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Review: Pentiment - A multi-layered masterpiece

Published: 13:20, 14 November 2022
AltChar/Xbox
Pentiment review
Pentiment review

Pentiment is a multi-layered masterwork full of endearing characters, gorgeous artwork, important ideas, and intriguing stories.

What you need to know

  • What is it? A historical murder mystery adventure where choices matter.
  • Reviewed on: PC
  • Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
  • Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
  • Release date:  November 15, 2022
  • Available on: PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S and Game Pass

Pentiment review copy provided by Microsoft.

Pentiment is a lightly-fictionalised historical narrative adventure set in early 16th-century Bavaria, made by Fallout: New Vegas Director Josh Sawyer and a team of only 13 people at Obsidian . It's a smaller game when compared to some of the bigger fish that released this month hence the $19.99 price tag but make no mistake, Pentiment is as charming, engaging and brilliant as any game out there.

Pentiment relies heavily on narrative and characters as it tries to tell its ambiguous story and immerse players into a universe brimming with social themes, philosophy, stunning art pieces of the late medieval period and disturbing secrets that lie at every corner of this fascinating world. 

STORY

You play as Andreas Maler, a master artist who works as an illustrator in Kiersau Abbey which overlooks a small town called Tassing, set in the heart of the gorgeous Bavarian Alps. Pentiment kicks off when Maler wakes up one day and goes on with his usual morning routine before he heads to Abbey's Scriptorium to continue working on his masterpiece manuscript.

Soon later, one of the master painters and Maler's close friends Brother Piero is charged with the murder that took place in the Abbey. The victim is a prominent Baron and a patron of the monastery who arrives to check on the progress of the art piece he commissioned and gift a contentious book that reveals disturbing new details about the history of Tassing and its founders.

Maler gets caught up in the middle of it and has to carry out an inquiry to identify the real culprit in order to exonerate his good friend and prevent his execution. Pentiment's story spans across 25 years as Maler tries to uncover the dark secrets of Tassing and Kiersau Abbey and its colourful cast of memorable characters of various social backgrounds. 

AltChar Pentiment Pentiment

You'll witness as every choice you make in Pentiment reflects onto the future of a small community of hard-working peasants but also the Abbey itself. By talking to people, you'll learn about their struggles, backgrounds, daily routines, unfathomable sins and past events that shaped the relationships within the community and use that knowledge to make tough decisions that also reflect your own societal values.

This man did something objectively horrible. Will you judge him? Or try to understand the rage that led to his actions? What about those who declare themselves as morally superior only to be exposed as the low of the lowest? Will you use your reputation to protect the weak and oppressed or mind your own business? These are the questions that Pentiment will throw at you right from the get-go. 

Simultaneously, Maler has his own struggles to overcome and paths to choose, so you might at times start to wonder if he is the right person to make such important choices that will affect so many people's lives for years to come.

AltChar Pentiment - Pet the doggo, curse the Abbot Pentiment - Pet the doggo, curse the Abbot

And make no mistake, you will change lives for better or worse in Pentiment. Your actions will be remembered for years to come, your decisions will echo through generations. 

Whether you're helping an old miserable crone to keep her house while pissing off the Abbey in the process, encouraging your lone buddy to find their soulmate or spurring the local rebellion against the Abbot, you will see the consequences of your actions.

That's why I cared so deeply about the characters in Pentiment. I felt that it was up to me to make their lives easier, help them overcome struggles and understand their resentfulness towards the oppressors as no one else would.

But, as you would expect from an Obsidian game, not everything is black and white and as simple as that. While you will sympathise with the community most of the time unless you're a cold-hearted snake, those who rule them have their own struggles and worries so you'll have to look at the issues objectively and make smart decisions that won't antagonise either side; but that's easier said than done. Someone will always end up hating you in Pentiment, no matter how just you're trying to be.

AltChar Pentiment will progress time as you talk to people and engage in certain activities Pentiment will progress time as you talk to people and engage in certain activities

GAMEPLAY

Time is of the essence in Pentiment since the game has a day and night cycle that progresses as you do certain activities. With characters to talk to and leads to pursue, you'll have to carefully plan your moves and make the most of your day given that you'll only get a couple of them to solve the murder.

