyer was finally able to realize his vision for it with the team at Obsidian. I can only hope that we see more major studios encourage projects like it in the future. For now, I’m off to break bread with the residents on a new journey through Tassing.