In times when games are setting new audiovisual standards and getting more and more beautiful, a game like Pentiment is the odd one out. The game can be called artistic, but we are talking about classic visual art. The game takes place in a kind of moving painting and the characters talk in speech bubbles. That means that the game is quite static and there are no spoken texts in the game. Pentiment requires you to read a lot and has hardly any active gameplay, apart from a puzzle here and there, but Pentiment is still fun to play. It is simply important to know what to expect because it is clear that this is not a game for everyone.
Pentiment is from Obsidian Entertainment, a studio that we know well from a long line of roleplaying games. Pentiment doesn’t come in that same line because this isn’t an RPG, to begin with. At least as important: we are dealing with a passion project herefrom Josh Sawyer, who worked on Pentiment with a relatively small team. Sawyer is best known as the director of Fallout: New Vegas, which is certainly one of the better games in the Fallout series in terms of humor and dialogue. That already gives Pentiment a good perspective, because a game without many audiovisual bells and whistles stands or falls with the quality of the story and the dialogues, which all have to be read, instead of voice actors doing that for you. It also helps that the setting is also special to Sawyer. While studying history, he specialized in sixteenth-century Bavaria, which is precisely the period and region in which Pentiment takes place.
Age of religion and change
That immediately entails a certain context. The game is set in a period when religion was the law, but influences from science and other ideas about religion became increasingly prominent, however pagan that was. There was also no real democracy. As a citizen, you lived on land that was under the control of the local abbot or a local lord of rank, such as a baron. They made the rules, determined the amount of taxes and were almost inviolable from a legal point of view. All these elements play a role in Pentiment and as a player you have to see how you deal with them in the best way.
You do this by playing Andreas Maler, a young artist who works in the fictional town of Tassing in the scriptorium of the local abbey. That is the place where monks used to copy and translate texts and books. The added value of this painstaking work changed quickly when the printing press came into the picture and that aspect is also reflected in Pentiment, but that is not so important. More importantly: Maler must therefore be in the abbey on a daily basis and let that be exactly the place where a prominent baron is killed early in the game. One of the monks Maler often worked with in the scriptorium is blamed, but Maler is convinced that he is innocent. He thus opens an investigation to find the true murderer, awaiting an emissary from the Archdeacon,
Background has influence
The course of this story and even the route to the above events depends entirely on the choices of the player. That already starts with choices about Maler’s background. For example, you choose a field of study, a certain expertise and a region where Maler has previously spent time. Those choices have consequences for the options you get. With a medical background, Maler can say things in certain conversations he otherwise wouldn’t have been able to say, but a different background opens up other options. The region influences which languages Maler reads and speaks. If you choose Flemish, Maler understands French and Dutch, but not Italian, for example. That can be an advantage if you find something or someone where understanding one of those languages is indispensable and at that point you can use or not use an important source in your research. Of course, more roads lead to the proverbial Rome. So it’s not like you can choose a ‘wrong’ background and then not be able to solve things.
That’s a nice idea, but in practice solving mysteries in Pentiment turns out to be quite difficult. It all starts simple enough. Andreas starts his day, chats with some people in the village, goes to work and lives his life. The conversations are mostly small talk, with occasional more serious topics in between. And then, during a conversation, there is suddenly the message that your last answer will be remembered. This is part of the system that influences whether certain people like Andreas or not. That does not always have to be important, but it certainly is at other times: you sometimes notice that someone has more to say. Do you ask about that, then a settlement will appear with a summary of all moments that have influenced the relationship between that person and Andreas and that will then produce a positive or negative image. A positive outcome provides extra information, a negative outcome prevents that information from reaching Andreas and therefore often leads to the end of the conversation.
We were rarely able to win someone over in this way and that led to incomplete information during our investigations. That in itself is not a bad thing. Pentiment is a story that continues regardless of your performance as a detective. It just feels like something that’s not entirely within your control. It would have been helpful to have a feedback system that teaches you what to look for in conversations. A counter argument: you wouldn’t have such a feedback system in real life, so in that sense the current operation provides the most natural way of playing. It would just have been useful to have a way to see what you chose the first time during a second play session, so you can try making different choices. We still had some big choices clear, but not the smaller conversations. All in all, this system could have been thought out a little better.
The great plot starts slowly
That your choices have consequences for the course of the story becomes very clear in Pentiment after Act I. Of course we cannot say which choices lead to which (sub)story, but during our first play session Act II was completely skipped. The way in which you started the story partly determines the further course of that story and of Andreas’ life. In the later acts, Andreas is no longer the young artist we get to know in Act I. A later piece shows Andreas at a more mature age and where it goes from there we’d rather not tell for spoiler reasons. In any case, Pentiment knows how to surprise and serve up a great plot. The plot starts slowly, but gets more and more interesting later on.
However, that beginning is a problem. Pentiment alternates important conversations with less important conversations, but the latter category is certainly more widely present in the opening phase. That means that you gradually start to skip more and more conversations. Too bad, because much of that dialogue is excellently written. Pentiment has a healthy dose of humor and colorful characters. Those who take their time can enjoy this side of Pentiment, but there will certainly be players who want to get on with the story after a while and don’t feel like the endless chatter anymore.
The fact that different characters talk in different fonts gives a funny effect. The monks talk in classical letters, but the printer’s text is printed in the speech bubble. The game simulates the speech bubbles in such a way that it looks like they are being written live. The level of detail in it is admirable. For example, you will first see the black text appear and then open spaces will be filled in red or blue. Logical: the imaginary writer exchanged his black pen for a red pen. If you look closely, you will even see writing errors that are quickly corrected. Very nicely done. It is only a pity that writing down the texts sometimes takes a long time. That can be accelerated, but that also loses part of the charm. Another disadvantage: the sound effects associated with that writing can be heard continuously. This can be quite annoying, especially with the ‘type of printing press’. If you don’t feel like using the stylish, but sometimes difficult-to-read fonts, you can have all texts displayed in a simpler way. That obviously looks less beautiful or different, but it is a lot more readable.
That the game simulates all kinds of ink effects is no coincidence; Pentiment takes place in the pages of a book. Every time you go to a different part of the city or go inside something, a page is turned. All menus are also in the book. This produces an original look, which is enhanced by the graphic style on the inside of that book. That style is based on Der Basler Totentanz by Johann Rudolf Feyerabend. The watercolor copy of Feyerabend is from 1806, so the source of inspiration isn’t exactly from the same time as the game is set, but it works fine. A final point to touch on a technical level is that the game crashed several times with us. Your progress is constantly saved, so you never lose much,
Pentiment is a game for readers. Okay, that may be a bit exaggerated, because it is not that much reading, but still: you must have a healthy portion of patience if you want to appreciate this game. Having conversations and noticing that your choices actually have a lot of influence on the course of the story is great, but the game loses a lot of pace in the number of conversations that contribute little to the story. That is sometimes an obstacle: several times we put the game away for a while because we just didn’t feel like it anymore. Yet we always came back and in the end the game gains pace and therefore appeal. Pentiment does indeed have a great plot, which can clearly come about in all kinds of ways and can also end in different ways. The latter is something we know from Obsidian Entertainment. It may be onebeing a passion project with a small team; it is all the more clear that the studio can tell a story and make the player feel responsible for how that story unfolds. Pentiment is therefore less of a ‘game’ and therefore not suitable for everyone, but those who manage to bite through the boring parts can enjoy themselves with this.
- Original style
- Choices make a difference
- Good story
- Time image perfectly captured in game
- Dry or dull pieces
- More feedback would be nice
- Multiple crashes (Series X)