Hot on the heels of the superb A Plague Tale: Requiem, we have another medieval-based game in the form of Pentiment.. It is a testament to the developers that the experience of playing Pentiment is as close to occupying an illuminated medieval manuscript as we are likely to get, but it also shows a remarkable love for the time period and culture that inspires it, and features the sophisticated writing and storytelling for which Obsidian are renowned.
You play a young artist, Andreas Maler, finishing his apprentice in a scriptorium (a workshop for producing illustrated manuscripts) within Keirsau Abbey, based near the small Bavarian town of Tassing. It’s the early 16th century and Northern Europe, and the various states that now make up modern Germany in particular, was a land steeped in religious conflict and class inequality.
Historical events such as the Reformation and the Peasant’s Revolt are the background for this story of murder, mystery, and manuscripts. The game’s director, Josh Sawyer, has been open about his inspirations from medieval history books to the novels of Umberto Eco and the monastic thriller The Name of the Rose in particular. As a result, Pentiment is a game with an enviable pedigree, both in terms of its developers and its influences.
The most obvious place to start in discussing Pentiment is the game’s wonderful aesthetic, which takes the style and palette of medieval illuminated manuscripts and animates the characters within to make up the game’s various locations. These lovingly created images have a superb authenticity, including some wonderful animals that skilfully mimic the naive beauty of the originals. Alongside the settings, numerous story passages take place in copies of specific historical manuscripts which are loving brought to life through the game’s characters occupying the place of key figures. While early images brought the collage-like stylings of Monty Python to mind, the full game is far more respectful and reverential to the beautiful artefacts it is referencing.
Obviously this all makes Pentiment sound like an academically interesting game – which it certainly is – but not everyone wants a heavy dose of historical research with their gaming time, so how does the game play? At heart, Pentiment is a dialogue-based adventure game where you spend your time talking to the various characters living around the village and abbey, taking on quests and solving the various mysteries that surround the area.
The headline mystery is the murder of a nobleman that forms the narrative of the game’s first act. A bit like an interactive version of Cadfael, you use your knowledge and information gleaned from other conversations to uncover the hidden secrets of Tassing. This information can be a direct result of specific dialogue choices – choices which can have serious lasting effects on both you and the townsfolk around you – or it can be influenced by the skills and origins you choose for Andreas. The true murderer is never revealed, leaving it up to you to find and accuse someone depending on what you’re able to uncover.
While a developed character in the storyline of the game, Andreas also acts as the kind of blank slate that is common in RPGs. Early on you get to choose from a selection of origin options which can affect the languages he knows, specific knowledge he might possess from herbalism to astronomy, and traits that will open up different dialogue options. This is a fairly straightforward and traditional adventure game dialogue system, but it is so perfectly wedded to the aesthetic and environment of Pentiment that it feels far fresher than you’d think. On top of the skill of the writing itself, the range of different paths and investigative possibilities means that multiple replays will be needed if you want to experience all of the different threads.
The medieval vibe is taken even further by your day being subject to the rhythms of the time. Mealtimes are set and you can choose different characters to share these with – choices that also create friendships or make enemies – whilst characters will be called to prayer and work at specific times of the day. The passing of time is depicted through a Book of Hours influenced disc that is really effective at making you feel the pressure of time passing. The first act has a very clear deadline in place as you must investigate the various suspects in the aforementioned murder before the authorities arrive and hear your testimony. It isn’t possible to follow all the leads so you must make hard choices and are at the mercy of the clock.
There are so many small touches of brilliance in Pentiment that it seems unfair to focus on any in particular, but for the benefit of brevity, here’s a couple that really stood out for me. Within the manuscript presentation, different characters have different typesets to represent their place in society. While more easily readable modern fonts are an option, the effect of this different lettering really adds to the sense of a place and time confined within rigid hierarchies, and one in which this confinement was coming to a violent head. Dialogue appears on screen as if it is being written by an unseen hand, with emphasis given to mentions of religious words meaning that these are added after the others in red ink. This is a little thing, but I loved the way in which it made everything feel like a living manuscript rather than just an aesthetic.