Over the past couple of years, multiple titles have been hyped up beyond belief through trailers and fake demos at events like E3. But when the time came to deliver, the final product was not nearly as ambitious as what was promised. And don’t worry, our Pentiment Review will assure you that it is not one of those games, but it’s not hard to find examples of the aforementioned blunders either.
Think Cyberpunk 2077 for one of the most recent examples of something like this, a game that was so mediocre and incomplete at launch that it single-handedly tanked the reputation of CD Projekt Red. It also taught a large number of fans not to blindly put their faith in companies and to temper their expectations going forward. And that’s just a general lesson for everyone; Do not take companies at their word, because they will lie in order to drive up their preorder numbers. But even as I say that I cannot lie and pretend that this is the way all video game studios operate.
Because there are a few select developers in the world that truly do deserve the respect and adoration of the gaming community, and whose games are almost always masterpieces in their own right. They don’t overhype their products, and they always deliver on fan expectations. One of these studios is Obsidian Entertainment, and today we’re going to be discussing their latest title Pentiment.
Story And Setting
Pentiment is the brainchild of Josh Sawyer, the game director behind some incredible titles like the phenomenal Fallout: New Vegas, and the equally impressive Pillars of Eternity series. But unlike both of those titles and their respective Sci-Fi and fantasy settings, this here is very much a purely historical game.
Set in 16th-century Bavaria, players take on the role of a journeyman artist named Andreas Maler, who is undergoing an apprenticeship in an abbey right outside the small town of Tassing. He works as an Illuminator and spends his days creating manuscripts. And as he goes about his daily routine one day, a murder occurs within the walls of the abbey’s chapter house, and his friend Piero is blamed for it.
Andreas however believes that his friend is innocent, and from here he begins his own investigation into what truly happened. Along the way, he digs deeper than he ever intends into the history of the town and brings to light some secrets and conspiracies that were perhaps better left buried. This is the core of the entire setting and the incredibly interesting premise on which the entire foundation of the narrative is built.
Additionally, Pentiment is still a role-playing game of sorts, and you can determine aspects of the protagonist’s history like his field of study or where he traveled during his youth, like in so many other RPGs. And the thing is, Andreas is not some sort of chosen one, and there are no monsters or magic in the world. There is no world-threatening supernatural evil here, and what you instead have to deal with are the very real, and often very destructive, politics of the real world.
This is as authentic a historical setting as you will find in a game, and most of it adheres to strict rules already established by the time period. The clothing, the behaviors, the customs, and even the art style are all influenced by 16th century Europe, Bavaria to be precise since that is where the game is set.
The game also loves to constantly make references to real people, traditions, cities, historical events, etc. that many players who are not history buffs may not pick up on. And in situations like these, the text containing the names of these things is underlined, and a simple button press pauses the game and gives you some brief context for each of them. The same mechanic is also used to show you pictures of NPCs that you might have previously met, so you don’t have to rattle your brain every time a name shows up on the screen.
I personally think this is a fantastic addition that not only helps you better understand the world and the socio-political climate of the times, but also helps you learn some basic history at the same time. Of course, it’s also a great way to simply recall an old character as well who you might not have seen or heard from in a few hours.
But that might also be a reason why the appeal of Pentiment may be limited. Because while I’m not trying to insinuate that the game can not find an extremely dedicated audience, my point is that a historical narrative experience with no combat or action of any sort might be a hard sell for a lot of gamers. And the developers knew that as well, so instead of making something for everyone, they decided to make an incredibly focused title with a limited scope.
Pentiment is a mostly narrative-driven game, and the vast majority of the time your interactions with the world around you are limited to dialogue options. You go from person to person and location to location, piecing together information in the hopes of solving the mystery behind the murder. The initial goal is to find the culprit, but the way the game is structured, it branches off into many different paths and never actually tells you what the correct answers are.
Over the course of 25 years, you follow the journey of Andreas as both he and the town of Tassing grow and change. You make decisions that can have rippling effects on certain residents, such as influencing the course of a child’s life or making an error in judgment that can sour someone’s opinion of you for decades. People have children, grow old, and die, and you can see all of this happening as time progresses right in front of you.
It’s the type of experience that can only be as impactful as it is, because of how focused it is on one town, as opposed to other RPGs that take place across entire countries if not continents. Making a choice to condemn someone for a crime they may or may not have committed would not be as meaningful if you did not also have to see and interact with their family in town every day and hear what they have to say about the deed.
And in terms of how all of this plays out, let’s once more discuss Andreas and certain decisions you make regarding his background. Because depending on what you choose as his interests and field of study, he gains options that greatly alter the way you interact with people.
