In the western world we’re taught to view history as a straight line, proceeding eternally in one direction: dates slotting in neatly alongside one another; a new dynasty beginning just as the old one ends; each moment, event, and epoch leading inexorably into the next. It’s a quick and easy way to visualize what’s come before us, but a great deal of reality is lost when translated to fit that model. Flattening and shrinking history down into a series of equidistant points can make us forget just how much of it there’s been, and how many people were part of it. It’s often difficult—if not impossible—to sort out the truth of what happened from the story people told about it afterward. Over time, common knowledge passes first into lore, and then legend; habit gives way to tradition and ritual; what began as a roof becomes a foundation.
Pentiment, a unique narrative adventure by veteran RPG studio Obsidian Entertainment, takes its title from the art world, but the term—which describes a part of an image that’s been painted over to show something other than what was there before—also resonates with the study of history. Each new generation builds upon the leavings of the old, and a bit more of what was vanishes from view; eventually we forget what lies buried beneath the surface of our understanding. The unseen and unremembered are all around us, influencing our lives in ways we can scarcely perceive.
This idea is central to Pentiment: that try as we might, we’ll never uncover the whole truth, and what we think we know isn’t always the same as what we actually understand. In the game, as in real life, there’s only so much one person can know for certain. While you hunt for a killer terrorizing a Renaissance community, life and the world continue to move forward, with only so many hours in the day to explore them. The smallest choices have consequences: early decisions block off paths that might otherwise have been open to you; your treatment of one character can affect your relationship with another; wherever you choose to spend your time means sacrificing the chance to see what’s happening elsewhere. It’s a deep, complex, and reactive mystery whose mechanics center player agency to explore the nature of truth, history, and the unseen boundaries that shape our world.
The game takes place in the sixteenth-century Bavarian town of Tassing, with each of its three chapters picking up at a different point along a twenty-five-year timeline. For most of its roughly eighteen-hour runtime you’ll play as artist Andreas Maler, an outsider who first comes to Tassing to work on his masterpiece in the scriptorium at the local abbey. Kiersau Abbey’s scriptorium is one of the last still operating in Europe, a well-stocked chamber where literate monks copy manuscripts and produce fine art for wealthy patrons. The advent of the printing press has made it largely obsolete, but for the moment it has everything Andreas needs—not least of which is the wisdom of brothers who’ve spent their lives painting and illuminating.
Everything changes, however, when a visiting nobleman is found murdered inside the abbey’s walls, and Andreas’s friend and mentor Brother Piero is blamed for the crime. Andreas, sure that the kind, elderly Piero must be innocent, sets out to investigate for himself and catch the real culprit before his friend can be executed. He’ll have to use all his wits, knowledge, and social skills to build a case in the few days before the church’s investigator arrives. If he can’t put forth a viable suspect as an alternative, Piero’s fate is already sealed.
The baron’s murder is but the first crime that Pentiment tasks you with investigating; the subsequent chapters, set years after the inciting incident, revolve around different (but possibly connected?) mysteries, and the decisions you make in each will shape the world Andreas returns to as an older and wiser man. At the outset of each you’ll be prompted to make choices about Andreas’s past, like where he’s lived, what he’s studied, and what skills he’s picked up along the way. Your initial choices define the background that shaped him, while those in later chapters establish how he developed in the intervening years. (Eventually you’ll also control Magdalene Druckeryn, a young woman whose father Andreas befriends, and make similar choices about her.) What you select affects what dialogue is open to you, and the subjects of which your character will have specific knowledge.
All of these choices shape your characters’ strengths and weaknesses as they interact with the world, functioning in some ways like skills in an RPG and changing the way you play. In chapter one, for instance, I decided Andreas had lived in Basel, granting him knowledge of French and Italian; that meant he could converse better with the abbey’s brothers and sisters who hailed from those regions, but that he’d find Greek writings illegible. A focus on theology at university allowed him to opine expertly on religious matters, but he came to crime scenes with less knowledge of anatomy and physiology than if he’d studied medicine. Similarly, a rough-and-tumble youth made him less susceptible to intimidation but more likely to discomfit people with his instinct for violence.
Your decisions all concern what kind of person Andreas (and later Magdalene) is; there are no physical stats or places where it might help to have a good throwing arm. Every challenge, puzzle, or obstacle you encounter is either an intellectual or interpersonal one, testing your ability to hold your own in conversation and make connections based on what you’ve found out. Naturally this means there’s a lot of dialogue, and a lot of information to keep track of, but your characters automatically record the tasks they’ve encountered, the information they’ve uncovered, and the steps they still need to take. If you ever lose track of what you need to be doing, it’s easy to find your way again.