Just like in real life, your daily schedule is split into work, eat and rest time. The work time is when you'll usually do most of your investigation but you can also share lunch with people and ask them about details that might help you crack the case as you drown yourself in free pork sausages, salmon and fresh Bavarian cheese. 

You should not skip the opportunity to sit and talk to people, as you can discover important information, helping you understand the past of Tassing and Kiersau Abbey, as well as revealing details about particular events that may seem insignificant at first but turn out to be of crucial importance later on.

Given that most of the information you receive will be gossip, as any good detective, you should corroborate everything you hear with enough proof before you accuse someone of anything, let alone cold-blooded murder.

AltChar Pentiment: Food on the table reflect the social status of your hosts. You'll get a rich table with various food only when dining with characters of higher status and wealth Pentiment: Food on the table reflect the social status of your hosts. You'll get a rich table with various food only when dining with characters of higher status and wealth

Pentiment is a narrative-driven game but it does feature some light RPG elements. You will be able to choose your background which defines Maler's character and has an impact on dialogue options and the perception of the community. You can choose your location, education, favourite subjects and interests; each of these will unlock new dialogue lines as well as allow you to look at things from a different perspective.

For example, if you pick Florence as your previous place of living, you'll have the knowledge of the culture and the city, you'll be able to read Italian and people of similar backgrounds will appreciate you more. 

If you pick an Occultist background, you'll understand texts and events that are connected to those practices; Rapscallion background will allow you to steal things if you can't get them by sweet-talking people, threaten and see through characters that are of similar personalities, get into heated arguments and even fights.

In one of my playthroughs, I picked Law as Andreas' educational background. I noticed straight away that such a choice will help me solve one of the quests, that require law school knowledge, much easier than with a different background; all thanks to Andreas' interest in the subject.

AltChar Pentiment offers a wide variety of backgrounds that will affect your character's choices going forward Pentiment offers a wide variety of backgrounds that will affect your character's choices going forward

Choosing your background will play a big part in Pentiment as each choice will provide you with a unique playthrough, resulting in high replayability value. 

As you might have guessed by now, the gameplay in Pentiment is fairly simple and it revolves around you talking to people, exploring the world, snooping around to find potential clues and solving puzzles.

There is no combat here, no skill trees and no gear or loot system; Pentiment is strictly focused on telling you an interesting story. And I found it to be perfect for what it is. This is mostly thanks to impeccable writing and dialogue and a rich cast of incredible characters that make Pentiment stand out from other similar narrative-driven games.

When you talk to people, you'll notice that most of them have their own views on how things should be done, they have opinions on important matters and will remember nice or unpleasant things you say to or about them.

Obsidian Pentiment - Choose your words carefully, as characters will remember them Pentiment - Choose your words carefully, as characters will remember them

The game will follow up these key dialogue moments with "This will be remembered" message, letting you know that you've just said or done something that will either strengthen or weaken your relationship with that character, affecting your ability to persuade them later.

The persuasion mechanic is pretty simple and you can't influence it once the persuade option appears during the conversation. Be nice and agreeable and you'll fill the persuasion meter fairly quickly, allowing you to persuade characters easily. Once the persuasion window pops up, you'll see how your earlier actions affected your relationship with that character.

Persuading people is key in getting things done faster and easier, otherwise, you'll have to try and come up with different ways to complete certain quests. 

AltChar Pentiment's persuasion mechanic is fairy simple Pentiment's persuasion mechanic is fairy simple

Pentiment also features several mini-games such as the Spinning Bee, Christmas cookie cutting and Lansquenet card game. These games are fairly minimalistic serving to offer a glimpse into the daily life of townsfolk and add to the immersion while at the same time helping break the flow of the constant dialogue.

They are not challenging, apart from the card game, which made me file for bankruptcy and become a very irresponsible individual in the eyes of my companion.

I would say that mini-games fit in perfectly and work exactly as the developers intended as having something to do while you simply talk or listen to people, can make the entire setting more entertaining and immersive.

AltChar Pentiment - Lansquenet card game Pentiment - Lansquenet card game

I've played Pentiment for over 30 hours for this review, and never once did I feel bored by its gameplay loop, mainly thanks to the great pacing of the story, which spiced things up with new and unexpected twists and turns just when I thought I might be onto something.

