What is history? Is it what we hold true in our hearts as tales are passed down from one generation to the next through oration or text? Does the passage of time allow for accuracy to ever exist truly? Underneath the sheen of the new, we see the grime that coats our world’s past. Pentiment is a game where you decide not only what is going to happen, but how history will remember it. Bereft of any voice acting and light in its graphical scope your choices will fully shape the city of Tassing in 1500s Bavaria as it toils under the grip of its local Abbey, Kiersau. As traveling artist Andreas Maler your choices will shape the very foundation of the town’s future in this lovingly crafted, historically accurate narrative adventure game from Josh Sawyer and a team of only thirteen at Obsidian. It may be a niche within a niche, but I think Pentiment stands tall among the giants of the genre. Let’s break down why.
Vita et tempora Andreae Maler
As always, I will do my best to give as much objective fact and subjective learning as I can from my time spent beating the game (only once so far, I will be back for more). It’s going to be rather difficult with Pentiment though because everything about this game is tied to the story. It is one you craft through a series of choices that occasionally you don’t even realize you are making. The game starts out in the small town of Tassing in Bavaria (modern-day Germany). This is a time of great political and religious upheaval in Europe, as things tend to be, with constant wars, peasant revolts, and the “dangerous” teachings of Martin Luther dominating the landscape.
Tassing is controlled by the abbot of Keirsau Abbey which dominates the background scenery throughout your time in the game. Keirsau is the home to an order of Benedictine monks and nuns who run a library and one of the last Scriptoriums in the Holy Roman Empire. Your journey begins as the young traveling artist Andreas Maler of Nuremberg. Andreas is working on a commission in the Scriptorium alongside three monks while also attempting to finish his masterpice. Why Andreas is there, his past, present, and future interests are all up for you to decide. My version of Andreas had stopped in Tassing on his way back from a journey to Florence, Italy. I chose for him to love nature and astronomy and in general be a kind and caring person.
Pentiment’s greatest strength, outside of its incredible writing, is the level of control that you are afforded over both the character you play and the world they inhabit. While the biggest plot beats of the game appear to be set in stone everything around them, who lives and dies, the town’s overall fortunes, and even who committed certain crimes is your choice to make. This is a mystery game at its heart but it’s not about “who” committed a murder. Instead, your choice IS the canon answer for that playthrough, and you must deal with the repercussions of that decision.
Consequence is the heart of Pentiment’s journey. This is not a game worried about quick movements or reaction speed. You must weigh the power that you wield over the fate of others at all times. The “right” thing can lead to a terrible conclusion that you never intended if you don’t think things through properly. Sometimes your faith in others is rewarded though, and the risk you took in being honest and forthright was the correct decision. I beat the game in roughly 20 or so hours and I’m itching to play through again. Knowing what I know now about my first playthrough can I save those I lost and damn those who I know deserved a worse fate?
These haunting questions come from the game’s excellent writing and its use of different fonts to convey how Andreas perceives the person he is talking to. The learned have fanciful fonts that start as outlines which are then filled in with rich black ink that quickly absorbs into the paper. Townsfolk’s vocations like the printer will lead to a stamped and immediately available typesetting that is clear and easy to read. Local townsfolk who can’t read or write get a basic script with misspellings being quickly erased and written over time and time again. The devotion to detail is staggering in its amount, especially when the main team on the game was so small. Despite being an Obsidian (and Xbox first-party) title, only thirteen people worked full-time on Pentiment. It is a clear labor of love from the team that would never have been possible without a service like Game Pass offering it up in a way that makes the publisher worry far less about sales.
This is niche title for lovers of history, especially that of medieval Europe. It’s also a niche title as it is a narrative adventure game with mostly light gameplay elements and zero voice acting. While there are a number of accessibilities options I’ll get into later this is a game made up almost entirely of reading lines and thinking of how to respond to them. Your responses will occasionally lead to a success or failure check where choices are shown as either a blue pass or red fail list. Did you tell the local doctor just how incredible he was at every turn? Success is yours and he’ll be a bit less of a right ass to you, for a while. To convince the local abbot to let you exhume a grave you better hope you didn’t upset him too often before, otherwise, his fury will be palpable should you go ahead without his blessing.
