a reappearance in a painting of an original drawn
or painted element which was eventually
painted over by the artist
The word ‘pentiment,’ taken from the Italian, pentimento, could not be a more perfect title and description of the latest RPG from Obsidian. Pentiment, set in the 16th century is, on the surface, a medieval murder mystery adventure game. But, the longer you play it, the more its true nature and intention is revealed.
Pentiment is a rumination on the lives we live, the stories we tell and the history we forget or rewrite to better suit our present. It’s a focused look at human nature and the desire to create a legacy built upon that which came before, even if the foundation is being built on shaky ground.
Playing as Journeyman Andreas Maler, Pentiment takes players across multiple snapshots of his life and dealings with the Bavarian town of Tassing, Kiersau Abbey and a conspiracy spanning multiple decades. Maler’s quest for truth uncovers long-hidden and buried revelations that threaten the people of Tassing and the very town itself.
In the beginning, Maler is working at the abbey’s scriptorium, finishing a commission before his return home to Nuremberg where an arranged marriage awaits. Maler, young and full of ‘ideas’ isn’t entirely thrilled with the prospect of marrying a woman he’s never met. He’s unsure of his place in the world, yet Tassing and the abbey provide a safe space and respite from his looming future. Players are given some control of what type of person Maler is (outside of how they respond in-game) by choosing his background and history. How this is incorporated is another artful application of the “pentimento” to something beyond a canvas. Maler’s history gives players a glimpse into the plans he held for his life and how they’ve changed, been painted over and hidden by new layers of ‘paint.’
The town of Tassing and the abbey are physical representations of the pentimento. Literally built atop the ruins the Romans left behind, Tassing and the abbey now stand as beacons of the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic church, where once the land was pagan. Even religion is looked at through the lens of the pentiment as characters in-game discuss the Reformation and how Christianity and Catholicism may be religions built on the ruins of that which came before. Jesus may simply have been painted over Sol Invictus as Christmas was painted over Saturnalia. Pagan traditions made way for Christian and Catholic ones, though in reality, they’re variations on a theme and the lines and echoes of the past start to show themselves through the veneer over time.
This idea of a pentiment applying to history, the lives of people, religion and even physical places is brilliantly applied throughout Pentiment. I was a touch disappointed that after I’d finished I wasn’t able to start a new game+ and see my previous choices as yet another form of pentimento. It would be the cherry on top of the icing on the cake, but its absence doesn’t sully an otherwise impeccable experience. Maybe Obsidian can add it in an update…
Pentiment properly begins with the murder of a visiting Baron on the abbey’s grounds. Found bludgeoned to death, the Abbott accuses Maler’s friend and confidant Brother Piero. However, as an old and frail man, Maler finds it inconceivable that Piero could be the culprit and is determined to discover the identity of the real killer. Thus, setting in motion a decades-long mystery, conspiracy and string of crimes. Gameplay in Pentiment is primarily exploration and conversation. Days are segmented into meal and work times and players will need to make the most of their time to uncover the truth. That being said, there is not enough time to uncover all of the clues and discover all of the secrets surrounding each murder and mystery. Obsidian has cleverly prevented players from fully exploring each avenue by literally making it impossible.
Whilst Maler is walking around town and the abbey, time stands still. When he converses with the townsfolk, peasants and/or the monks and nuns, time stands still. It’s not until Maler opts to specifically focus on one part of his investigation that time moves forwards. Players will always be warned that “this may take some time” so they know they’re about to progress but with a ticking clock, players will need to carefully consider which investigative leads they’ll follow and which they’ll abandon. Much of this, at least for me, came down to my personal feelings about characters which is a testament to the writing in Pentiment.
