It may come to you as a shocker, but I have never played a point & click adventure game, like the well-known Monkey Island series, for example. It is something I know exists and is beloved, yet I never touched it, despite several releases of the franchise being of my time. Pentiment falls into the same game category, and the coverage I follow had high praise for that title.
So, when I got sick recently, I figured this would be a chill game to pass the time while trying to recover.
The Nerdy Bits
Covering the technology in this game will be a short affair. There is no voice acting to praise, barely any music to potentially highlight, and mostly only subtle ambient background noise to mention, like creaking wood in houses. To give you some context, Weird West is similar in the sound department, although it has occasional cutscenes and voiced dialogue. Most of the time, however, it relies on subtle ambient world sounds for its atmosphere. I found the sound design immensely uninspiring and discouraging when I played that game. Weird West failed to immerse me in its world, so I dropped it.
Color me surprised that it did not bother me in Pentiment. I am convinced that the constant focus on reading text covers the tranquil soundscape much better than the gameplay-focused Weird West.
Which leaves us with the visual presentation. At first glance, the art style is somehow unique yet rather unattractive simultaneously. Obsidian tried to mimic the style prevalent during the 16th century when the game events took place. It obviously looks odd at first glance.
Characters are relatively detailed, whereas backgrounds frequently appear more simplified. That does not mean that you will not find details in the scenes. Houses are relatively rich in odds and ends. It’s just that characters always stand out somehow.
Apart from a few scenes, like the meadow, the town’s people are the only elements with lively-ish colors. Backgrounds usually tend to be muted and simpler in detail. The meadow is an extreme example of a simple set, mostly comprised of outlines with vivid colors.
Over time, I actually grew fond of the art style, and in rare moments, the game looked impressive and rich.
Now, limiting the discussion to the depiction of the people and the world would be unfair. Pentiment contains a lot of small animation work to augment specific scenes and breathe life into them. Characters react during conversations by smiling, frowning, or other facial expressions. But there is more than that. Sometimes, a small child clumsily walks around the scene, or a child will take the hat off your protagonist’s head, and the kid still has it several years later during the game’s events.
Small details like this made me appreciate the visuals and often put a smile on my face. They are easy to miss, though, since they happen while you read the conversations.
I have one more small note on the fluidity of the animations. Not only does the whole game look hand-drawn, but the animation speed also tries to enforce this notion. While the background moves fluidly at the output refresh rate (e.g., 120Hz on PC, 60Hz on Xbox), character animations are much lower. I do not have the means to quantify the update speed scientifically, but it is much lower than 30 fps. But that is totally fine, as it feels appropriate for the time and, thus, authentic.
As it turns out, I managed to draw out the technology section for longer than I imagined. Let me close it out with loading times and cross-play support. Loading times are literally non-existent, and going from scene to scene is merely limited by the animation speed of the transition employed to smooth over the change in scenery. You cannot make it go faster, unfortunately. The same is valid for navigating the journal. I would have preferred a more responsive implementation. The one thing you can change is the speed at which the game renders text. I strongly recommend turning on the setting to have it appear immediately instead of being typed out. That is so annoying and slow.
The worst part of the technical implementation is the cross-platform support. Halo Infinite allowed me to choose whichever hardware I preferred at any given time. It was seamless, just as you would expect. Pentiment is different. There appears to be an issue with uploading or downloading the saved data to and from the Xbox Cloud services. Every time I went from my Xbox to the PC or vice versa, I was greeted with an error message that my other console had not yet finished uploading its data. This part of the game is just broken. I managed to sync it once from the console to the PC, but when I was most sick, I wanted to lay on the couch and play there. Well, tough luck, bud. The system did not sync the latest state, so I had to finish the game on PC.
Okay, let me try this “covering the <element> in this game will be a short affair” thing again. Pentiment does not have an elaborate gameplay loop. As a matter of fact, on the PC, I mainly relied on the four arrow keys for navigation and the Enter key for action. Sometimes I opened the map with M or the journal with J, and I navigated the journal with the mouse for efficiency. That’s it. Let’s just say it was an 80:20 split in favor of the arrow-Enter combo (you can also use the mouse, of course). All you do is walk around and talk to people, trying to gather as much information in the time that you have.
Unlike in other games where time is of the essence, like Horizon Forbidden West or Shadow of the Tomb Raider, in which the world is literally going to 💩, some actions in Pentiment truly advance the time and rob you of the opportunity to do something different first. There may be a correct order in which you can do everything, but I certainly did not figure it out.
Pentiment also has its fair share of mini-games to distract from the walking and talking. However, those games are more of a gateway to get others to talk. The most prevalent one is taking meals with people. You sit down, select a food item, and between selections, you and whomever you are sitting with talk about the events. You may come across relevant information, or you may not.
Another is the traversal of a labyrinth, depicting the protagonist’s thoughts.
There are a couple more, but none are transformative or challenging. They exist in the context of the game and time period and merely support the idea of the situation your character finds himself in. It is not about the mini-game itself. It is about giving the player something else to do while conversing.
See, brief 😉.
Story and Characters
Pentiment lets you solve a murder mystery starting in 1518. I say “starting” because the mystery is not resolved until much later (spoiler, I guess), shortly before the game ends. It is like a Hitchcock thriller turned into a game. But there is more about Pentiment than simply solving a murder. The game is full of historical detail and depicts societal issues present at the time. The wealthy look down on the peasants. Women live by the decree of men. The lack of a proper and fair trial system. And this is where you, as the player, come in.
