Pentiment is an historical narrative adventure game by Obsidian Entertainment and published by Xbox Game Studios. It releases on Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Day one on Game Pass and PC on November 15, 2022 and was a pleasant and authentic surprise for what appears on the surface to be a simplistic game. It’s case of not judging a book by it’s cover and trusting the developers to deliver a fantastic engaging story with branching decisions that will affect future decisions. As I played, it was clear that this was an Obsidian game based on the depth of character relationships and the dialogue, both serious and humourous, wrapped in an intriguing whodunit story.m
Set in early 16th century Bavaria, the game’s art is inspired by great illuminated manuscripts and the earliest printed books that comes together to form a living, breathing world in Pentiment. The art also translates to the game’s location scenes and in-game map with streams, grass, fields, farm animals, children playing, and buildings all detailed enough to be convincing of the time period. And yes – you can pet the cats and dogs! Traversing each area with the keyboard was ok until sometimes you got to a fork in the road and the controls got a bit fiddly if you wanted to go up or down a path, but you figure it out pretty quickly.
In Pentiment we play as Andreas Maler, a clever illustrator caught up in a series of murders in Tassing and Kiersau Abbey over the course of twenty-five years. As we start conversing with the townsfolk, we choose different academic and social background choices that will give history to his past but also helps us with dialogue choices along the way. Players will be responsible for conducting their own investigation to decide the fate of the community, but each decision will have lasting consequences and inexorably draws Andreas closer to the center of an underlying conspiracy.
There is no voice acting at all, so you do need to do a lot of reading. There are six different fonts utilised depending on the social status and education of the character ‘speaking’ and some are easier to read than others. For accessibility, these can be simplified in the game’s options. Speech bubbles are slowly written to us, with the sound of a quill scratching its way across a piece of parchment. At first the scratching was a slight annoyance, but as I settled into the story learning the backgrounds of key characters, it wouldn’t have been as effective without the sound. As the text is written in ink, sometimes you will see ink splotches, sometimes words are misspelt and then letters scrubbed out and corrected at the end of the dialogue. And words like God, Lord and Christ are written last as the ink colour changed from black to red, to reflect how these words were written in historical texts.
Not everyone is aware of details and history of the 16th century, and some words in the dialogue bubbles will be underlined. You can click these which zooms you to a book view with a line pointing to a brief explanation and description of that object, person or circumstance. I don’t remember an awful lot from my time as a kid in Sunday school at church, so even for me I may recognise a word but had forgotten the meaning, and this game gave me enough to remember what I was taught. I certainly also learned a lot more from looking into other words too. There is also a glossary that is filled with more of these terms as you come across them.
You are often provided a choice of responses when conversing with others. Some are flippant remarks where you can be as classy or smart-alecky as you like. Some decisions have clear distinctions as to how you would handle the current situation. Other decisions seemed like throwaway responses at the time, however, came back to bite me later when certain events happen in the game. As the game progresses over years, some of my decisions in Act I had an effect in Act 2 which surprised me and made me wish I had made better choices. Such is life.
When you do get to a pivotal moment with a character, you will see the decisions you made and how that character reacted to them (blue for positive, red for negative), and there’s a success or failure chance in that given interaction. Some decisions were unfortunate and felt like it didn’t matter. Then there were others where I wished I had done this or that way back then. Ultimately the story moves on and you have to live with the consequences. Throughout Pentiment there are some mini-games you can play that connect you to the characters and their daily life. There are some that you play out to gain clues to the story, while others are simple in gameplay that connect you to the conversation at that point in time.
One example is where I was trying to gain favour with an old widow to talk about her past, and to do that she had me on errands such as breaking sticks down to size and adjusting photo frames on her wall. She asked me to take down a cross off the wall, and that could be seen as sacrilegious, but doing so may get the old widow talking to you. Another time I was conversing with some ladies while they spun wool which opened up more dialogue options as they gained more trust in Andreas. They’re simple but not boring tasks and are good distractions to break up the sheer amount of reading you need to do.
I was genuinely interested in trying to get to the source of the initial murder, and as I was working down lines of questioning, your choices meant it closed off access to alternative investigation points and even shunned others in the village. I was pretty sure I knew but wasn’t 100% sure about the person I thought it was but the time to investigate inevitably ran out and I had to run with the choices I had made, good or bad. It left me thinking about the game long after each play session, and for me that is a sign of Obsidian’s great writing team. It’s certainly got me wanting to revisit their other games like Pillars of Eternity or Outer Worlds.
Overall, Pentiment is a fantastic example of Osidian’s strength in branching storytelling with choice and consequence, wrapped in historically accurate hand-drawn art and written text. While never giving a definitive solution to key story arcs, players will need to trust their instincts and live with the consequences of their decisions. Don’t just this by its cover as the highly engaging story sat with me long after each play session, driving me to get to the bottom of the mysteries.
Written by: @ChrisJInglis