What do great artworks and small towns have in common? A lot of them have secrets hidden beneath what people see. In art, the term pentimento refers to a painting or portion of a painting which has been revealed after being hidden beneath another painting, sometimes as a correction, sometimes as something else entirely. Obsidian Entertainment turned this term and its related concepts into a surprisingly flexible framework and have delivered quite possibly the best game they have ever made with Pentiment.
Set during the first half of the 16th Century in the Holy Roman Empire, Pentiment takes players through alternating scenes of rural life in the alpine reaches of Bavaria and terrible mysteries both mundane and metaphysical, spread across three acts over the course of thirty years. The bulk of the story centers around Andreas Maler, an artist from Nuremberg working in an abbey scriptorium in the small village of Tassing. As the story opens, players can select various facets of Andreas’ background, where he’s been, what he’s learned, all of which will have an effect on how you interact with characters and what extra information you may uncover as you find yourself swept up in a mystery surrounding a gruesome murder.
Rather than the highly detailed 3D environments which Obsidian has undertaken in the past with Fallout: New Vegas and The Outer Worlds, Pentiment takes a more traditional 2D approach closer to the Monkey Island or even the venerable King’s Quest series of classic adventure games. Using an art style mixing medieval illuminations and German woodcuts, Obsidian transports players to a different time and place while still creating a sense of verisimilitude. If you’ve ever heard somebody describing how a book “comes to life,” that’s really a fine description of Pentiment‘s visual style. The animations are smooth, yet appropriately constrained by the character lines. There’s a simplicity to them which feels right given the art style. Character expressions are quite obvious and a useful signpost for the player about their current attitude. Special effects like rain and snow are subdued but fit with the established style perfectly. If you’ve ever admired the work of an illuminated manuscript, even just through photographs, you’re going to enjoy what Pentiment offers.
The interface is classic “point-and-click” but without any of the hidden pixel problems of the early classics. Upon entering an area, you’ll always be able to see or easily find the points you need to interact with. Different characters are brought to life through different typefaces, with peasants “speaking” in a more rough handwritten style while more educated artists and monks have more elaborate “printed” or Gothic script. The occasional spelling errors are also introduced and quickly corrected as a visual shorthand for tonal missteps or mispronunciations, as well as ink spatters when characters are visibly agitated or upset.
If there’s one area where people are doubtlessly going to complain, it’s the audio side of the equation. There are no spoken words anywhere in Pentiment, only a lot of scratching pens and the click of type slugs being set when characters “talk.” But for this style of game, that’s perfectly fine. Foley work is where Pentiment really shines, from the sounds of wooden spoons on bowls in a refectory to the echoes of dripping water in an old aqueduct. Music performed by the group Alchemie fills Pentiment with everything from Gregorian chants to German folk music, as well as a number of subdued atmospheric pieces that help establish the mood of certain scenes. The soundtrack isn’t the sort of thing you blast while bombing on down the road, but it’s definitely worth a listen just by itself.
The gameplay in Pentiment, as was mentioned earlier, is fundamentally classic “point-and-click” graphic adventure. There’s lots of transitioning from one area to another by clicking where you want the main character to go, or holding the mouse button down to make them run across the current zone. There are puzzles to work through (thankfully none of them terribly taxing). There are journal entries to examine and all manner of factoids accessible when you click on underlined words and phrases. And there are clues to unravel the mystery in front of you. None of this is particularly novel, but Obsidian still executes it well, and without a single bug to be seen (which is a shock and a half, given the studio’s track record of sometimes crippling bugs). So if the gameplay isn’t groundbreaking, why does it feel like Pentiment is so damned compelling? Ultimately, it comes down to the stories involved, and how the choices one makes affect the direction and finale of those stories.
There’s a saying that “logic is a way to go wrong with confidence,” and how what seems to be rational in a discourse from Aristotle can turn out to have tragic consequences later on down the road. Indeed, that’s very much the central theme behind Pentiment. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and the player is doing all the paving work. In Act I, we see Andreas as a young-ish man, about to hit his stride professionally as a master artist when his mentor Brother Piero is accused of murdering a visiting nobleman. Act II sees Andreas several years older, having left Tassing behind only to find himself back in town while between commissions, and investigating the murder of one of the local townsmen just after a local festival. Act III shifts to Magdalene Druckeryn, daughter of the local printer, as she works to complete a mural for the town’s Rathaus (town hall) while the ghosts of Tassing’s dark past seem to be rearing their phantom heads once more. Each choice made in Pentiment can have far reaching implications. What one does in Act I can not only affect how characters behave in Act I, but also how they might behave in Act II or even Act III. The reliance on auto-saves between transitions ensures that you’re not going to scum save your way through to the end.
Along the way, Pentiment effortlessly displays a reasonably accurate window into rural life in the Holy Roman Empire during the early years of the Protestant Reformation. It also works in Easter eggs to popular literature (Umberto Eco’s The Name of The Rose gets a big shout out if you pick the right path) and comes with a full bore bibliography of the sources they used to help develop the story and the world. The trick is that you literally don’t have enough time to do everything. You can to some extent fiddle with time, but you’ll never have all the clues to conclusively point one way or the other. It ultimately comes down to judgment calls, the best guess an educated mind can make in a short time frame with what one can find. This adds a lot to replayability without making you as the player feel like you’re trapped repeating the same steps over and over again.
My first playthrough, I’ll confess to building my version of Andreas as close as I thought I could get to Umberto Eco’s William of Baskerville: a man versed in logic and occultism, relying on his wits to work through difficulty, with a love of books that perhaps bordered a little too close to obsession. What really struck me is how those seemingly crucial facts ultimately ended up making a mess of Andreas’ life later on down the road. Certain scenes where Andreas journeys to his own “mind palace” hit hard in Act II and III, far more than the simple woodcut style art would suggest. While the final outcome of all three acts are ultimately under your control, there are a number of different ways they can play out, and all of them are deeply moving, like all good art should do.
Pentiment may not necessarily be for everybody. It’s not especially graphic compared to a lot of modern games. It’s not adrenaline pumping or even overly suspenseful. But its story, in all the possible ways it plays out, strikes deep in the human soul by gently removing layers to reveal a final form where the player’s own mindset is as much a part of the structure as its plot and its characters. This isn’t the biggest game Obsidian has ever undertaken, but it is arguably a masterpiece.
Axel reviewed this title on PC with a purchased copy. Pentiment is available on PC and Xbox.