In most games laden with choice, there’s always the “good” or canon route. The protagonists and all the innocent, good townspeople finally get to see that golden sunset, knowing that the future is bright and happy, while the villain eats dirt or a bittersweet redemption arc. But Pentiment is not most games. This is a game that builds itself in layers, and that applies most of all to its choices and the characters that fill its story. Everyone has good intentions and is certain they’re the hero. No one deserves to die (well, except maybe one guy). In this way, Pentiment not only lives up to its name in its theme and narrative but in its place as a murder mystery game. It takes genre conventions and elevates them, creating depth in the shadows of the characters’ flaws.
Pentiment’s mastery of character development and arcs blends perfectly with a beautifully illustrated world full of detail. Even accessing the menu feels like a work of art. But there are times when the gameplay and interactive moments can drag, breaking the immersion of an otherwise stunning game.
No Matter the Era, Some Things Never Change
When I first laid eyes on Pentiment, I was immediately reminded of one of my favorite paintings, The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch. Perhaps that’s no surprise, as it was painted in 1510, a mere eight years before the events of Pentiment. Like The Garden of Earthly Delights, Pentiment is broken into three acts, which connect a mythic past to a present plagued with moral dilemmas, and a future transformed by very human choices.
Andreas is an artist working on his masterpiece in an abbey in the fictional town of Tassings, Bavaria. He is our protagonist, the sleuth, and the painter of the story we find ourselves in. Through his decisions, the past and its influence on Tassings present is unveiled. All of this helps unravel the conspiracy that Andreas finds himself at the epicenter of. But with every decision, Andreas influences the future, giving players the satisfaction (or horror) of feeling like their choices truly matter.
Pentiment’s gameplay and investigation mechanic comes primarily in the form of conversations. There’s a wide cast, and you’ll spend a significant amount of time getting to know everyone intimately. Fortunately, there’s a journal, because otherwise, it’d be nigh impossible to keep everyone straight. Relationships will be built and broken through these conversations, directly influencing whether key information for your investigation is revealed or kept behind sealed lips. It all depends on how savvy a communicator Andreas is.
This gameplay mechanic can feel cutthroat when paired with the autosave feature and the limited time slots you’re allotted. But it’s not a negative thing – these high stakes make every conversation feel important and worth having, and it’s one of the core reasons why Pentiment is so immersive. It’s so good, in fact, it overshadows one of Pentiment’s weakest points.
Beyond the social gambits, the gameplay Pentiment offers is minimal. There are puzzles scattered here and there, plus a handful of mini-games. But these are usually embedded fairly deep into an investigation route and are fairly straightforward. Some are as simple as pressing a cookie cutter into dough over and over. These mini-games come so rarely that it almost feels like they’re tagged on, an afterthought to reassure the players that Pentiment is a game by the common definition. But it’d be better if Obsidian hadn’t included them at all or kept the mini-games to actual puzzles that better suited the murder mystery genre. I don’t want to bake Christmas cookies, Obsidian. I want to use a cryptogram to solve a centuries-old secret.
Beautiful At a Distance But Missing Those Finishing Details
But for every terrible minigame is a stylized environment to dull the blow. No one can deny that Pentiment is beautiful. Every scene feels as if it’s drawn from an illuminated manuscript, and the amount of research and love poured into this game is obvious. This extends well beyond the environments and includes the evolving world that Obsidian has crafted. Every conversation, every relationship, and every moral dilemma feels thoughtful and significant.
Pentiment also takes an unflinching look at many social and personal themes, from the role of women in society to the relationship between the working and ruling class. In many ways, these themes are still very important today, and it seems intentional that Pentiment brings them to the forefront. Despite that, Pentiment is unerringly realistic in how these concepts are explored, offering every perspective and motivation.
While Pentiment is a masterclass in world-building, it begins to show its cracks in its story. Like many murder mysteries, Pentiment loses steam in its third and final act. This is scarcely surprising, as it can be difficult to tie up so many loose ends in a straightforward narrative, but Pentiment has turned this into an almost Herculean task by creating a story with who knows how many variations.
But beyond the plot, Act 3 suffers even more in gameplay. Conversations and relationship developments are the bread and butter of Pentiment in Acts 1 and 2. But in Act 3, only some of the choices you make will have any significance, and not nearly to the same degree as the earlier acts. Instead, you’ll spend a significant amount of time shuffling from house to house in order to push the plot forward. Act 3 suffers from sluggish pacing, and it left me desperately wishing there was a quick travel button to ease the tedium.
But despite the lackluster final Act, Pentiment is a unique, beautiful, contemplative game that feels as if it has a life of its own. Even after completing it, I felt compelled to try again, to see if I could change the pentiment my choices had left behind and paint a better future for the characters I’d grown so fond of. While this game is unlikely to appeal to people who prefer a fast-paced plot with more interactive elements, those who enjoy a narrative-driven story with a truly tangled mystery at its heart will find so much to love.
- Visually beautiful and immersive setting
- Vibrant cast of fully realized characters
- Accessible for players of all skill levels
- Your choices matter on a deep level
- The autosave feature can make the conversation mechanic unforgiving
- Beyond conversation, there isn’t much gameplay
- Walking everywhere becomes extremely tedious
- A weak final act