We are so late into the year and, while most of 2022's blockbuster hits have finally landed, there's one that's going under the radar. A heavy hitter, despite being overshadowed by titans like God of War and Pokemon. I'm talking about Pentiment, a rather unorthodox first-party title developed by Obsidian Entertainment and published by Xbox Game Studios. Sporting an art style that's quite unlike anything we've seen before and perhaps the best writing Obsidian's dished out to date, Pentiment is an extraordinary ride that more people should know about, and of course play.
Pentiment: An Illuminating Narrative
Like most titles by Obsidian, narrative is the focus here. The story for Pentiment follows Andreas Maler, an artist laboring to create his "masterpiece." He's given permission to work in a monastery in a fictitious Bavarian town called Tassing. After around 14 hours of gameplay for my first playthrough, you'll learn the ins and outs of the inhabitants of Tassing and the monastery overlooking the town.
The narrative thrusts players into Andreas' shoes with little introduction, but allows us to determine his background through dialogue prompts that pop up in the opening half hour or so of Pentiment. During conversations, Andreas is asked where he's traveled and what he studied at university. These choices have a massive impact on dialogue prompts that'll pop up throughout the game and opens up greater opportunities for roleplaying. Indeed, roleplaying is the bulk of Pentiment's gameplay, requiring you to listen and talk to dozens of characters and respond with a great variety of dialogue prompts. The choice of Andreas' background carried ramifications throughout the game's three acts, leading me to believe there's a huge variety of depth in who your character is or could become.
If you're anything like me, you'll become engaged with not just Andreas, but the characters you meet and interact with in Tassing and the monastery. There are citizens living out their routine lives, portrayed in a slice-of-life sort of way. There's your town's baker, farmers, a miller, and more, as any town would have. The monastery's monks and nuns go about their day praying or crafting illuminated manuscripts. Again, there are dozens of characters in Pentiment but it's not hard to understand who everyone is and grow attached to the townspeople. This is certainly due to the writing, which is exceptional throughout and makes even the most mundane situations entertaining.
Of course, there's much more to Pentiment than simple interactions with the town of Tassing. At the heart of the story is a murder mystery spanning over two decades. As you play through the acts, you'll see characters grow older and change in appearance and personality. The choices you make while conducting the murder mystery investigation appear to carry heavy ramifications for Tassing and its citizens. Things said or done in the previous act -- or even the previous two acts -- aren't forgotten and carry over into conversations in the current.
I cannot be sure just how much of an impact choices truly make in Pentiment. That said, it doesn't feel like choices don't matter or there's an illusion of choice. Testament to this is a standard, seemingly non-important conversation my character had in the first act, carrying over and directly impacting the final scene few moments of Pentiment. Many dialogue prompts in Pentiment will surprise you by saying it will be remembered, akin to a Telltale game. Seemingly standard dialogue becomes something much more. Words weigh heavily on the mind of the characters you interact with, and the player character's choices should not be taken lightly.
While gameplay isn't necessarily shoved to the side, Pentiment feels like a visual novel with the amount of reading required. Being a fan of medieval history, I can't get enough of the stuff and made sure to read as much as I could and listen to every conversation, but don't expect mechanics on the same level as, say, Fallout: New Vegas. As you conduct your investigation, move about town, or interact with townsfolk, there are times when you'll have to do a simple puzzle. During meals, you'll choose what food to eat first. It's a way to add some immersion, and while I think Pentiment could use a few more puzzles, I never grew tired of the dialogue.
One could argue the entire game and who you talk to is the real puzzle, since choices seem to matter so much. You also have a finite amount of time per day to do what needs to be done, with tasks given to you in a journal to aid your investigation. It's up to you to determine how to spend each day and it seems impossible to achieve everything in your journal, meaning the outcome you're aiming for needs to be well-thought and deliberate. This isn't overt right from the start and the limited time per day might take players by surprise, so be aware of this. It's also rather cumbersome to flip through your journal. You flip through pages in an immersive fashion, but combing through pages of notes looking for a specific detail could be tweaked to be easier to use. Without any sort of way to see prior lines said by characters a la a chat log, you definitely have to pay attention to the plot throughout.
Minor complaints aside, the storytelling and, of course, art makes up for most shortcomings. Chances are you've seen illuminated manuscripts and medieval art before, even if you didn't realize it. All of Pentiment's characters and environments are akin to pages out of a book, hand-drawn and laboriously recreated in a style that's been, well, out of style for centuries. Those with a discerning eye will notice meticulous details in the art which helps elevate the overall look to the next level. Easily, my favorite smaller detail is the flaking paint on elderly characters compared to the crisp colors of a younger person. I can't begin to imagine the work and research it took to create such a style, but it's certainly one of my favorite-looking games to release in the past several years.
Pentiment Review | Final Thoughts
It's a shame I can't go into more detail on the plot of Pentiment. I have been deliberately vague throughout so as not to spoil this engrossing tale, which might just be for the best. Pentiment is an adventure crafted by the choices you make and you alone, and the weight and consequences of said choices create a powerful, funny, and even heart-wrenching story about a little town in Bavaria. While it's certainly more reading than I'm used to in a video game, there's no doubt in my mind Pentiment will remain in my mind for years to come.
TechRaptor reviewed Pentiment on PC via Steam using a copy purchased by the reviewer. The game is also available on Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S.
- Incredible, Hand-crafted Visuals
- Strong Writing with an Engaging Storyline and Characters
- Choices Hold Ramifications
- Overall Authenticity and Attention to Detail
- Flipping Through the Journal can be Cumbersome
- Could Use a Chat Log