Each and every character in the game, no matter how important or seemingly irrelevant is well-rounded and fully fleshed out. They have wants, needs and ideals. They can offer insight into the goings on in town as well as provide much-needed context and history. Some of them are endearing and some are obnoxious twits. Pentiment does do some heavy lifting regarding which characters you’re predisposed to like and dislike, based on their personalities, but the evidence you can discover ultimately weighs heaviest and depending on how much or little investigating of each suspect you do, you may find the implications of pointing the blame at someone far more difficult than you imagined.
Whoever Maler accuses of this first murder will send ripples through Tassing and the abbey for years to come, such that when he returns sometime later the state of the town is vastly changed. The layers of happenstance applied to the ‘painting’ of Tassing by Maler’s accusations have been used as the basis for how the town functions and operates in this new time. And depending on who Maler ultimately decided was the guilty party can have wide-ranging consequences for the town. The plot in Pentiment is in and of itself yet another example of the pentimento. It may begin one way and you may plan on a specific outcome but over time, the plans and ideas change and you’ll end up covering up what you intended with something else entirely. Like in real life, you may have the best intentions and best-laid plans but they can all change at a moment’s notice for any number of reasons.
Based on what happens during Maler’s initial investigation, the people of Tassing and the abbey will have differing opinions of him and will treat him differently. The second murder in town once again thrusts Maler into the role of detective and mediator, though the outcome of this investigation is vastly different. I’d like to leave any additional details of the plot or story here as I fear any additional details may discolour your own experience with Pentiment, though I will say that for the most part, the narrative is excellent, from start to finish. I did find the final few hours of Pentiment a bit of a drag as the story slows down and the big reveal at the end was something I saw coming from very early on. There was some additional disappointment for me with the way things unfolded but that probably has more to do with my insatiable bloodlust and desire for revenge than the writing of Pentiment.
Outside of the main mysteries and investigations, there is a tonne of daily minutiae to experience and navigate in Pentiment. Who should marry who? Where did the missing key go? Should I join the convent? These and many more questions will be posed during a playthrough of Pentiment and the way in which a player answers ultimately determines the fate of many of the characters. Like in many adventure games, some responses are highlighted as “This will be remembered.” Eventually, players will come to a critical juncture where they’ll need to convince a character one way or another or something. Based on previous answers and interactions, players will be given some visual feedback on Maler’s ability to convince. How you respond to characters within the moments that will be remembered will either add a net positive or negative effect to your ability to convince. If you’ve not been positive in enough responses, you’ll be unable to convince the character and that storyline and avenue will be locked off for the remainder of the game.
It’s surprising how many of these minor conversations and choices ultimately wind up having huge importance for Maler, Tassing and the abbey. You may be tempted to go back and change your responses but I’d avoid it. Live with the choices you make the first time around and just enjoy the ride.
Pentiment is a stunning achievement in narrative gaming and it’s also a massive gamble. An adventure game set in 16th-century Bavaria, during the Reclamation and musing on the nature of religion, classism, and gender roles and visually presented in a medieval style is a risk for Obsidian but one that’s ultimately paid off. I was engrossed by Pentiment from the moment I began. Andreas Maler is an interesting facsimile through which to experience this world and the notion of everything being related back to the pentimento is a brilliant underpinning that begs for a thorough examination of the hows, whys and whats of life and living in general.
While society in 16th century Bavaria may bear little resemblance to the world of 2022 and its antiquated notions on all manner of things may not be able to teach us much of anything, the gradual peeling back of layers within the story lends itself to any period in time, anywhere. We’re all standing on the shoulders of the people that came before us and we’re all building on the ruins of that which came before.
If you look closely enough, you can find the hidden lines and elements which originally existed in all things, but have gradually been changed, altered and painted over to make way for the “final vision.” That’s just it though, isn’t it? There is no finality to anything and eventually, the plans and visions we’ve all had will simply be the pentimento within a future version of our world. It’s a powerful message from Obsidian and one that ultimately serves to make Pentiment an absolute must-play game.
Pentiment was reviewed on Xbox Series X using a digital code provided by Xbox ANZ.