I'm putting on my little hat and reading glasses. Case closed.
If you’ve ever dreamed of eating stale bread and cheese with villagers in 16th century Europe, Pentiment is for you. From Obsidian Entertainment, it grabs the player by the ruffled collar and throws them into a world plagued with poverty, mystery and — well — the plague.
I haven’t played a single-player game in a long while, so when I was approached to review Pentiment, I can’t help but admit I was a little nervous. I decided to go in completely blind. I googled the name and found out that it comes from the word ‘pentimento’, meaning “the reappearance of original elements of drawing or painting that the artist tried to remove by overpainting”. This very deliberate naming choice reveals a game inspired by art and history, but at its core, is about uncovering the truth, even if it means digging up mysteries that should remain hidden. I had no idea how invested I was about to become in the gorgeous 2D world of Andreas and the people of Tassing.
Pentiment may seem different to other titles by Obsidian Entertainment, but once you remove the gameplay aspect, you’ll find another well fleshed-out world grounded deep in history, politics, religion and choice — exactly what Obsidian is known for. It plays more like an interactive story than an RPG in the traditional sense, but this isn’t a bad thing. As the player, you are put into a position where you’re forced to appreciate the work that’s gone into creating a world so rich in history and lore that you can’t help but enjoy it.
You are Andreas Maler, an artist in 16th century Bavaria, living and working in Tassing and Kiersau Abbey. Despite being a guest to the town and the Abbey, Andreas is treated as a member of the community by a majority of the characters. You start off in the house of the Gertner’s — one of Tassings’ peasant families. Life is simple here: wake up, work on your masterpiece, eat soup and bread, gossip with the people of Tassing and the Abbey, repeat.
The game works on a timer similar to that found in Persona. Each time you have a conversation, meal, go to work or a major plot event occurs, time ticks forward. At first, you just watch each day go by peacefully — for the most part. As you get to know the characters of Tassing and Kiersau Abbey, you begin to find out that under all that good, Christian behaviour exists scandals, lies and eventually, murder.
It is now your job to solve this murder in an effort to make sure the correct person is prosecuted. Suddenly, all that time that was lazily passing you by becomes gold dust slipping through your fingers. The sense of urgency is heightened as you begin to be told how many days or hours you’ve got left and the only thing you can do is try and make the right choices in how you spend your time. Do you spend it questioning the community? Or maybe you’d rather look for a murder weapon? However you choose to spend it, time is a precious resource to help you find the truth about not only the murder, but also about the rich and dark history of Tassing.
There is no combat to be found within; instead Pentiment prides itself on accessibility — people of all skill levels can enjoy this (and for my lack of coordination, this is great news). The main controls are player movement and interaction with people and objects. There are some mini games, but these are more about involving the player in the community and giving insight into what life in 16th century Europe was like.
Art is its biggest drawcard and is inspired by the illuminated manuscripts and woodcut printing of the 16th century. The interesting thing about this is that you’re also playing as an artist during this time period, so it’s as though the player is seeing the world as Andreas sees it through his art.
The sound design in Pentiment is also masterfully done. There is no voice acting and not much music. Most of the sounds you’ll hear while playing are birds chirping, footsteps, wooden spoons hitting wooden bowls during mealtimes and, my personal favourite, the sound of quills scratching parchment each time a character has dialogue. This collection of sounds makes for an experience that can be both calming and, at times, unnerving.
Choice is also a major factor, and where Pentiment shows similarities to Obsidian’s other games. The focus is on the decisions you make and how they affect the story. They can be as small as choosing who to have a meal with, or as major as deducing who the murderer is. Either way, the beauty of this game is that you’re forced to live with the choices that you make. You’re not told if you’ve made the right or wrong decision — that’s not for the game to choose. These choices are difficult ones that get the player to think about their own values and what they might do if they were in a situation where their hand is being forced.
This is where Pentiment really shines. It takes all the good bits of games like Fallout New Vegas and The Outer Worlds and smashes them together to make one that is driven by story and choice, without the need for looting or shooting. The NPCs will do that for you.
Overall, gameplay is fine. The lack of combat means that you’re primarily walking around, and there are no technical issues to speak of. There are some frame rate drops in the second half, especially if there are scenes that involve bigger groups of characters, but this only really impacts things in terms of slightly longer loading screens and some issues with level loading initially.
If you enjoy story-driven affairs with choices that impact the world in which you’re playing, Pentiment is worth a playthrough. The historical narrative adventure is perfect if you don’t want to play something that requires a high level of skill, but you still want to enjoy a rich history and impactful choices.
Pentiment was reviewed using a promotional code on Xbox One S, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.
15 November 2022
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