It's been an age since I felt so captivated by such a simple adventure game as Pentiment. A rousing, steadily-paced detective thriller set in the Late Medieval Bavarian countryside, the storybook art style inspired by colorful manuscripts of the era is downright enthralling. While the gameplay basically consists of looking around for clues, questioning townsfolk, and trying to draw your own conclusions about the evidence you find, that minimalist approach works excellently for the rich and complex story Pentiment tells.
Our inquisitive lead is Andeas Maler, initially an idealistic aspiring artist who comes to the picturesque, rustic town of Tassing to further his career in the nearby abbey's scriptorium. He quickly becomes embroiled in a macabre conspiracy that delves into the town's shrouded past, enticing you to uncover secrets many would rather keep buried. You get to define a lot of elements of Andreas' backstory, such as where and what he studied, which I really enjoyed and adds an element of replayability. Having a university degree in theology helped a lot when pesky monks and nuns tried to quote the Bible at me to get their way and I was able to do so right back. But my background choices didn't open up new paths quite as much as I would have liked, with their impact on a conversation most often boiling down to some different options for flavor text.
Thankfully, there aren't many unintuitive puzzles in the traditional adventure game sense where you have to find bits and bobs out in the world and combine them to make a key. So the challenge of each mystery is talking to the right people, convincing them to tell you what you know, checking their story against others you've heard, and perhaps most importantly, using your time wisely. When you commit to pursuing a particular lead, time will advance, and you're never given enough time to pursue them all. This added some welcome tension and forced me to make a lot of interesting decisions. I look forward to going back and finding out what I missed on future playthroughs.
The town of Tassing and its surroundings are brought to life with a cohesive, beautiful, somewhat minimalist art style that takes inspiration from the very same period-accurate illustrations Andreas himself is working on. Sprawling fields, magnificent churches, and even secret crypts radiate color, life, and personality. Even the text boxes feature a variety of beautiful scripts that vary based on a person's social class, with flowing handwriting for peasants and sanctimonious blackletter script for members of the church.
The sound design is excellent, as well. The ambience of the village square or the relative quiet of a monastery during prayer is subtle, but highly effective at conveying a sense of place. And I'm not normally one for the whole ASMR thing, but there's something about that noise of a pen scratching across vellum when characters are talking that gives me goosebumps. I feel like I could listen to it all day. The soundtrack, likewise, transported me to the Middle Ages with its traditional melodies and period-accurate instruments.
The whole production really feels like a love letter from some serious Medieval history fans to all the like-minded players such as myself. Debating the writings of Christine de Pizan, discovering a certain character's entanglements with the Fugger Bank, or even having a "What would Socrates do?" option in certain dialogues might be lost on many, but they made me grin with joy. Far from a pop culture caricature, it's very clear that developer Obsidian Entertainment did a lot of research into the daily lives, theology, and sociology of the Holy Roman Empire in the 1500s. I practically gasped when I realized a folktale told by some of the townsfolk was a bastardization of a battle that took place near here during the Roman era. Every step of the way, I felt like I was geeking out about one of my special interests alongside the writers and artists.
The dialogue and character writing are exceptional and effective, as well. Andreas himself is a complex character who changes significantly across the snapshots of his life we get to join him on. Pentiment's world is one of heartbreaking personal tragedy, complex moral dilemmas, harrowing secrets, and the search for a purpose, with a huge cast of memorable characters who evolve alongside the town – partly based on decisions you get to make. And none of those decisions are easy. I never hit a point where I knew exactly what had happened, who was to blame, and that they definitely deserved to be punished by the proper authorities. Often, the best you can do is to decide on what course of action is the least of several evils.
I also really enjoyed how snappy and fast-paced the dialogue is. It's very easy for this type of game to be verbose and overwhelming. You only need to look to Obsidian's own Pillars of Eternity games for an example of how dumping way too much text on players at once can throw a wet blanket on a swashbuckling adventure. Pentiment wisely gets away from that tendency, with flavorful back-and-forths in which each character only speaks a sentence or two at a time. Journal entries about important people and world concepts are also tactfully brief. You're never expected to spend several minutes reading to understand what's going on.
As an engrossing 15 to 20-hour adventure game, a chronicle of a small town and its people in turbulent times, a reverent celebration of the finer details of Late Medieval history, and a clever detective story in which straight answers are hard to come by – Pentiment is a clear champion. My gripes about it are all relatively minor, and I look forward to playing it at least once or twice more to explore roads not taken. It never suffers for its simplicity, lacking in combat or traditional puzzles, because of how effectively it tangled me up in the complexities of its gorgeously-realized world and made me want to learn all I could about its people and its past. There isn’t much more to say about Pentiment, other than I can hardly recommend it highly enough.