STAFF REVIEW of Pentiment (Xbox One)

Tuesday, November 15, 2022.
by Peggy Doyle

Pentiment Box art How do I even start to talk about Pentiment? After finishing the game at 2AM, I found myself not being able to sleep because I was thinking about what I had just experienced. Not only what I played and how I felt, but what I might have missed during my first playthrough. I say first because there will definitely be a second, and probably a third. I guess this is how I’ll start this review. Pentiment is a game not only about what you do, but about how you feel. It’s about people’s lives, a turbulent history, family, friends, love and loss, and so much more. Trying to provide a brief synopsis of Pentiment will prove to be a challenging task. A simple premise, in the form of a narrative driven historical adventure. It had me captivated as it dove into politics, religion, philosophy, gender and cultural shifts through the eyes of the people just trying to live their lives in the 16th century Bavaria Region of Germany.

History is fickle. It’s written by the ‘winning side’ and passed down through stories and paintings, often convoluted and mysterious, and changes depending on who you hear it from. Recorded for posterity on parchment or stone, in written word or in pictures, it changes and grows. The word Pentiment means to repent or change your mind. In religious terms it’s to atone for your sins, in art it’s the changes that artists make when painting over original works. You can often find these changes when peering through layers, and we have seen some of these discoveries over the years brought to light. Both the religious and artistic sense are covered in the game.

Pentiment is a game made by a small team of 13 talented people from Obsidian Entertainment and published by Microsoft Game Studios. Obsidian has a rare, almost perfect record of creating exceptional story driven games. From Pentiment’s first trailers and following the buildup over time, I became increasingly interested in playing this historical narrative adventure. Pentiment starts with a simple phrase in Latin, "In principio erat Verbum", taken from the Book of John in the Bible meaning ‘In the beginning there was the Word’. You are greeted with a page in a book and you remove the writing with a stone to take it back to its most basic state, the blank vellum. A subtle way of letting you know you are about to write your own story and the power of the words you read and write will shape your experience. One quick note, Pentiment has an ESRB rating of Mature, 17+ for sexual content/suggestive material in the dialogue and some profanity.

You are Journeyman artist, Andreas Maler, working in Kiersau Abbey, close to the town of Tassing, in the alps. The 15-20 hour story takes place over a period of 25 years (and 3 acts) and stays primarily within these two areas. Andreas spends his days illustrating in the Abbey and lives a remarkably simple life, renting a room in the town. One day as he’s on his way to work, there is a murder of a wealthy Baron (a patron of the Abbey) and his friend, Brother Piero, is accused of the crime. Looking at the historical setting - burden of proof, and massive investigations were not common. Andreas simply can’t fathom that his friend would commit such a crime and asks for some time to look for alternate explanations. This is where the game really took off for me. Pentiment is a game of choice and a little bit of chance, as you have multiple options and decision branches, and not enough time to do all of them. You may chase a lead only for it to be a dead end. You have a limited time to gather what info you can and give your input. Because of these time limitations, your playthrough will likely be different than mine. This is one of the reasons I can’t wait to play again and try some other options.

Like real life, your day is broken into work, meals and rest. At mealtimes you are welcome at almost any table in the area. When you have meals, you can see the economic discrepancies between groups even more boldly. While dining in the Abbey you have roasted game and an abundance of choices. You often see food leftover on plates. When dining within Tassing you may have a meager serving of bread and cheese, or even a plate of gruel. At one point you notice that you are the only person at the table with bread. You realize this is because they couldn’t afford bread normally, but you were a guest, so what little they had was yours. It was customary to treat your guests to the best.

You are privy to every action and choice Andreas makes, good or bad, and most of your information gathered is akin to gossip. Will you jump to conclusions based on your feelings for a character? Will you be impartial? Will you express your real feelings and opinions, or stay silent and listen as they talk? As you move around Tassing and the Abbey, you can change the course of the story. Helping the miserable elderly woman with her home might make the Abbey angry. Convincing a young person to pursue their dreams or chase their true love could create a different branch in the story. Will you use your position to help the peasants? Will you join in on the revolt? All of these choices are yours to make. With every choice and consequence, I came to care about the characters more and had a harder time making decisions that may hurt my favourites. Pentiment is less concerned about who actually killed the Baron. In fact, after talking to others who accused a different person of the murder, their story played out differently than my own. There is no right answer here.