The next section is from my partner, Amanda. She majored in history and knows far more about this period of history than I ever could.
A Lover of History’s Opinion on Pentiment: by Amanda Van Parys
Pentiment takes a strong influence from The Name of the Rose and The Pillars of the Earth, which isn’t a bad thing, in fact, it’s a great thing because those books are awesome and they show us that people in the past are actual people. Pentiment does the same, and if you are not a scholar of history, I think it’s singularly important to know that people of the past are not that different from us. They gossiped, they held grudges, they judged each other, and they hated authority.
As a historian, it makes me so happy to play a game that is, quite simply, a love letter to probably my most favorite era. Pentiment gets a lot of things right—even down to the way people walked. I was pleasantly surprised to see the characters walking with the balls of their feet first because our ancestors didn’t walk heel first until the evolution of shoes with hard soles. If you wish, you can change the appearance of the dialogue into historically accurate fonts. Members of the church write in a traditional Gothic font with loads of flourishing serifs; the regular schmegulars write in slightly different cursives and secretarial fonts, the bookmaker and his family write in lettering blocks, etc. And if you want to go a step further, you can turn on the historical letter S, which looks like a lowercase F without the center cross. As was written in illuminated manuscripts, important words are written in red or blue such as red for God or Jesus and blue for a specific emphasized word.
The amount of work and love that went into this game is a testament to the creators’ determination for accuracy. The artistic choice is perfect because you are inside a story of the past. And stories have always been so important because it was how our ancestors experienced history, and it was the most common form of art since anyone can participate in a story. Since most people couldn’t read, it was how they learned morals, it was how they passed down history, and now, we get to be inside their story.
Simplicitas est pulchritude
Graphically the game features beautiful, period-appropriate art that is animated well. It’s not a “looker” at first glance, but if you appreciate the era and staggering amount of work that must have gone into creating all of these drawings it really is something incredible. Technically speaking it’s the type of game that should run well on almost anything gaming capable. I reviewed it on a Series X as well as checking out the Windows Store version on my PC. I had zero cases of stuttering or lag on both, and it was a rock-solid, bug-free experience. Forza or Gears this is not, but in its own way and at its own modest scope I think it looks fantastic.
The game’s soundtrack is rather sparse with its never-ending ambient noise making up most of what you’ll hear. When it does kick in during various moments like a nun singing in church, or a jaunty tune accompanying a harrowing chase it is damned good. Featuring a mix of classics performed specifically for the game and new tunes it matches the setting well. Outside of the text all being in English, because of course, it has to be, I felt like I was experiencing something with an extreme dedication to accuracy at all times and that came through the most for me in the music.
The game features a few, very helpful, accessibility options. While you can go for supreme accuracy if you wish with the text settings there is a “let me just read this easily, please” one that I think most may default to. The older font choices look gorgeous and convey a lot about each character, but they can be tough to understand if you’re not well-versed in calligraphy and the like. There is also a text-to-speech option available as well which offers up a machine-voiced narration for the in-game text and is great to see as this would be unplayable for those either blind or hard of sight without it.
Being on Game Pass helps give easier access to those who may be put off by the premise initially. It is a testament to the types of games creatives can take a risk on that otherwise would never have been released in the old entirely sales-focused system. The gameplay is basic with you moving left to right and vice versa across certain paths and then pressing A to interact. Quite frankly it’s boring to move around the city most of the time, and the story is slow to start. Those would be my two main issues and I can see a lot bouncing off the title before they even get to the mystery, which is a shame.
Pentiment is not going to be popular. I do think however that it will become a cult classic. I can’t think of another game from a 1st party publisher to tackle a subject like this. Nothing about it feels forced to try and earn the most money, instead, it is a labor of devotion to telling a brilliant story at a specific period and place in our past. Life may rarely go the way we want, but there is power in our choices and I’m glad that Xbox allowed this game to be made. It’s a unique, dazzling work of art that will stand the test of time for as long as we remember it.
Code provided by the publisher for review.
|Reviewed On||Xbox Series X* & PC|
|Release Date||November 15th, 2022|
|Available On||Xbox, PC, Cloud|
|Publisher||Xbox Game Studios|
|Rated||M for Mature|