So long as you use a gamepad, Pentiment controls easily and intuitively; the mouse and keyboard combination feels clunky and sluggish by comparison. The gameworld is large, and as there’s no fast-travel option—you have a map, but it’s only for reference—it’s crucial that you be able to control your character comfortably; you’ll be doing a lot of backtracking. The other controls are simple: approaching a hotspot will bring up a prompt to interact, with a button-press summoning a mini-menu of the actions available to you. Another button calls up the main menu, with tabs containing your quest log, journal, and map.
The journal is one of the game’s most helpful and interesting features. On its own, Pentiment’s commitment to its historical setting might intimidate players who aren’t die-hard Renaissance history buffs; the developers, anticipating this, included a feature that gives quick one-sentence rundowns of important names, dates and terms. Pressing the requisite button when you see a red-underlined phrase in dialogue causes the camera to zoom out, with the definitions appearing in the margin of the “page.” (More on those later.) A glossary saves all these definitions for future reference, alongside your quest journal and an index of the characters you’ve met, so if you forget something you can always look it up again later.
Still, there are times where the abundance of period detail veers from fascinating to tedious, as in the infrequent mini-games inspired by activities of the period. These are easy enough to complete and require little manual dexterity—most involve simple repeated button presses—but sixteenth-century labor was, above all, repetitive and monotonous. You’ll spin wool; you’ll split firewood; you’ll assemble large quantities of food. Unlike a Renaissance peasant, however, you won’t have much to show for your labors when you’ve finished; the game simply moves on, with little real consequence for how well you performed your chores. They don’t detract from the atmosphere, but they don’t add much either.
The real meat of the gameplay, though, comes during conversation. Pentiment is as classic a detective narrative as they come; you’ll follow leads, examine crime scenes, gather evidence, and question witnesses, with new revelations and discoveries often opening up new lines of inquiry or throwing a suspect’s claims into question. Chapters contain a finite number of days before you’ll be compelled to reveal your conclusions, and with only so many hours in each you’ll have to use your time wisely; you simply won’t be able to talk to each person and follow up on every lead. Mealtimes, for instance, are perfect opportunities to sit down and ask questions—but choosing someone to eat with means missing out on what others in town might have to say.
Each day is divided according to the “canonical hours” of western Christianity: Matins (night), Lauds (dawn), Prime (early morning), Terce (roughly 9:00 AM), Sext (noon), Nones (around 3:00 PM), Vespers (dusk), and Compline (end of the day). There are certain duties attendant on each of these hours, meaning you’ll have to plan your investigation around others’ schedules. Who’s likely to be where changes depending on whether one is expected to be working, eating, or sleeping.
While you’re on a limited schedule, Pentiment doesn’t unfold in real time; rather, a certain number of activities are available in each part of the day, and choosing one advances the clock by a certain amount. Usually the game will give you an idea of how long a given task will take; if you’re told something might take a while, that generally means it will eat up most of your time for that hour. You’ll have to be strategic about what you choose to investigate; the earlier you can rule a suspect out to your satisfaction, the less time you’ll waste chasing after false leads. Many of the game’s more complex narrative puzzles involve piecing together disparate clues to reconstruct a character’s movements, and there’s no guarantee that what you find will actually help your investigation. When the moment of truth arrives, you don’t have to accuse anybody—if you don’t know, you’re free to say so. Just be aware that all decisions have consequences: one way or another, they’ll find someone to pay the price.
Consequences, and the difficulty of predicting them, are at the center of Pentiment. Everything you do is part of a web of events that spreads out far beyond you; it may be years before you grasp the full impact of your actions. There are few binary good-or-evil choices here; you’ll simply have to weigh the information available and act as seems best in the moment. Sometimes your most well-intentioned decisions have a horrific aftermath; at least one character’s worst ending comes about as a result of your sustained kindness to them.
Still, how you treat people is of the utmost importance here. If you want someone to help with your investigations it pays to figure out their values and what they respect, but you’ll have to balance honoring those against your own goals and time pressures. Sometimes you’ll be presented with a sudden “check” to see if, based on your past interactions, you can successfully convince someone to do what you need; unfortunately once the game alerts you that you’re in such a situation it’s impossible to back out, and there’s no option for a do-over. Pentiment works entirely on an autosave system, so once you’ve made a choice you’re stuck with it. For the most part this works for the game’s purposes, but it’s an odd choice to only tell you about an objective once it’s no longer possible to change your approach.
Investigating Tassing’s mysteries will mean talking to nearly everyone there, including the multiple suspects in each crime. The game leaves it entirely up to you who to investigate, and tasks you with considering the evidence yourself before making an accusation. This means it’s very possible to send an innocent person to their doom; given the number of options, it’s even likely. (I’m almost certain I made the wrong call at least once.) Thing is, you can never be sure—and when I say never, I really mean it. For most of the crimes you set out to solve, there’s no “right” path that reveals conclusively who actually dunit; whoever you accuse, they’ll go to their grave protesting their innocence, and you won’t find any signed confession lying about afterward.