You can customize Andreas in a small extent. Picking some options for background, education, locales visited etc., gives him some expertise in areas that may or may not help you in certain circumstances. Choices of locales will mean you can read and understand certain languages and text, and those of similar backgrounds will appreciate you more and hold you to a higher level. You can choose options that might make you seem dangerous (the Occultist for example), or options that make it easier to sweet talk people or threaten them to get information. Some quests will be easier, or impossible, depending on your background and interests picked.

Your choice of dialogue matters, even if your decisions aren’t apparent until hours later. From time to time, you will get a notification saying, ‘this will be remembered’. This caused moments of nervousness and uncertainty as I worked my way though the story. As in real life, you will never please everyone nor be on everyone’s good side. This is your choice to make when dealing with the church and the locals and those in between the two. Incredible writing, meaningful dialogue and believable characters made it easy to stay engaged in the story. There are many themes addressed in Pentiment, although none of them is the only theme of the game.

A lightly fictionalized, but historically accurate setting, you will meet a wide range of characters from diverse backgrounds. Each background represented by a unique style of writing on the page. Less educated individuals might have messy, scrawling words, and higher educated will have more elegant, flowery script. Printers will use a more modern typeface. These are not set in stone either as when Andreas talks to people, his opinions sometime change and therefore their text styles do as well. Someone initially deemed to be uneducated may have their font change from messy to more elegant as a conversation progresses. This was fascinating to see in action while playing. Equally interesting was the way the font was presented graphically. Text is written in real time, the sound of scraping against the parchment the predominant sound you hear in game. Sentences were written in the way they would have been during that time, blanks left to add in names or words that would be using different ink after the original sentence was put on paper. These words, mostly religious in nature, were written in red vs black ink.

Spelling mistakes were made in their writing, and you could see and hear them being corrected in real time, a scraping sound of a knife or rocks removing the letters and then corrected. Ink dries and blooms like it would on a real page and not consistently. Just beautiful. Names and words are sometimes underlined, and you can use a glossary for a definition, a bit of background, or a picture if a person is being named. Obsidian have managed to make the narration its own character of sorts, and a strength versus the weakness it can often be seen as. Ink splatter and shakiness of the page indicate feels of anger, stress, or distress in conversations. There are no voice overs, and not much in the way of music (with the exception of certain scenes involving events and festivals mostly). The music and singing in game were impactful and well chosen to represent the setting of the game. The sounds Pentiment, like the rain and birds, were so realistic that at one point I thought they were coming from outside and not the game I was playing.

I can’t dive too far into the story of Pentiment without getting into spoiler territory, and I will say the less you know going in, the better the game will be. Because of the time being limited in your days, the game does have some replayability, and you will have to play multiple times to see different story arcs and to gather all the achievements available. I will be playing to see different branches, even though I full expect the magic and mystery to appear a bit worn once you know the base storyline. There are a few mini games under the guise of daily chores sprinkled throughout Pentiment. These break up some of the days spent simply talking to people. As expected, people talk while working and going about their daily lives, so the best way to get information is to join in. If it’s not been clear though, gameplay is not the highlight of what makes Pentiment special, it’s the narrative aspect.

Pentiment’s gameplay, or lack of, may deter some potential players, and it’s definitely not a game for everyone. There is no combat here and you will spend the majority of your time reading. There is a lot of reading. Being so heavily text based is potentially another deterrent to get people interested. Of note here are the Accessibility Options included. With a game that uses a variety of stylized script options used to denote the status (or perceived status) of characters, I had a few concerns about what accessibility options there would be. Looking in the Accessibility Tab you will find High Contrast and Photo Sensitivity (for flashing effects) options to toggle on or off, as well as a slider for text size and notification time. You can also toggle on voice assist to enable text to speech to read all of the written dialogue aloud (with adjustable volume as well). There are 10 voices to choose from. I did play with some of these settings and found them to be extremely helpful, especially when my eyes were tired. The narration was clear and when presented with options in dialogue you would hear ‘option 1 of 3’ for example, followed by the dialogue options. As someone who doesn’t require these options, I can only give my opinion, but I found them to be clear in their direction, scope and application. Button remapping is an option should you choose as well. Pentiment is localized for seven different languages including English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese and Spanish. Important to note that if you use the easy-to-read fonts, you will lose some of the more distinguishing features that help differentiate the ‘classes’ of characters.

