‘Pentiment’ review: history in the making
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Set in the Bavarian village of Tassing and its nearby Kiersau Abbey, Pentiment follows artist Andreas Maler as he becomes tangled in a conspiracy that begins with the murder of a baron. The tale takes place within the pages of a book, and each 2D area is brought to life as a gorgeous medieval illustration.
How Maler explores these pages – and who he is – comes down to the player. Obsidian’s knack for role-playing shines brightly here, and you shape Maler by answering questions about his past – is he a bookworm? a hedonist? Where has he lived? What did he study in university?
No matter your answer, Maler’s backstory becomes a unique set of tools that are essential to pulling apart Pentiment‘s murder mystery. As a reluctant detective, Maler’s background influences how easily he can chase up certain leads – a knowledge of the occult could help uncover a monk with a penchant for studying necromancy, while education in theology can prove crucial in talking your way around the Abbey. Maler’s talents felt hugely impactful, yet the ones you don’t choose can have just as much of an effect – I missed out on some juicy drama because my version of Maler couldn’t read French, and he’d probably have recognised an auspicious wart during the Baron’s autopsy if he’d enjoyed a few livelier nights away from his books.
However, that’s all part of Pentiment‘s fun – it’s impossible to tie off every loose thread. Abrupt deadlines mean you have limited time to pursue suspects, and some lines of investigation can devour large portions of a day. This means doing the best you can, and weighing each decision carefully – you can spend a morning eavesdropping on a confessional, for example, but that’s a lot of time to wager in the hopes that someone will reveal something useful.
However you spend your time, it soon becomes clear that Tassing has enough skeletons to fill several closets. Pentiment encourages you to craft your own theories and motives behind its events, and the game’s elaborate web of drama meant my review notes quickly devolved into an accounting of the villagers’ various affairs and grudges. The game rarely deals in black and white, and the more you learn of Pentiment‘s rich characters, the harder it is to stay objective during your investigation.
Getting tangled too deeply in Tassing’s goings-on can be a blessing and a curse. Every so often, ‘This Will Be Remembered’ pops up after you’ve chosen a dialogue choice – predictably during important conversations, but often at seemingly random moments. These choices are indeed remembered, sometimes for decades, and can determine whether someone will tell you a crucial piece of intel. Attempting to ask someone a question, or convince them to do something, can prompt a challenge box to appear – which lists all of the positive and negative choices you’ve made that decide whether it’s going to work. My first experience with this system was in trying to get a friendly response from Martin, a local ruffian. Because I’d told him to help his parents earlier, what did I get? Told to eat shit. Lovely.
As Pentiment‘s three-act format plays out, the decisions you make during your investigation can prove hugely influential, and these challenges come with higher stakes. It’s impressive to see off-hand comments and small acts of kindness have an effect even after several decades, while brash accusations can leave a lingering mistrust resulting in permanent setbacks. Tassing will change drastically and characters will live, love and die based on your conversations; but the one thing Pentiment never does is tell you if you’re right: you can have an alleged murderer’s head lopped off, but not once does Obsidian confirm or deny your suspicions. It becomes a game of testing your morals and chasing every lead, and Pentiment does a fantastic job of drawing you in too deeply to keep your conscience clean. The game’s third act is a little bit more linear and less investigative than its predecessors, which is a shame, but it’s worth it for a change in atmosphere that feels genuinely creepy and unsettling. The story is no less gripping however, and for reaching the end you’re rewarded with a deeply satisfying finale that’s brimming with revelations.
However, Pentiment‘s layout can cause frustration, and these add up by the time credits roll. It can be incredibly awkward to get Maler to interact with something if it sits too close to an area’s entrance, resulting in frequent mishaps that send the poor artist trotting back and forth between Pentiment’s pages. Elsewhere, while the game’s dedication to writing all dialogue in medieval script is commendable – the game’s biggest plot twist is revealed when a character’s speech changes colour – it can oftentimes be too difficult to decipher, meaning it was quickly toggled off.
But ultimately, these are superficial issues for a game that’s all about its story. Pentiment tells an elaborate tale of conspiracy and murder through a deeply human lens, and Obsidian’s choice to let players draw their own conclusions is one that pays off remarkably well.
With a deeply interesting plot that rewards diligence, Pentiment is a tale of pure brilliance. Using a depth and intricacy that defies the game’s simple aesthetic, Obsidian’s latest proves incredibly difficult to put down until its drama has played out – and when all’s said and done, you will want to do it all over again.
- One of the best stories of 2022
- Most characters have reams of secrets to unravel
- Looks fantastic
- Overlapping interactions can be very difficult to navigate
- The third act doesn’t offer as much opportunity for investigation as it draws the story to a close