Pentiment Review: A Master Of Its Craft

In 16th century Bavaria, artist Andreas Maler is working in the scriptorium of Kiersau Abbey, a monastery near the sleepy rural village of Tassing. Along with a small group of monks, some of whom are so old they can barely hold a brush, he illustrates historical and religious manuscripts for wealthy clients—including Baron Lorenz Rothvogel, an important patron of the abbey. When the monks are busy praying, the abbot lets Maler work on his masterpiece: the next step in his journey towards becoming a master artist. But his career is put on hold when tragedy strikes and his peaceful life is thrown into turmoil. The baron is brutally, bloodily murdered, setting in motion a story that spans decades.

Maler's friend, an elderly monk named Piero, is found next to the victim's body holding a bloody knife—which is enough evidence to convince the abbot that the old man is the culprit. This is the 1500s, remember: there's not exactly a high burden of proof here. But Maler knows his friend is innocent and takes it upon himself to solve the crime. In a few days the archdeacon will arrive in Tassing to deliver the final judgement, giving Maler limited time to discover the truth and point an accusing finger at someone. Critically, however, whoever he points it at will be summarily executed—so he better be right. It's a strong premise, but Pentiment is more than just an early modern L.A. Noire.

It's a simple game, at least mechanically. You walk around, you talk to people, and you occasionally partake in small, fun minigames. There isn't much else to it. But you're free to wander the abbey, Tassing, and the surrounding countryside at your own pace. Some decisions and activities will make several in-game hours pass, which is important to consider with the archdeacon galloping rapidly towards the village. But you'll always be warned if what you're about to do will eat into your time. Otherwise you can spend as long as you like exploring the town, getting to know the locals, having long, interesting conversations with them, and finding clues that could help you find the baron's killer.

While Pentiment may be simplistic compared to other Obsidian games, its branching storyline, which takes place across 25 years, is anything but. This is a supremely rich, reactive, and impressively pliant interactive narrative, with certain decisions affecting the world and characters in dramatic and occasionally shocking ways. It's a game where you really have to think about what you say and do, where the consequences of your actions might not be immediately felt, but could surprise you—positively or negatively—an entire generation later. There are a few critical points the story will always hit no matter what, but outside of those it's your lump of clay to squish and mould.

Cleverly (and perhaps controversially for some), the identity of the murderer, and that of someone behind another crime Andreas gets involved in later in the game, are never confirmed. There's no canonical culprit on Obsidian's side, meaning you simply have to live with your decision. Pentiment isn't a claustral police procedural where you gather all the suspects in the chapterhouse and lay out the killer's ingenious plan like a 16th century Poirot. Dig deep enough and you'll find compelling motives, circumstantial evidence, and other things that might point to a certain person. But there's no forensic evidence to back them up. Ultimately, it's down to instinct—and people won't forget who you accuse.

While Pentiment is not strictly an RPG, it does offer plenty of opportunities for role-playing. Maler is, in some ways, a fixed character. But you can also make some choices about his past that impact the narrative in a lot of minor, and some major, ways. My Andreas spent his wanderjahr, or wandering years, in Italy, and as a result can speak Italian, a little Greek, and can reference cultural touchstones from the region. I also decided he was a hedonist, making him socially adept and well-versed in all the enjoyable vices the Holy Roman Empire has to offer. I mean, he is an artist after all. This trait opens up some of the game's funniest dialogue, usually at the expense of disapproving nuns, priests, and monks.

My Andreas also studied medicine at university, learning about the human body, death, and illness. This came in handy for establishing the gruesome particulars of the baron's death. Additionally, he has an understanding of the night sky, constellations, heavenly bodies, animals, plants, healing herbs, and my personal favourite, the occult. Alchemy, necromancy, magic rituals, ancient rites—you name it and he's studied it, albeit from a purely academic perspective. The last thing you want to be caught doing in the 1500s is actually dabbling in black magic and witchcraft. These traits combined to create a character that felt unique to me, and your version of him will likely be very different to mine.

Between acts, the game takes you inside Maler's dreams, where he speaks with historical figures including Greek philosopher Socrates, legendary Christian patriarch Prester John, and Saint Grobian, the patron saint of crude and vulgar people. On occasion, when presented with a potentially impactful choice in the waking world, these characters will act as advisors. Socrates may suggest a tactful, philosophical approach (as philosophers are wont to do), while the mischievous Grobian will encourage you to give into your basest, most selfish urges. A neat narrative trick, but a little underused. As the game went on there seemed to be fewer of these amusing moral interventions.

