The word Pentiment describes an image in a painting when the top layer of paint has begun to fade to the point where a second image underneath is visible. It is also the root of pentimento, which is derived from the Italian pentirsi which means to repent. Both definitions are apt in their connections to the medieval narrative mystery of Obsidian Entertainment’s Pentiment.
The game takes place in Bavaria starting in 1518, and ultimately spans 25 years over three acts. You play up-and-coming artist Andreas Maler. As his journeyman assignment, he is commissioned to work on a religious storybook for a local abbey. At the same time, he is also inking his masterwork, which is a colorful tome that will be used to show his proficiency so that he can set up his own business and be regarded as a master artist. All seems well until there is a gruesome murder committed inside the abbey, which forces Maler to act as an amateur sleuth in an attempt to prove that a good friend accused of the crime is innocent. All of that happens in the first act of the game. Later on, more sinister events take place that span decades, but which are all connected to the original murder.
The title’s world even looks like a medieval painting or storybook, which gives Pentiment much of its charm. Whether this is because that is how Andreas sees the world or is just a clever way that Obsidian sets their game apart from so many others does not really matter. Pentiment is beautiful to look at. This is complimented by the music, which is, of course, also medieval-like in flavor. There are no character voices, but you will occasionally hear other characters chanting and adding to the medieval atmosphere.
The passage of time plays a big role in Pentiment, not just with the three different acts which all take place years apart, but also with the passage of time within each episode. Andreas is able to walk freely around the village and the abbey as much as he wants and even can talk with residents from the town and monks living in the abbey without any time passing. However, there are certain key actions like eating a meal with someone or investigating specific aspects of a crime that will cause time to move forward on a great wheel that marks the time of day. You can only take so many actions each day, so you won’t be able to do everything you want and must instead make smart choices about where to focus your investigations.
Adding a timed element to the title is well done here because you never feel like you are pressed for time. You can wander around the village, the woods and the abbey as much as you like, and time will never move forward. You can even collect clues and talk with people as you gather information. It’s only when you commit to an action like eating a meal with someone (which can play a big role in deeper interrogations) that time moves forward. So instead of having to frantically click on things before time runs out, it’s more like a chess match where you have to decide which move to make. In fact, Pentiment may even feel a bit too slowly paced for some players.
In terms of the plot, Pentiment is really good. It might at first seem odd that an artist would become a detective, but actually Andreas is uniquely qualified in a lot of ways. The game lets players build out the character of Andreas with different background skills, very much like a role-playing game. No matter what you choose, it’s clear that Andreas is highly educated in a lot of fields and is thus far above the local peasantry in terms of education and skills.
For example, having medical training or the ability to read and write in several languages will help a lot when it comes to investigating clues. That said, certain skills did seem a lot more useful than others. For example, oratory skills are incredibly helpful because you will spend much of the game trying to convince others about your point of view, and oratory gives you an automatic extra success point when trying to build your case. It won’t save you on its own if you do everything else wrong or outright insult the character you are talking with, but if you are close, it will push you from failure to success on the final check.
Andreas also seems like a good person, and given that an older monk that he is good friends with is accused of the original murder, he is highly motivated to prove their innocence. It’s also very clear that the old monk in question could not be the murderer, so working to help them out makes perfect sense.
The one thing that is kind of controversial about the title is that there really is no right answer to who did the crimes, or at least it never lets you know if you actually found the murderers or not. Depending on what you do, someone will be arrested and executed for their crimes, but you really don’t know (and the developers have never said) who among the suspects is actually guilty. Having played through it several times, I have a pretty good idea of who is really guilty and why, but players never get that confirmation. And anyway, players may feel that another character is more worthy of the death sentence. Andreas ends up doubting his choice from the first act regardless, and the game moves on to the next act where he will have to deal with both the consequences of his actions and the ongoing conspiracy.
The second act in the game takes place years later when Andreas has finally become a master artist, although this achievement does not seem to bring him much happiness. There is a second murder in the town in act two that has strong connections to the first, and once again Andreas ends up trying to solve it too. Here we get to see echoes of a greater conspiracy and the run up to the final act which takes place even later in the 25-year timeline of Pentiment. Eventually, you will learn who is behind the overall conspiracy and why, but you will never know if you chose the correct suspects for the individual murders.
Depending on how it’s played, there is about 10 to 15 hours of gameplay in Pentiment. And since you can’t do everything in a single playthrough (especially in acts one and two), players may enjoy going back and replaying it to make completely different choices or to build out Andreas with different skills. That makes Pentiment, which is currently priced at under $20 on Steam and the Xbox platform, quite a good deal, especially for players looking for a different kind of title to play, or for those who enjoy a good, old-fashioned (literally in this case) murder mystery.
Developers: Obsidian Entertainment
Platforms: PC, Steam, Xbox One, Xbox Series X