A young woman is sitting at a desk, writing a letter. Above her hangs a family portrait, featuring a middle-aged couple both dressed in work clothes and a small boy in an oversized hat. The family is that of the young woman, but she isn’t in the picture. The letter she’s composing is to her pen pal in Prague, whose birth wasn’t supposed to take place in a small alpine village deep in the wilds of Bavaria.
All five of the people mentioned thus far played roles in my Pentiment experience. Some of these were minor, some were major, but all were there. For however long fate willed it so, they made their impression on the constantly growing history of their community. This community, made up of those living in the village of Tassing and the abbey of Kiersau, is filled to the brim with an ever-evolving cast of well-written and relatable characters, whose fortunes and temperaments wax and wane with the same unstoppable cadence as the constant changes re-moulding the landscape that surrounds them. It’s what makes the game tick.
Without it, the string of mysterious murders that tie together Pentiment’s plot wouldn’t feel as significant and investigating the conspiracy that serves as their root wouldn’t be anywhere near enough to sustain a game that forgoes combat entirely. Pentiment is far from the first RPG to opt for this approach, as much of an unexpected twist as it may be for those attracted to the game by Obsidian Entertainment and game director Josh Sawyer’s work on Fallout: New Vegas. While the incredibly detailed worldbuilding, complex relationships with different factions and impactful choice and consequence present in that game are also key parts of Pentiment, the central experience has a lot more in common with ZA/UM’s Disco Elysium.
The art of being a middleman
Despite not starring a single detective, Pentiment is very much a detective game, with the aforementioned murders serving as the hooks that drive its plot forwards. Investigating them is the task of the artist Andreas Maler, whose medial station in the rigid class strata of feudalism makes him the ideal go-between to bridge the class-based divides between the groups that make up the aforementioned community.
Starting off the game as a naive young bohemian on the verge of becoming a master of his craft and moving back to the big city, as the narrative progresses and time washes over him, Maler morphs into a frustrated creative soul whose mind is being consumed by existential angst and survivor's guilt. That said, despite their similarities, Pentiment isn’t just the story of Andreas Maler’s splintering psyche, in the same way that Disco Elysium presents a story inseparably rooted in the surreal mental chorus and incurable psychological scars of Harry Du Bois.
In my view, instead of mainly focusing on how the people he meets, the choices he makes, and the consequences he faces affect and influence Andreas’ intense personal struggle and identity crisis, Pentiment largely concentrates on flipping this idea on its head. At every turn, the player and protagonist are faced with evidence of the imprint they’re gradually leaving on the community. Widows and widowers quietly confess to priests their unshakeable hatred of you for your role in past events. Nuns refuse to risk their necks by entrusting you to save books from being burned, because you failed to recognise how difficult being a woman in medieval society is. A young woman gains a knowledge of Roman myths because of a book you bought for her when she was a child.
Life goes on, no matter how you choose to behave while it does so
All the while, sudden changes and events you have nothing to do with also strike those around you like bolts of lightning from the heavens, making proceedings feel as dynamic and uncertain as they would in the real world. These twists and turns could easily reduce such a concisely told (by modern AAA game standards) narrative to an incongruous, bewildering mess, but Pentiment adeptly ensures that this isn’t the case by telling its story in a way that allows you to truly immerse yourself in its setting and universe. For the majority of the game, time is measured in the same way that a person living in medieval times would experience it, with days consisting of morning, noon and night being split up by meals, which serve as opportunities to converse with different households and social groups.
This results in a game that feels longer than it is and is as rich as an RPG should be in terms of replayability potential. That said, your investigations are still very much conducted against the clock, with the game purposefully not giving you enough time to do every mission or talk to everyone ahead of making key decisions, forcing you to pick and choose what you’re going with and leave some of it for your next playthrough. The same is the case for the game’s range of well-researched character traits and specialisms, all of which deeply alter the experience by offering unique dialogue options at regular intervals, in addition to occasionally increasing your probability of persuading certain characters or earning their favour.
Choose to be a rapscallion and you’ll be recognised as a bit of a troublemaker, as well as gain the ability to threaten people and occasionally offer advice on thievery to them. Opt to have spent part of your life in Italy and you’ll be able to tell children tales local to there, in addition to being able to read texts written in Italian and Greek. Decide that you’ve studied the occult at university and you’ll be able to spook out pious villagers by dispensing pearls of wisdom about dark magic and demonic rites. Pick a background in theology and you’ll be able to dispense more Bible quotes than your monastic mates. Elect to be both a student of rhetoric and a hedonist and you’ll be able to live the kind of life that could make Oscar Wilde blush.
Simplicity rules the roost
All of this is done without the typical levelling up or stat-based skill systems you might expect, a move which helps to completely declutter the game’s UI. This allows you to focus entirely on its gorgeous visuals, brought to life in a tapestry-eseque art style that’s guaranteed to delight those who love Twitter’s weird medieval guys. While this means you won’t be able to while away hours tinkering exhaustively in order to craft a numerically perfect character, it also ensures that you won’t be preoccupied with this when you should be learning to spin wool via a fun minigame or noticing an NPC’s speech bubble font change as they let loose an interesting detail about their education or class.
Pentiment’s minimalistic score follows this ethos perfectly, with the diegetic sounds of medieval country life taking precedence and making the rare musical stings which arrive suddenly to accompany certain dramatic events feel incredibly impactful. If you’re dining with a family of farmers, the baas of sheep will regularly interrupt the bubbling undercurrent of a pot merrily boiling away on a stove. Visit the abbey’s church and you’ll be able to appreciate the sonorous tones of their most vocally gifted monk singing gentle hymns. Take a solitary walk to the heart of the woods and the babbling of brooks will eventually fade to leave only the whisper of the wind whistling through the trees.
Losing yourself in the myriad wills of the madding crowd
All of this pleasant and relaxing ambience provides a beautiful contrast to the cacophony of different musings and viewpoints that you’ll take in from Pentiment’s incredibly diverse cast of voices as you set about trying to navigate the events that envelop them all.
Dipping briefly into another intensely narrative-driven medium for comparison, these interactions and conversations felt to me much like the vox pops and newsreel debates that transform Frank Miller’s genre-defining comic book The Dark Knight Returns from a typical superhero story into rumination regarding how a culture might actually react to the emergence of an anonymous vigilante in its midst. You may only see a certain character’s face once or twice in a particular Pentiment playthrough, but they all contribute to the idea of Tassing and Kiersau as being home to a living, breathing society which is gradually and painfully giving birth to its own history.
From a Christian anchoress locked away in a cell separating her from the bustle of temporal life in order that she might receive terrifying visions from God, to a visiting African monk calmly explaining to a child why all of the people depicted in his Bible have dark skin, and even two monks sneaking into a deserted room in the dead of night to share a secret and forbidden kiss. Even watching an entire village, from the oldest soul to the youngest tyke, come together in the town commons to celebrate a holiday.
These kinds of people and moments are what you’ll remember Pentiment for once you’ve concluded your initial playthrough. They’re also what’ll keep you periodically coming back to find different ways of approaching scenarios and root out fresh interactions you’ll inevitably have missed during your initial journey between the first and final pages of the book that sits on the desk of the game’s main menu.
Code was provided by the publisher.