We’ve been really looking forward to getting our hands on Obsidian’s Pentiment ever since it was first announced back at the Xbox & Bethesda Summer Showcase in June of this year. A uniquely stylised narrative-driven murder mystery, it ticked all the boxes for us in terms of presenting a game world so different to anything else we’ve seen recently that we simply couldn’t help but get very excited to jump in. But has the final product lived up to the lofty expectations we’ve been developing internally ever since we absorbed those first early glimpses and gameplay trailers?
Well yes, thankfully, it absolutely has done. What Obsidian has delivered not only nails the highly original art style it was going for – a colourful feast inspired by 16th century tapestries, early modern woodcuts and Medieval Illumination period art – it also draws players into a world that’s surprisingly complex in its execution. There’s a properly absorbing and entertaining mystery at the core of everything taking place here, in a game that’s bursting with the history and conventions of the time period in which it occurs.
Pentiment sees you assume the role of Andreas Maler, an artist who’s taken up residence at Kiersau Abbey in the backwater town of Tassing, Bavaria, in the 16th century. Andreas is an outsider in many ways, a man surrounded by folk with whom he has little in common and, when a brutal murder occurs – which then brings to light a litany of other interconnected crimes and disturbing revelations – it’s up to him to seek the truth whilst also locking horns with religious zealots, backwards locals and more besides. Just as the word Pentiment refers to revealed aspects of a painting that had originally been hidden by its artist, here it’s up to Andreas to peel back layers and reveal the truth behind the reality he’s being presented by those who would seek to hide the truth.
It’s a highly entertaining and absorbing narrative, and one that’s served fantastically well by the painstaking research that’s very obviously gone into every aspect of the style of what’s on display here. But that head-turning presentation, the part of the game that’s primarily had us so excited to play it the past few months, is only the tip of the iceberg as it turns out. It’s really the attention to detail with regards to the presentation of society at the time the game takes place; the in-depth conversations regarding specific events, works of art and important figures of the day, the attitudes of the peasants and the powerful who reside in Hassing, the care that’s been poured into allowing you to live a day in the life of a man in a seriously tricky situation over 400 years ago, that brings this whole endeavour alive in a surprisingly effective way.
Pentiment’s director, Josh Sawyer, has previously described this game as a passion project and it really shows. There’s so much history, so many little details, customs, attitudes and behaviours to absorb as you knock around Tassing getting to know absolutely everyone, from the snobbiest Baron to the smelliest local layabout, in your attempts to resolve things before time runs out. Yes, we’re being very vague about the story here, we know it, but you should absolutely go into this one knowing as little as possible for maximum enjoyment value. Trust us, it’s worth taking the ride here too, as the narrative absolutely goes some places you’re not expecting and never falters on its way to a highly satisfying finale.
What we will talk about though, beyond all the meticulously researched art styles, that immaculate picture book presentation and the delightful selection of fonts that adorn every conversation that takes place during your adventure, are the clever ways in which you actually get down to extracting information from your surroundings here. There’s a daily rhythm to the setup that draws you right into playing the part of Andreas, with each day seeing you wake up, head for work, take time to eat and then wander back to your lodgings, all the while chatting and observing. You’ll sit down to break bread with a bunch of different families who invite you to eat with them, the game switching to a detailed view of the feast in front of you, even letting you choose what you’re putting in your mouth next as those gathered around the table swap idle gossip and rumours about the current goings-on in Tassing.
You’ll join a group of ladies who’re spinning wool – you’ll need to converse with them from outside since you’re not married and therefore forbidden from entering their room – listening to all their juicy chatter, and extracting the info you need to help you understand what exactly has been going on in this remote little town. In your time at work too, up at the abbey surrounded by monks and nuns, you’ll engage in endless conversations with your artist colleagues – a collection of crusty old boys who’re our favourite characters in the game – learning all about the town’s history, the relationships and politics of the place, before coming to conclusions about who you think has done what.
All of this stuff provides oodles of atmosphere as well as being genuinely fun to engage with and investigate, but it also fully, and very cleverly, draws you right into life in this 16th century village. It gives you a real sense of a time and a place, and in doing so it takes what’s already a very fun tale, and turns it into a thoroughly absorbing one.
Of course, this is an Obsidian joint and as such there are a bevvy of recognisably modern choice-driven RPG aspects in the mix here too. You’ll get to choose from a variety of aspects that make up Andreas’ background; where he studied and travelled, what his key areas of expertise are, and all of this then feeds into how you can then respond to NPCs during conversations. There are parts of the game where your choices will be remembered too, you’ll be alerted to these as they occur, and you’ll then find yourself succeeding or failing certain battles of wit depending on your past decisions.
With regards to all these conversations and interactions that you’ll take part in, well, you definitely need to brace yourself for lengthy passages of text, there’s a lot of detail provided during discussions that helps colour the world as well as proffering up crucial story info. If this feels like it could be a stumbling block for you, the game provides an expansive glossary to dive into so you can get to know everything you need to. You can also browse through a checklist of all the characters who’ve been introduced along the way, just in case you’ve forgotten someone. None of this is gonna soothe the issue of long conversations if you’re just not a fan of sitting through them, but luckily we absolutely are, especially when they’re this well written.
One aspect of the game that we did find a little niggling, though, is in the actual traversal of Tassing and its surrounding areas. As you move around with Andreas you’ll pass through these areas, one picture book page at a time, and it takes a good old while to get the hang of where you’re going. To get from the town to the abbey, or even just negotiate the corridors and gardens of the abbey itself, you’ll need to constantly refer to the game’s maps which can be pulled up quickly at any time. We felt as though these maps – as well as how the menus and quest info in general are presented – felt a little bit overdesigned, if that’s the right word – just a bit too fussy and hard to deal with, especially when you’re starting out. It’s a very minor issue, let’s be clear, and the maps and menus are well integrated into the style of the whole thing, but it’s the one part of Pentiment that irked us slightly at times, having to constantly pull up maps and flip through them to get our bearings.
Luckily, however, once you do have your bearings, once you’ve spent a decent amount of time wandering around the locations presented within this roughly twenty-hour adventure, you’ll find you start to know the place intimately and your need for maps lessens, leaving you to get wrapped up in one of the best narratives we’ve experienced this year. Yes, it really is that good.
Pentiment absolutely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s slow-moving – especially early doors – it’s full of lengthy conversations and detailed history and all of that stuff that will put some folk right off. However, take a chance on it, even if you’re only ever-so-slightly intrigued by the look or sound of it, and what you’ll find here is a thoroughly original, exhaustively researched, brilliantly written and beautifully presented treat of a game. In terms of originality and creativity, it’s one of the standouts of 2022 and another real shot in the arm for Xbox Game Pass.
Pentiment is one of the most unique and clever games we’ve played in a very long time. It may be the fabulous art style that first draws you to this one, and it really is quite the looker, but it’s actually the very obvious care that’s been poured into the narrative and the exacting detail in every aspect of the world-building here that ends up selling the whole thing so well. With a story that really goes some places, tons of history to learn about, lots of fantastic characters to meet and plenty of fun and surprises along the way, this is one medieval murder mystery you should absolutely check out as soon as it hits Xbox Game Pass.