Forget the blood-soaked fury of God of War: Ragnarök, or the mysterious world of Elden Ring. Pentiment is the most engrossing video game from a major studio in 2022. Be warned though. The latest game from Obsidian doesn't serve it's story as breakfast in bed. Instead you'll have to dig deep into the world and its character, ploughing the earth yourself like a medieval farmer, to reap it rewards. Luckily, those are more than plentiful.
The very antitheses to anything commercial, Pentiment is the passion project of Fallout: New Vegas director Josh Sawyer, who together with a small team has been given free reins in creating an adventure game set in 16th century Bavaria. As the young artist Andreas Maler, you'll get dragged into several mysterious murder cases and an overall conspiracy, that might not only affect the small town of Tassing, but the Catholic Church itself.
While the game is rooted in real history, the world of Pentiment feels much more remote than any star system in Mass Effect or weird dimension in Final Fantasy. The intricacies of the life in a catholic abbey or the feudal system of the Holy Roman Empire might not be immediately recognisable for every player, but the game does a good job of explaining it. During dialogue key characters and terms are underlined, allowing you to zoom out and view what essentially amounts to footnotes. This makes sense as the game takes place in a book, with the sound of pages turning accompanying every screen transition.
This is an ad:
Despite Obsidian doing a good job of introducing you to the unfamiliar world, it does take a couple of hours for the plot to really get going. It's a tad unfortunate as players who are on the fence will possibly lose interest and quit early. But patience is a virtue, and those that stick around will soon be rewarded with a trip to pure gaming heaven.
It all starts with a murder. When a visiting baron is found slain in the local abbey, the old scripter Piero gets detained as he was caught kneeling over the body with a knife in his hands. Andreas' doesn't believe that the frail old man could have done it, and neither does the Abbot for that matter. Unfortunately someone has to face consequences unless the local community shall bear the wrath of the clerical authorities, and Andreas starts his own investigation to save his friend and colleague.
Obsidian has always been masters of making choices an integral part of gameplay, and Pentiment is no exception. By answering questions during the opening hours of the game, you'll get to define Andreas' past. Did he for example study medicine, theology or law at university, and in which regions did he spend his so-called Wanderjahre? These choices influence your options going forward, and the medicine background that I choose, provided me with crucial information during an autopsy.
This is an ad:
While the town of Tassing is quite small, there are plenty of characters, and both farmers, nuns and monks are among the suspects. As time is limited, you won't have time for chasing every lead, and the places you investigate and which characters you question eventually decide what evidence you can present and ultimately which character you'll condemn.
Your choices will have consequences, not only for the characters directly involved but for the whole city. And as the game takes place over three separate acts many years apart, you'll get to see their effects in the long run. Perhaps the greatest praise I can come up with, is that the narrative feels like a really great Obisidian quest spanning a complete 15 hour long game. The narrative is extremely intricate, with a whole series of forks and variables running beneath the surface, but it still flows smoothly like a real page-turner of a novel - mainly The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, which seems to be the main inspiration.
From a pure suspense perspective, the murder case and the overarching conspiracy, that ends up spanning several decades, is masterfully written. But your choices wouldn't be nearly as hard and nerve-wracking if you didn't care about the characters, and in this regard the game truly shines.
In many ways it's exactly as you would think. The peasants are overworked and constantly complain about the harsh weather and even harsher taxation, while monks and nuns in the abbey occasionally have trouble staying on the path of virtue, dabbling both in temptations of the flesh and the occult. But beneath their ragged clothing there is in each an every case a well fleshed out individual with aspirations and dreams of their own - some you'll help come true and others you will unwittingly, but brutally crush during the course of your investigations. While there is plenty of humour, overall the atmosphere is much more grounded than in Obsidian's other RPG's such as The Outer Worlds and Fallout: New Vegas, and I just couldn't bring myself to play as a total asshole, though my disregard for decorum and constant flirting with all the women of the town, probably required some extra prayers.