Filling a game with so much uncertainty might prove a difficult needle to thread in less steady hands, but the limits of human knowledge are so central to Pentiment’s narrative that this approach becomes one of its core strengths. Andreas, Magdalene, and all of Tassing simply have to live with the imperfect nature of any criminal investigation and trust that the right person was punished; the same, of course, is sadly true in the real world. As time passes between chapters, you’ll return to Tassing to find that any inconsistencies or iffy connections you might have made have begun to fade from the public consciousness. Reality has given way to history; people have reshaped their memories of events to encompass the official version. Those who want a more complete picture will have to sift through the sediment themselves, and be content to come away with a handful of fragments.
Ironically, for a game so interested in time and its effects, Pentiment could probably have stood to take a little more of it while moving toward the finish line. The time jumps between chapters feel necessary to the story, but the gap between the second and third covers a longer span than the previous one, and the act that follows is the game’s shortest. As much of that chapter is spent tying up loose ends and concluding storylines established earlier, it comes to feel overburdened by the need to advance the plot. Several of its characters and events seem as if they could have used more room to develop organically before taking their places for the finale.
In many ways the plot itself is Pentiment’s least compelling aspect; its setting and characters are developed so fully that it feels much better to simply watch them develop against one another than to move forward as part of a linear narrative. It presents its central theme in compelling and dynamic fashion, using all of its many moving pieces to explore how the present becomes the past, and the subjective perceptions that determine what persists into the future… but, it’s also a murder mystery, and it can’t resist indulging in some of that genre’s most beloved tropes as its story comes to a close. For the most part it earns its dramatic climax and manages to make it thematically consistent, but it still winds up feeling like the easiest out for what had been a complex and ambiguous narrative to that point.
Still, practically every other facet of Pentiment’s presentation is in service to its central themes. Visually it adopts the style of a Renaissance-era manuscript of the kind Andreas and the brothers at Kiersau would have produced, and it remains faithful to this conceit from start to finish. Animation is purposefully stiff, with characters that move almost like paper dolls; always you get the sense that what you’re looking at is an illustration: not an attempt at recreating reality but approximating what it felt like. It’s enchanting to watch, and the fantastical drawings in the “margins”—the screen is presented as if it were itself an illustration on a page—are both in keeping with the types of doodles that bored monks used to include in their work, and a reminder that history is rife with embellishment.
In keeping with this motif, all dialogue is unvoiced. Lines instead materialize over the speaker’s head, letter by letter, as if some unseen hand were penciling in the manuscript’s final details. Some lines appear with misspellings, only for the error to be erased and corrected a moment later. Different characters “speak” in different fonts: dialogue for the university-educated Andreas appears in the refined “Humanist minuscule” style he might have written with, for instance, while the monks of the scriptorium get an elaborate Gothic script. Magdalene and her father, who operate a print shop, speak using formal typeface. This helps to give further personality to each character, standing in for the accents and vocal color their backgrounds might have granted them. (The game also includes a toggle to turn on more easily readable fonts if the defaults prove hard to parse. Verisimilitude is great, but not if it keeps you from playing.)
Dialogue aside, Pentiment isn’t a silent game. Its sound design is meticulous, every screen near to bursting with ambient noise: the braying of farm animals and the clanking of their bells, the soughing of the wind through creaking branches, a bubbling stewpot above a crackling hearth. You’ll even hear the scritch-scratch of quill strokes keeping time with each line of dialogue as it’s written out. Then, too, there’s the score, composed by the early-music group Alkemie for period-appropriate instruments and based largely on historical pieces. A great deal of effort has gone into imagining what the sixteenth century might have sounded like—based, of course, on those incomplete records that have survived.
Pentiment is both a compelling period detective adventure, with a protagonist in the tradition of Brother Cadfael and William of Baskerville, and a thought-provoking meditation on the nature of truth, history, and knowledge itself. It goes to great lengths to bring its Renaissance setting to life, all while accepting and embracing the fact that any picture it paints will be incomplete by definition. While it rushes to put a neater bow on the proceedings than feels appropriate to a story about uncertainty and the impossibility of perfect knowledge, for the most part it’s a unique and memorable vision of a bygone world and what living there might have felt like.
Pentiment is a captivating Renaissance adventure that challenges players to unravel both a murder mystery and the many enigmas of history.
- A compelling detective adventure that will engage all your deductive skills while posing complex questions about truth and history
- Player decisions change the story and gameworld in unique, meaningful ways
- Engages deeply with its historical setting while taking pains to remain accessible to non-experts
- Manuscript-style visuals bring the period to life in a unique way
- Journal, character glossary and map systems make finding your bearings easy if you get lost
- Mini-games are bland at best and tedious at worst
- Dialog boxes alerting you to certain possibilities only after the outcome is locked in can be frustrating
- Large map with no fast-travel option makes for a lot of mandatory backtracking
- Third act focus on dramatic plot revelations feels less rewarding than the more organic approach to character and story development before it
Will played his own copy of Pentiment on PC.