The sense of mystery, suspense and conspiracy surrounds Tassing and Kiersau at every corner. The way that the writers manage to capture that feeling, making you question everything and everyone is an indisputable testament of how narrative is and will always be paramount in video games.

I encourage you to play Pentiment more than once and try to do things differently each time to see how every choice impacts the story. I missed a lot of stuff during my first playthrough which encouraged me to give it another go as soon as I finished as I was really interested in seeing how different choices would affect the world, the characters and the fate of the townspeople and monastery. 

AltChar Pentiment features a unique visual style inspired by Medieval era art Pentiment features a unique visual style inspired by Medieval era art

VISUALS AND SOUND

Pentiment is a heavily stylised game that takes inspiration from great illuminated manuscripts and woodcut prints of the medieval age. It's presented as a storybook with each page acting as a different area in the game world, making it feel authentic and original in almost every possible way.

Pentiment's visuals will frequently remind you of some of the greatest works of art from the late medieval era including various tapestries, portraits and other illuminated manuscripts. In a way, it manages to bring such art to life, creating a living world for you to experience, which makes it a very unique video game and an art piece of its own.

An important part of Pentiment's visual presentation are various fonts given that the game doesn't have any voice-over. The developers put extra attention into designing different fonts and how each character's dialogue lines appear in the game.

AltChar Pentiment: Font styles will change based on Andreas' perception Pentiment: Font styles will change depending on the social status and education of the person Andreas is talking to

The font will appear in different styles depending on the social status and education of the person Andreas is talking to. So for example, a person with higher education and status like our Abbot has a font written in wonderfully decorated calligraphy while the font style of an uneducated person will be much simpler and easier to read.

It's a very unique concept that is designed to reflect handwriting, as the characters are writing to you directly. Each line is written in real-time so you'll see characters fixing their mistakes as they write. Certainly, it's a minor thing, and not everyone will care much about this but to me, it goes to show just how detailed Pentiment is and how hard the developers tried to make it feel authentic to the time period.

I've already mentioned that Pentiment does not feature any voice-over except for a couple of mesmerising Gregorian chants and songs. These are very rare but the situations where they are used are perfectly selected, as they add even more depth to the characters and the moment they are living in.

Sometimes these songs will offer a glimpse of hope where there is none, other times they give off a sense of security and togetherness within the community that often feels so torn apart between their religious beliefs and selfish desires.

AltChar Pentiment: Nothing like cosy holiday celebrations with your neighbours Pentiment: Nothing like cosy holiday celebrations with your neighbours

The sound effects are also very minimalistic so you'll usually hear sounds of rain, wind, various animals, and other ambients like fire crackling inside a tavern, people clamouring and so on.

This only helps Pentiment build a very warm and cosy atmosphere that adds even more immersion to the gorgeous Bavarian setting. It made me wish I could grab a tankard of ale and sit by the fire with the people of Tassing as we kick off another round of hot gossip.

The only gripe that I have with Pentiment is the lack of background music. Pentiment does have a melodic soundtrack and will play you some wonderful tracks from time to time, but I wish there was more of it. 

Certain songs will start playing during important moments in the story and these work well, allowing the game to build tension and mystery where it's needed but also evoke your feelings towards a dear character with subtle and friendly tones. 

The soundtrack is obviously inspired by the music of that age, which adds another important layer of immersion, bringing the player even closer to the 16th-century setting the game is portraying.

However, most of the time, while I was talking to people, and exploring the world, the music was not there, which is a shame, as I think at least some very subtle melodies in the background would be a perfect fit.

Obsidian Pentiment Pentiment

CONCLUSION

Pentimento is an Italian word for a visible trace of earlier painting beneath a layer or layers of paint on a canvas. Just like the meaning behind this beautiful word, Obsidian's Pentiment is a multi-layered masterpiece full of endearing characters, compelling stories, and disturbing secrets that await you at every corner of this carefully crafted world.

It's a charming video game that discusses difficult social themes and struggles of ordinary people, acting as a history lesson that will stay in your memory for a long long time, as every masterpiece does. 

The Good

  • World-class writing that delivers an intriguing story and rich dialogue
  • Your choices have a profound impact on the world
  • Characters you'll remember and care about
  • Stunning art style, illustrations and manuscripts
  • An immersive world that's a joy to explore

The Bad

  • Lack of background music
95

Our Rating

Excellent

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