pentiment

Pentiment Review – Knaves Out

A labour of love

Obsidian, since their acquisition by Microsoft, has impressed with their ability to diversify, scale up and down and, most importantly, produce a finished product. Just like their sandbox-survival riff on Honey, I Shrunk the Kids in Grounded, Pentiment has been lovingly cobbled together by the big hearts of a small team. It’s certainly not going to be for everybody, but as this game aptly portrays: you can’t be all things to all people. 

While contracting at the scriptorium at Kiersau Abbey, murder befalls the rural town of Tassing. As Andreas Maler, an illustrator, you find yourself fast entangled in the lives of both the abbots at the monastery and the Bavarian peasants they keep under their toe, by way of land tax and restrictions, at the foot of the meadows. It’s a superbly written, layered narrative that spans decades and details the prominence of religion and art during the period. It also speaks to a beautiful concept of earning the admiration of those who came before us, and it’s this notion that fuels the inciting event as an elder monk is hung out to dry by the church over the murder of an outspoken baron.

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Stepping out from your role as a simple journeyman artist, you investigate the details of the grisly murder by engaging with both the brothers and nuns of the church and the townsfolk to reach a consensus. It’s almost as if Knives Out met Downton Abbey, so enjoyable and authentic are both aspects of the premise. Even as a role-playing game with layers, Pentiment respects your time because it is, after all, a fleeting commodity. Knowing I couldn’t speak to everyone, or cross check everything, meant that regardless of the evidence I put forward, doubt still lingered over whether justice is ever unclouded. I liked the ticking clock aspect and it left me wanting to return to the scene of the crime, so to speak, to explore other paths, despite the game being a respectable twenty hours long. 

Which sounds short for a role playing game, but long for a game with as few strings to its bow as Pentiment has. That said, despite its length and heavy admiration for the written word, Pentiment never outstayed its welcome. I felt awash with relief to roll credits, but not so I could move on but so that I could talk about it. I felt the mystery of who’s pulling the threads for all of the murders in Tassing culminates in a satisfying way, and I was compelled throughout the narrative’s many bait and switches.

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I’d be fascinated to learn more about the development of Pentiment because it is such a niche idea. To have such heady concepts and grand ponderings delivered through what is a rather simple game is a choice, but one that doesn’t feel like a miss for the team. All of your time is spent either in the abbey, in the commons, or the surrounding woods, speaking to all manner of people with all manner of ideologies. It has exploratory aspects, though it isn’t open-world. Tassing has obvious limits, but rather than feeling restrictive and underdeveloped, it feels communal. You buy into what the team presents, even through the game’s hand-drawn aesthetic. 

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Could Pentiment have worked better as a greater scope role playing game, knowing full well what Obsidian’s pedigree is? I actually don’t think so. Much of its charm is in its ardent commitment to the period’s art, which wouldn’t have worked in any other format. Andreas’ adventure feels like it exists within the margins of a living book, the game does not hold back from referencing history as it was—albeit dramatised for effect. Just as “Pentiment” means to a painting that has altered by simply drawing over the top of it, the game speaks to chipping away at falsehoods to unearth a hidden truth.

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Although Pentiment can be a violent game, it’s all consequential to your testimony. Regardless of whether your suspect is guilty or dead, they’ll meet a confronting, grisly end in the town commons. What became of the first suspect fingered by Andreas actually came as quite a shock, as Pentiment’s sketched visuals did little to soften the gruesome death blows. Like all good game towns, the streets of Tassing fast grow memorable and it all becomes as familiar as the back of your hand. Inspired by illuminated manuscripts of the time, Pentiment’s lovely period-inspired character models pop against the more roughly detailed country backdrops, although it’s the smaller details that made Pentiment’s aesthetic so unforgettable. The sheen of the pencil’s lead scribing out the dialogue gives the sense you’re inside a retelling of a famous story, even the most intense, blunt comments mark the page with lead fractures as if the pencil were under great stress. Even the little gags like correcting incorrect spelling on the fly, it’s all so clever.

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Although there’s nothing by way of spoken dialogue in Pentiment, it’s carried along by a performative medieval score that couples together with the almost-woodcut illustrations to capture the turbulence and dark undertones of the game’s whodunnit narrative. 

There are so many stars in this game’s conception. Josh Sawyer’s boldness to go out on a limb and direct a game that’s perhaps as niche as it gets is striking, but it’s sure to pay dividends. It’s a first-rate role playing game from a team who knows a thing about making them, though even all of the beautiful, stimulating writing is swiftly undercut by Hannah Kennedy’s art direction. When all of these powers combine, the story of Andreas Maler—a good man—is a powerful rumination on church and state, and riveting mystery, and a late charger for Game of the Year.

pentiment
Conclusion
Although its subject matter might confound and could be too heady for the general audience, Pentiment is a role playing game that has been considered and laboured over to the nth degree. It’s a great reminder that some creatives just get it done, budget be damned. By God’s will, Pentiment is making a late charge for Game of the Year.
Positives
A gorgeous, hand illustrated art design
Truly heady concepts supported by great writing
A fun mystery to unravel
Absolutely authentic to the period
Negatives
The basic premise might be inaccessible for a general audience
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