While most, if not all characters are well written, the star of the show is definitely Andreas Maler himself. Unlike many other roleplaying and detective games, the protagonist is not just an empty shell or a substitute for the player. The way Andreas' personality, his inner demons and eventual loss, is slowly creeping out through the dialogue, makes the eventual revelations feel like emotional punches to the gut - all the more powerful because you couldn't see them coming a mile a way as in say The Last of Us.
So far, I have talked little about the actual gameplay. And to be honest, it's very simple. Pentiment mostly consists of walking and talking with an occasional "skill check" thrown into the mix. These are based on your previous dialogue choices and almost always end in failure to the point where it must be either unbalanced or an attempt to hammer home a depressive life lesson.
Occasionally you'll also have to complete mini games of sorts, but these are not meant to be challenging or even punish you for failure. Instead they serve to break up the pace, and the simple puzzles or sometimes menial tasks do their job in that regard. Due to the unique 2D art style, navigation might initially be a bit confusing, since the fixed perspective, means you might be exiting to the east and standing to the north in the next scene. But it makes sense once you know the layout. And know it you will. Intimately.
Pentiment takes place over three acts spanning over thirty years of peasant rebellion and seismic changes in the religious foundations of the catholic church, culminating with Martin Luther and the rise of Protestantism. The dramatic events play a huge part in the story, but the most noticeable thing is still how little changes in Tassing during all those years. An inn appears between acts, and eventually a City Hall is also built, but mostly you'll be walking in and out of the same buildings, talking with the same families, now a generation younger and intermarried. The wheel of progress is seriously stuck in the mud, and Pentiment reminds us why the period is often referred to as the Dark Ages.
That being said, one invention does slowly change everything. The invention of the printing press plays a central role in the game, not only in terms of the narrative but also the excellent 2D art style. A lot of care has obviously been put into drawing the colourful and detailed landscapes, and the same goes for the characters that are brimming with personality. While older characters are drawn to resemble the so-called illuminated manuscripts, younger characters such as Andreas himself are made to resemble woodcuts with dark lines outlining their body and crude pencil strokes indicating shadows.
In terms of sound design, Pentiment also hits all the right notes. The score, created by the medieval music ensemble Alkemie, is used sparingly, but when choir music or a haunting violin piece suddenly hits during a dramatic moment, it truly elevates the experience to a height normally reserved for angels and aircrafts.
Most of the time though you'll only hear sheep bleating, chicken clucking and, not the least, the pen rushing over the page, as instead of voice acting the designers have chosen to use speech bubbles that gets dynamically "written" during dialogue. Obsidian even went so far as to hire the company Lettermatic to make five highly intricate fonts, representing the peasants, monks and so on. You'll probably want to play with the easy-read fonts, as there are lots and lots of reading, but luckily they still retain some of the distinct characteristics.
The great writing and clever handcrafted presentation more than anything brings the world of Pentiment to life. Despite their appearance, characters are anything but flat, and the excellent animation, harkens back to the height of the pixel era where great emotion was expressed through supple change in posture or facial expression. To put it simply, Pentiment delivers more emotional depth with it's simple woodcut graphics than most AAA games with all their motion capture and Hollywood cinematography.
In a gaming landscape where most developers seem satisfied with polishing the same concept until their diamonds eventually turn back into coal, Pentiment is extremely refreshing, almost like taking a trip to the country after suffocating in the city. While we might have ravaged these lands in Age of Empires or ruled it from a distance in Europa Universalis, the setting feels both grounded and authentic, while at the same time touching upon universal topics in a thoughtful and thrilling narrative. With Microsoft serving as the wealth patron, Josh Sawyer (with the help of his team) has finally delivered his masterpiece. It's surely the best game set in 1512. And it might very well also be the best game of 2022.
9 / 10
Thrilling and thought-provoking story. Choices are hard to make and have noticeable consequences. Detailed, thought-out art style. Excellent sound. A wealth of historical details. Accessible and intuitive gameplay.
Skill checks can be devilishly hard. Slow opening might scare away some players.