As someone raised in a family with ties to the Catholic church, I was familiar with a lot of the religious context in the game. As someone no longer tied to those beliefs, I found myself digging further and further into references made in Pentiment. The game’s historical politics were fascinating. Bringing in real history references to Martin Luther’s reform of the church and the Twelve Articles that were part of the peasants’ demands in 1525. Many referenced to Pagan and Roman myths as well. Pentiment even highlights some lesser-known history hidden in the church. But - no spoilers.

Visually, Pentiment looks like it was written and drawn in the pages of old books. The world is detailed and not only filled with people, but also animals. And yes, you CAN pet the dogs and cats you encounter. You can interact with many things, like ruins, fallen statues, flowers and gravestones, each making the world feel more real and full around you. Characters are 2D and can only move left or right, with 3D facial features that are easy to see and decipher their reactions and feelings. Running and other movements seemed natural.

I did encounter a few things I didn’t like and some slight bugs. First the map. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but I found my position shown on the map in the journal versus my position in the game wasn’t really accurate, and I often had to check the map multiple times to go places. Second, I had some technical issues when spots to interact with were too close to one another and I’d hit the wrong one and ended up having to backtrack at times. Fairly minor, more often just annoying. As a quick reader the spelling corrections and changes and writing in real time was frustrating at first but after the first little while I learned to slow down. This also helped me become more engaged with the story. Pentiment invites the player to sit and think about the story and the sad truth at times. My biggest gripe is the lack of background music, but I know that it would take away from the sounds of the writing. I could be critical about Pentiment falling into a few story tropes, or that the ending was a bit more rushed than it could have been, but this would just be trying to find faults at this point.

Pentiment does a fantastic job of showing how history is messy. Even the story is a bit messy, but it’s perfectly imperfect where it matters. People change and grow as does their storytelling and the history that gets passed on. They are moulded and changed by what happens to them during their lives. Good people are capable of making bad decisions, just as bad choices at one time doesn’t mean that someone can never change their ways. People who seek and have power will often abuse it, and stories are never really just black and white. There is no ‘right’ path in Pentiment, just the story journey you choose to take. There is really no ‘happy’ ending either, just the consequences of your decisions. Seeing the way my story was laid out before me at the end of the game was fantastic. Thank you for that final artistic touch. One final note, the achievement name for completing Act 3 is called “manu propria” which is Latin for “(signed) with one’s own hand” and was typically used after a person’s name when a signature wasn’t used or available, as in when something was typewritten or printed. I couldn’t help but interpret that as Obsidian’s signature on their digital document. Even after the credits rolled in the wee hours of this morning and into the next day I sit and think about the fondness for Illuminata as she shared her quiet and soft wisdom about literature, and a special spot for the babies I watched grow up over the 25-year span covered. Seeing the characters and families grow and change hit in a way I didn’t expect.

I started playing Pentiment wondering what I had gotten myself into. The first hour was slow, a lot of reading, and a lot of religion. But once I got into it, I couldn’t stop playing. Utterly addictive like a novel I couldn’t put down. Pentiment was a highlight of my year, and one of the best games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. Covering an abundance of topics, including losing people before their time, and loss of a child, there are many options to create great discussions if you want to talk about this game with others. I look forward to talking to my friends after they’ve had a chance to experience it. It’s not perfect, I don’t think any game is, but about as perfect as you’ll find. This game will likely divide players, but those who enjoy narrative driven stories, historical settings and perhaps even a murder mystery will surely find something to love. Pentiment is a perfect jaunt through an imperfect part of history.

**Pentiment was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 10.0 / 10
Gameplay: 10.0 / 10
Visuals: 10.0 / 10
Sound: 10.0 / 10


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