Obsidian Studios is famous for their role-playing games. When Pentiment was announced it surprised many people, myself included. A historical adventure game with an artist protagonist was one of the last things I expected from the studio. As someone who studied exactly the period of time which serves as the backdrop for Pentiment, I was extremely curious about the game, even if I very rarely play something in the adventure genre. Even though Pentiment is an adventure game, I think anyone who has played through Obsidian’s catalogue will see familiar elements in the game. Pentiment is also a very unusual game, both visually and in its content.
Story and Atmosphere
In Pentiment, you play the first two thirds of the game as Andreas, an artist. The events of the game take place in Tassing, a small town in Reformation era Bavaria, which is dominated by its monastery. Tassing’s monastery is famous for its scriptorium, where its monks write and illustrate books. However, at this time the printing press is beginning to make the art which the monks pursue obsolete. Andreas is a visitor to Tassing. However, because of his profession, he has one foot in the monastery, amongst the monks and nuns who work there. However, since he isn’t clergy, he also has one foot in the town. On the one hand, both townsfolk and the monks, who live in two separate worlds even though they share the area, and who are often at odds with one another accept and are usually willing to talk to Andreas. On the other hand, Andreas is an outsider who doesn’t really belong to either group.
In the last section of the game you play as Magdalena, the printer’s daughter, who was a close friend of Andreas. Like Andreas she is an artist and well educated, which sets her apart from many of other townspeople of Tassing.
The game take place in three distinct chapters, each of which are separated by numerous years. In the first two chapters, Andreas gets caught up in investigating a murder, since he is one of the few people who can talk with both groups of Tassing’s inhabitants and who isn’t really beholden to either. In the third section, Magdalena paints a mural of the town history, unaware at first how she too will be caught up in the dark events that plague the town.
Andreas's background can help him gain insight into solving Tassing's murders.
In this case I am glad that I chose him to know a thing or two about medicine.
Like many Obsidian games, Pentiment does a great deal to develop its story and characters. Also, Andreas is often put into unpleasant situations where he is forced to pick sides and make choices where there is no obvious right and wrong course of action. People will remember what Andreas and Magdalena have said to them and done, and this can open up or close off certain courses of action as Pentiment unfolds.
Also like many Obsidian games, I think Pentiment does a wonderful job in developing its atmosphere and immersing the player in its lore. I think it does an excellent job of making Reformation age Germany, which in many ways differs greatly from our own time in terms of how people lived and thought, understandable to a modern player. Also it doesn’t bury the player in information, but sheds light on this era of history at a reasonable pace as Andreas and Magdalena proceed through the story. Those who want to learn more or get confused are helped by the excellent journal and annotated texts, which anyone who played either part of Pillars of Eternity will be familiar with.
Anyone deeply familiar with this age of history will notice that the developers understand their history. One quest branch makes an obvious nod to The Return of Martin Guerre, a seminal work of late medieval social history. Also important events and documents like Luther’s 95 theses, the 12 articles of the peasant revolt, and the counterreformation are described accurately and fairly seamlessly incorporated into the narrative.
Many classic adventure games involve solving a number of puzzle to proceed through a relatively linear game. Pentiment is not that kind of game. After a linear prologue, the protagonist Andreas begins to investigate a murder. Andreas has a small village and a large monastery to explore, but gathering information takes time and you have to make priorities of where to go, what to do, and who to talk to. Once the game opens up you can go where you like and talk to whoever you can find. People tend to be at different places at different times of the day and not all areas are always open at every time of the day.
With Magdalena things work a little differently and the last chapter is unfortunately more linear than either of those belonging to Andreas, since with Magdalena we can proceed through the branching quest in any order we choose, but our main choice is how we wish to paint the mural of Tassing and we can’t proceed until we have gone through all the parts of the quest.
Familiar to anyone playing an Obsidian game is the branching dialogue. Unlike their RPGs, extra dialogue options are not unlocked by having a particular skill or high attribute. However, in two early dialogues, you can choose Andreas’s hobby, the destination of his early travels, as well as his major and minor areas of study at the University. These four backgrounds open up alternative dialogues, which help motivate reluctant NPCs to talk, notice unusual things, or get out of displeasing some of your conversation partners. We also get to choose traits for Magdalena, such as what her social skills are and what role she plays in her father’s printing business. These also influence her dialogue choices.
In addition to branching dialogue, Pentiment offers a few mini games. Some of these you can’t really fail. Eating is an example. Andreas can often choose who to eat with and these people will tell him interesting things or give him possible hints and you decide in what order to eat the food on your plate. Magdalena writes letters to other NPCs, and we get to choose how she forms her prose. Other games such as weaving or breaking sticks, or putting together pottery pieces simply determine how well you do a task. These are less challenging game play elements, and more implemented as a way to break up dialogues and exploration. They do fit in very well with the story though and never feel random.
Pentiment also has a journal like many RPGs. Here the branching main quests and a rare side quest are recorded as well as the progress you’ve made through them, and thus seems like a typical rpg journal. Also you can find a brief description of all the townsfolk and clergy you have met, in case you ever get confused about who is who.
Visuals and Artwork
Pentiment has an incredibly unique art style. It mimics the illustrations of a medieval manuscript. Also, the game uses multiple calligraphy styles depending on whatever character is speaking, taking into account their native language, social station and level of education. Both the writing and artwork are highlights of the game. Anyone who is familiar with 16th century Germanic art or late medieval manuscripts will be impressed how well Pentiment captures and stays true to its subject matter.
Pentiment does what it sets out to do admirably. It is a unique story that builds suspense and is full of memorable characters. It certainly holds its own with the best of Obsidian’s games when it comes to its characters and narrative. On the other hand, the actual gameplay outside of the branching dialogues, is rather limited. Anyone who is looking for challenging gameplay had best look elsewhere. The mechanics that do exist are well integrated into the story, and help make the game more than just a visual novel. Still Pentiment is a game for those who want to experience an excellently written and well-presented historically inspired story with choices and consequences and not those who are actually looking for interesting gameplay. As someone who is not a big fan of adventure games, but is a fan of the middle ages, I found Pentiment to be a charming experience. I’d heartily recommend it to anyone who can look past its limited mechanics.
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Regions & platforms
· Platform: PC
· Released: 2022-11-15
· Publisher: Obsidian Entertainment
- Well done murder mystery story
- Unique setting
- Fantastic art
- Memorable characters
- Well implemented historical background
- Last third fairly linear
- Limited and not all too challenging mechanics
- Somewhat shortish (10-12 hours)