So let’s say you took Medicine as your background. Now every time a situation crops up where an illness, or aspects of the human body are concerned, you will gain special dialogue options that can change the flow of a conversation. Similarly, if you chose Imperial Law instead, then Andreas will possess knowledge of different laws that govern the Holy Roman Empire. But one thing to note is that none of these options radically open up the gameplay.
You can’t expect to make a decision that will open up an entirely new area or a new questline, these choices simply expand your dialogue options and give your more information than you would have otherwise received. And even then, a lot of the time the way a conversation opens up depends greatly on the way you talk and how you choose to approach a topic, instead of special dialogue choices opened up by choosing the Rapscallion trait for example.
Be nice to someone, compliment their choices or beliefs, and they will be more receptive to you. The game occasionally informs you when a dialogue option you choose will be remembered by a character, and at certain points in the game these choices coalesce and allow you to influence these people in major ways.
And yes, I understand once again why this might be disappointing for some people, but Pentiment is simply not meant to be played like a traditional RPG. The game is designed to never give you all the information in a single playthrough. Your own analytical skills are often worth more here than you would think, and at no point does anyone tell you whether the decisions you are making are right or wrong.
Whenever you make a major decision like approaching a certain person and engaging in dialogue with them, or even choosing to explore a new location, time moves forward. And when this happens, other avenues that you could have explored permanently close off. So you have to make decisions as to what is more valuable, and what seems like a more worthwhile lead. This system not only makes your choices more valuable, but it also adds a whole lot of replayability to the game.
I’m on my second playthrough right now, and I’m noticing things that I never even came across the first time around. This is an extraordinary game, and I cannot believe how much I am invested in the choices I make as Andreas.
Visuals And Performance
I will be the first person to admit that I am not an expert on European art, nor do I know much about Catholic Theology. But illuminated manuscripts from the middle ages have been present in so many different books and pieces of media, that I have unwittingly picked up a sense of recognition for them. And Pentiment, by all accounts, looks like it takes place within one of these manuscripts.
The game has an incredibly distinct art style, and it makes use of colors and textures in a way that is not in line with a lot of modern titles. Once again, the key here is authenticity, so the designers have done their absolute best to make backgrounds and assets on the screen look like images that might have been made by an actual artist in the middle ages, which is to say that they are painted with extremely controlled and calculated strokes.
The town and its surrounding areas are packed with many tiny details, from mountains in the distance to roman infrastructure that has been deteriorating for decades if not centuries. It’s all really minimalistic, and charming, but then you move in closer and start to observe the buildings in Tassing, or the many many different interiors you get to explore, and the first impression you get is that they look bland, bad even.
But after a while, it dawned on me that this is also a stylistic choice. 16th-century journeymen didn’t have access to a lot of the advanced tools we do in the modern age, and the number of paint colors was also fairly limited so it wouldn’t make sense for the game to look like modern art either. And over time I realized how much this style helps the game, by making key moments stand out more, and by easily drawing your attention to key details in the environment.
In terms of performance, I honestly did not find anything worth complaining about either. The game runs at a solid 4K 60FPS on the Xbox Series X, and I never encountered any sort of bugs or framerate drops of any kind. Honestly speaking, I would be surprised if it did have these problems, considering how simple everything is.
Pentiment is not a game for everyone, and I don’t want to give the impression that it will have widespread appeal among gaming audiences, or even within Obsidian’s own fanbase either. But for those of us who love narrative-driven games, and who want more intricate storytelling, this is one of the best experiences we could ask for.
The game is narrowly focused on its themes and subject matter, and it hardly ever deviates from its intended vision. It is complicated, intense, depressing, and often time incredibly optimistic at the same time. It is a masterclass in how to establish a tone and then stick with it without ever sacrificing what makes it special.
It is without a doubt one of the best titles I have played this year, and it deserves all the accolades in the world. I implore you not to overlook it because even though it is exactly what it seems like on the surface, it is also so much more than that.
This has been our Pentiment Review. While you’re here, consider checking out some of our other articles.
- Godlike Burger Review
- Sonic Frontiers Review
- Victoria 3 Review
- God Of War Ragnarok Review
- Path To Nowhere Review
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- Story And Setting
- Visuals And Performance
I implore you not to overlook Pentiment, because even though it is exactly what it seems like on the surface, it is also so much more than that.
- Phenomenal Writing
- Great Art Style
- The Level Of Detail
- Era Appropriate Music
- Narrow Appeal