The game takes place in Christian Bavaria, and your hero is the aspiring artist Andreas Maler from Nuremberg (about 30 minutes from where I live, no less).
Side note: Since this game has no voice acting and takes place in Germany, it might be more immersive to play the German translation instead if you are German. I certainly encountered German handwriting several times.
After setting the stage for a while, you are finally thrust into the midst of a murder. Andreas Maler cannot believe his dear friend to be the culprit, only because he was first on the scene and found the body – a classic plot setup. The reigning abbot, however, is primarily interested in saving face and detains the elderly monk as the prime suspect until the archdeacon arrives to pass judgment.
Now the game becomes interesting as you start your investigation and uncover several related and unrelated details about what is happening in the small town of Tassing. This process repeats in the game’s second act when Andreas Maler returns to Tassing on his way back to Nuremberg. You will meet old characters as well as new ones. Some children from act one have grown older (seven years, if I recall correctly) and are adults in the final act.
The plot focuses heavily on the injustice the peasants face from the abbey and its seemingly arbitrary rules and tax increases. It goes as far as stirring up a revolt to fight for better conditions. As the tension rises, the peasants cry for vengeance instead of justice when one of their own is killed. As Andreas Maler, you are again in the thick of it and running out of time to prove the innocence of the accused.
During your investigations and in the “prologue” to each act before the crime happens, you will learn a lot about the history of Tassing and partake in more or less essential discussions about the pressing theological themes of that era. It is a crucial component of the story. It was the time of Martin Luther and his reformation ideas, a topic that will arise on several occasions during your playthrough. I must admit, I am not a man of any faith. I dislike the idea of religion. Because of my resulting ignorance towards this topic, several meta-discussions about faith, the reformation, or anything else theology-related and not part of the murder mystery plot at hand were lost to me. I read everything, yet I understood so little. I barely knew which answer to select as I did not grasp the point of the discussion. Other than setting the mood and painting a broader picture, I do not think you will miss out on much if you are not well-versed on this topic – although it may help with the immersion if you are.
Pentiment throws a ton of names at you early on. You eventually meet everybody in the town of Tassing and the abbey. You will also learn about cities, saints, theological concepts, and so much more, to a point where reading the glossary will take some time if you are really curious. The entries are succinct and to the point, but there are a lot. The same is true for the list of people. It took me a while to get acquainted with the most important characters. That’s how many there are. I have a hard time learning names, and if you introduce me to more than three people at the same time, once the introductions have been made, I have already forgotten the first name. Therefore, Pentiment was very challenging at first.
Overall, I struggled to build relationships with the characters, even the hero. You get to pick and choose the traits you want, and your choices influence the answers you can give, yet I felt no connection to any of the people. Maybe it was because I had to read everything, and I did not get to focus as much on facial expressions and gestures. Or perhaps it was because of the art style and the simplified depiction of facial expressions and gestures. Maybe the cast was just too big. I’m not entirely sure. I wasn’t invested because of the virtual people. I was invested because of the mystery.
WARNING: Although I will not reveal any plot details, I will share my thoughts on the outcome of each of the three acts. You might consider this a spoiler warning and skip to the last section instead.
The resolution to the mystery let me down a bit, though. Since the game pressures you with a time limit that it also enforces, you may not be able to collect enough evidence to make a solid and informed decision. I never thought that what Andreas Müller had to say when questioned about his findings was convincing. It never felt right, never satisfying. I get the impression that this is the point of the game, and there is no way ever to find the real killer. It would play into the notion that there was no fair trial system as we know it today.
The best part of a murder mystery is a convincing conviction, and you do not get that until the very end of act three, and that does not even happen on purpose. By that point, you play as the daughter of the local printer who inquires the townspeople about past events to paint an impressive mural in the newly erected town hall.
This is by far the weakest part of the game. It lurches on for hours with no real purpose and sense of urgency. There is no murder to solve and no mystery to unravel. You basically relive the whole thing from a different perspective. You will find a few minor hints related to Andreas Maler’s investigations. Still, it is not until the final thirty to forty-five minutes that the actual murderer is revealed. It is quite the twist, although I am unsure if some of the circumstances were what they were due to my actions or because the developers wanted it this way.
(Several of my decisions did carry over from act to act.)
Regardless, I was not wowed by the resolution. I was certainly surprised, but giving me the killer more or less just like that was very unsatisfactory. While the motive itself is relatively clever overall, I also found it too mundane at the same time. In the end, it all boils down to reputation and capitalism. Some things apparently never change.
Famous Last Words
As my title suggests, I generally recommend Pentiment – with an asterisk. The last act is tedious and not a good resolution to an otherwise engaging game. The first two chapters take a while to unfold their magic to set the stage, but it becomes very entertaining once you’re up to Columbo the crime. This element is missing from the last act and weighs heavily on the experience since nothing is at stake.
I mostly liked Pentiment, the first two acts to be precise, and if you gravitate towards point & click adventures, you will get enjoyment out of this game. It is not for everyone, though, and the slow starts to all three acts will certainly be a barrier to most players.
However, if you stick with it, you can pet many cats and dogs.
Thank you for reading.