Pentiment: We played Obsidian's upcoming RPG at Gamescom
The new adventure from the mind behind Fallout New Vegas looks a bit like Monkey Island meets the Bible.
What happens if you let the creative reins free for an industry veteran, as in everything is permitted? Apparently, you get a narrative adventure game, set in 16th century Bavaria and featuring graphics straight out of a dusty medieval tome.
At least that is the case for Josh Sawyer, a long-term Obsidian employee who back in 2010 lead the production of the cult classic Fallout: New Vegas. His latest game, Pentiment, is a passion project developed by a small team of just thirteen Obsidian employees.
It seems a far cry from Obsidian's usual roleplaying games such as Outer Wilds and the upcoming Avowed, and you might be forgiven for thinking that the game will appeal to even fewer people than the small development team itself. Yet after trying the game at Gamescom and speaking with the developers, I was actually surprised about how much of the studios' usual appeal has made its way into this project.
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First off, Pentiment is not completely devoid of roleplaying elements. As it usual for Obsidian, these are cleverly integrated into the story, and not just a stat sheet you hastily fill out before the game has even started. You play as a young manuscript illustrator called Andreas Maler who, after arriving at a rural monastery straight out of university, quickly gets involved in a murder mystery. What you majored in (they probably used another term back then, but we'll let it slide) when you weren't busy doodling on expensive paper, is retroactively decided by your response in an early conversation where you get questioned about your years of higher learning.
At least that was the case during an extended gameplay introduction I was showed before playing the game. The actual demo, specifically created for Gamescom, actually had me choosing all this character background right at the beginning such as my knowledge of language and where I spent my so-called Wanderjahre. Choices such as these end up forming your character and might result in useful skills or opportunities later down the road, explains Josh Sawyer.
Despite the religious setting, you certainly don't need divine inspiration to solve the puzzles
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It's mostly flavour though, as the game, at its heart, is a straightforward narrative adventure in the style popularised by Telltale Games. The cartoonish visuals and past setting might remind you of earlier (and quite difficult) point-and-click games such as Lucas Arts' Monkey Island series. Yet, despite the religious setting, you certainly don't need divine inspiration to solve the puzzles, Josh Sawyer tells us. The small team wanted to make an accessible game, and that meant catering not only to history buffs or those who enjoy clever (or sadistic) puzzles. The different puzzles and mini games are therefore mostly just tasks - small objectives to keep you engaged during the story.
That certainly was the case during the short demo where I was tasked with helping an old widow to learn more about a suspicious character. To gain her trust I had to collect sticks and later hang pictures on the wall. These tasks were just as simple as they sound, but there were still a lot of interactions thanks to interesting dialogue choices, brimming with the famous Obsidian humour. There were also different ways to solve the task - or refuse to do so - which might lead to different consequences down the road. For example, I managed to convince the old lady to keep a wooden cross and not burn thanks to my (or rather Andreas') extensive knowledge of ancient Roman law.
Besides the relatively straightforward controls- you control Andreas with the analog stick and make choices with buttons - another way the game eases you into its world is by explaining the historical references through a huge glossary of historical events and terms. For improved readability there is also the option of making the games classically inspired fonts a bit cleaner and more modern in their look. But if you can read them, as they are, you definitely should, as Obsidian apparently has spent a lot of time making an authentic experience. Each social class, such as workers, clerics, and the nobility, have a different font signalling their status and way of life. The movement of the text is even made to mimic real calligraphy with the ink starting strong and gradually drying into the virtual parchment of the in-game text box.
Ten or maybe even five years ago, a project such as Pentiment would have been unthinkable from a major studio.
This authentic presentation also carries over to the general art style, that is perhaps the most notable feature of Pentiment. Art director Hannah Kennedy describes it as a mixture of religious manuscript illustrations featuring great crowds and classical wood prints that gradually became more prominent during the period. Of course, this gave some unique challenges she explained to me when I spoke to her after having played the demo. "During our tests we realised that travelling straight up during a scene felt really bad, because we noticed at that point that all the illustrations of people within the source art we were referencing, they are all in three-quarter view, they never have just a back or even just a front. So, we structured our scenes around that limitation, so that it feels good and cohesive to the style and illustrations we were copying."
With just about 20-25 minutes of playtime I barely touched upon the main mystery at the heart of Pentiment. Yet I was told that Andreas will have to solve several murders over a period of 25 years, spanning some of the most exciting events in this (at least for the non-interested) rather uneventful period. The developers made it clear that a larger conspiracy is available, and it will definitely take some time to untangle it. "It's looking like it's coming in at around 20 hours, rushing through it will probably be a bit shorter than that," Josh Sawyer tells when asked about the game's length. "I think if you really explore everything, you might get a few more hours out of it. And I hope there is a lot of replay value. We actually structured the mystery so that it's impossible to do everything in one playthrough and, based on the choices you make, there are also different outcomes."
Ten or maybe even five years ago, a project such as Pentiment would have been unthinkable from a major studio. But with new distribution channels such as Xbox Game Pass, Sawyer and his small team are hopeful that Pentiment will find a receptive audience. From what we have seen and tried so far, there is a good chance that it might. Also, if you want to know more about the game, be sure to check our interview at the top of the article.