But what really makes Pentiment special is Tassing itself. You spend the whole game here building relationships with the villagers, learning local customs, uncovering thousands of years of history, and becoming a familiar, trusted face around town. You'll make a few enemies too—especially when you start getting people executed. There's a lot of talking in the game, which is entirely text-based, but with a memorable cast of colourful, quirky, nuanced, flawed, and beautifully written characters. I never once resented having to speak to anyone, even if it meant slowing the story down. Quite the contrary: I was eager to tease every morsel of dialogue I could out of these fascinating people.

Tassing feels like a real, functioning community, not just a movie set filled with actors. The more time I spent there, and the closer I got to the villagers, the more like home it began to feel. Through Andreas I learned about old grudges, forbidden romances, dark secrets, hopes, dreams, and fears. Some games struggle to make me care about a single character, but Pentiment had me deeply invested in an entire village. I fell in love with these people, which made any moments in the story that jeopardised their livelihoods, health, or happiness almost unbearable. Life is tough in the 16th century, particularly for the hard-working peasants who make up the majority of Tassing's population.

This is an incredibly moving game, with a story that hits some powerful emotional beats. It floored me several times, and I haven't stopped thinking about certain scenes, or its remarkably poignant ending, since I first rolled the credits a few days ago. When I finished it, which took just short of 17 hours, I had that lost, shattered feeling you get when you finally finish an amazing book. Pentiment sets itself up as a straightforward murder mystery, but it's a very human story about finding your place in the world, how the choices we make can echo through the ages, the lies we tell ourselves, and each other, to make life easier, and how much we're willing to risk for our convictions.

That all sounds pretty heavy, but it's a surprisingly warm, funny game too. One of the coolest things Pentiment does is humanise its historical setting. When you see period depictions of life hundreds of years ago, it's so disconnected from our current reality that it can be difficult to place yourself there. But by populating Tassing with regular, everyday people with relatable flaws, insecurities, passions, and eccentricities—and cracking a few jokes—Obsidian effortlessly draws you into this richly painted corner of the distant past. The laws, beliefs, and traditions of 16th century Bavaria might be wildly different from the times we live in now, but us human beings have always had a sense of humour.

As for aspects of the game's painstakingly researched historical setting that are harder to grasp, Pentiment helps you out with a brilliantly useful glossary system. Certain words, names, places, and phrases will be underlined in dialogue, letting you click on them and pull up a short, clearly written explanation of what they mean. This is another way the game makes its setting approachable, and when I finished it I knew a hell of a lot more about this time period than I did going in. It's also led to some extracurricular reading, and many hours spent on Wikipedia diving more deeply into some of the topics covered. This is a game you can really lose yourself in, and I gladly let that happen.

Fittingly for a game starring an artist, Pentiment is also stunning to look at. Its most inspired visual touch is undoubtedly its use of typography. When you speak to someone, the style their dialogue is presented in reveals something about their social standing, education, background, or personality. Monks, nuns, and other religious types speak in an elaborate gothic script that recalls the intricate illuminated manuscripts produced at the scriptorium. Peasant dialogue is loosely scribbled in a modest cursive. When a printer speaks, a row of printing blocks is lined up and stamps their dialogue all at once in a neat serif font—complete with imperfections where the press hasn't spread the ink evenly.

When a line of text is written, the wet ink glistens momentarily before drying and sinking into the parchment. If a character is upset, ink will splash on the page creating a sense of their frustration or anger. Important religious terms like God and Jesus Christ are filled in last, in red ink. If someone speaks in a foreign tongue, and Andreas understands it, their words will be rubbed out and scrawled over in English. It's utterly inspired, and Obsidian has a lot of fun with this dynamic, lively typography—especially in the final act, although I can't say any more than that. However, if you find these fonts too tricky to read you can switch to a more legible (but not as visually striking) alternative.

The game itself is just as pretty to look at, with a vivid art style based on the distinctive illustrations seen in manuscripts from the era. It's like the pages of some old, beautiful book come to life—and features some wonderfully expressive animation too. There are so many nice little details, like the baker's daughter watching her mother kneading dough and trying to copy her, or a purring cat wrapping itself around Andreas's legs as he scratches it behind the ears. Tassing is wonderfully realised as well, and I loved seeing it change with the seasons. Pentiment is an incredible artistic achievement, and it's great to see a big studio like Obsidian taking a gamble on something so idiosyncratic.

It's a magnificent thing, and this story will be lingering in my thoughts for quite some time. Pentiment takes Obsidian's expertise in branching narratives, role-playing, and building evocative worlds, then packages it all up in an exciting and unique way. I was devastated when it was over, and I'm still not over that ending. But now I'm looking forward to playing it all over again, this time with another Andreas. Maybe one who speaks Latin, studied law, and spent his wandering years in Switzerland. There are some bad choices and disastrous consequences I'd like to avoid this time too. That's the beauty of being an artist: you can always scrape the parchment clean and start again.

Score: 5/5

A PC review code was supplied by the publisher.

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