Pentiment Review

Gameplay

In Pentiment, you play as the artist Andreas Maler, who is trying to finish his masterpiece while working for the Kiersau Abbey, which looks out over the Bavarian town of Tassing. A visiting baron upsets the farmers and craftspeople in town as well as the Christian nuns and brothers of the abbey, but no one is ready for him to die. The crime is blamed on Andreas’s mentor, who is too old and weak to have been able to beat up the baron. The young illustrator vows to do his own private investigation to find the real criminal. By doing this, Andreas gets involved in a strange plot involving cryptic notes and unspoken secrets. His actions change both Tassing and Kiersau Abbey over the course of a quarter-century-long story.

Your actions have consequences in Pentiment. Most conversations can go in different directions depending on what you say, and Andreas’ relationships with the people around him change as a result. Most of the time, these effects happen right away. For example, if your worried wife catches you in a lie, she might not tell you anything about her husband. However, some of these effects last much longer. During the second act of Pentiment, the game kept telling me that every choice I made would “be remembered.” However, I didn’t find out what happened until the last few minutes of the act. And, by a strange turn of events, the fact that I had been nice to someone for hours meant that they wouldn’t leave me when I was in danger.

In the second half of the story, Pentiment likes to have surprising endings, which makes Acts II and III a lot more exciting than the first half, which is more slow-paced. It doesn’t help that the game isn’t very exciting from one moment to the next. Exploring takes a long time because you have to run from one side of Tassing to the other to help people with their quests. Even though Pentiment is beautifully drawn to look like illuminated manuscripts and printed books from 16th-century Europe, the design of the world only changes between acts, and not by much even then. Until the story gets interesting, there isn’t much to do besides walk around and talk to people.

It’s a lot of fun to talk to characters to learn more about Tassing and the case you’re trying to solve, but the game makes it hard to do that too much. Each day is broken up into parts, with time set aside to work, pray, and eat. Longer conversations will use up all the time you have for that slot, which means you won’t be able to meet and talk to everyone during your investigation.

Pentiment, on the other hand, just means meeting and getting to know interesting people or following clues for the case at hand. That’s how much you can change the world of Pentiment. Putting a limit on how much you can do that isn’t bad in and of itself. Many visual novels and role-playing games do the same thing to encourage players to make the most of their time and get to know the characters they like the most. But in a mystery, if there are too many rules, it takes away from the fun. You can’t find out enough about the people of Tassing in the time you have, so you have to leave a lot of evidence on the table when it’s time to present it.

In theory, this system seems to be set up to make you choose one or two suspects and spend all of your time trying to figure out why they did what they did. But there are many ways to find out in Pentiment that the person you thought might be the killer is probably innocent and that all the time you spent thinking they were guilty was for nothing. So if you choose the wrong person to look into, you won’t have time to look into someone else when you realize your mistake. But if you look into too many people at once, you might not have time to look into any of them in depth. A system like this makes each playthrough unique and gives repeat playthroughs some variety, but it can make the first time you play the game feel like you’re being made to work too hard if you want to look into every possible suspect in detail. I also don’t like that having dinner with someone can take up some of your limited time, which punishes you for wanting to find out more about the town and the people who live there that has nothing to do with the case at hand.

Fun Story

There’s at least some fun to be had in how you handle things. Early on, you make up Andreas’s past by choosing things like what he studied in school. I chose a man who had lived in Italy for a long time, was good at public speaking, the law, and the forbidden occult, and who wanted to jump into the skirts of all the women in Tassing. And it was fun to have extra dialogue options that let me flirt, talk about getting drunk in every other conversation, or tell scary ghost stories to the kids in town. I used what I knew about the law to help the peasants when they were in trouble. The way you shape Andreas is rewarded by sentiment, especially because it gives you a better idea of how people feel about what’s going on in the world. I just wish the game had let me interact with everyone in this way instead of cutting me off from everyone except the few I had time to get to know well.

Layers of History

More than anything else, I love how the game’s developer stuck to stylized fonts. Pentiment uses a variety of fonts. Messy, curved letters are used for the simple way peasants talk, while a more stylized font is used for people with more education. When a person’s font changes, you can really see how smart this style of characterizing is. After Andreas finds out that a simple farmer can read, the farmer’s letters are erased and rewritten in the more structured font of an educated, literate person, for example. It’s a fun and clever way to show how men like Andreas judged people based on their station and appearance, but that impression could change in an instant if they knew someone was educated or not. It’s one of the few times I’ve played a game where I think spelling something out actually adds to the story in an interesting way.

Pentiment’s visual style doesn’t have as much going on in terms of the story, but it’s still striking. The illustrated character models show a lot of detail and also give the impression that history is like a painting that an artist adds to over and over again, with the underlying pentiment, which is the original image in a painting that sometimes shows through when the top layer fades or is scrubbed away. The characters in Pentiment are just pictures that are painted over and over again. You could even say that they aren’t the original picture, since Tassing is built on the Roman ruins. It’s a cool idea, but Pentiment only touches on it in small bits. It saves the most interesting questions raised by comparing history to a pentiment for the last few minutes of the third act. I wish it had brought those things out more quickly.

Final Thought

As it is, Pentiment tries to be somewhere between a history book and historical fiction. It doesn’t go into enough detail about the past or follow a clear story arc. This hurts the ending of the game and makes me remember the game less, except for the stories of the individual characters. I still have a soft spot for the wise Illuminata and her talks with Andreas about literature and religion, and I feel like a parent toward a young peasant girl I watched grow from a gurgling baby to a young woman. The way their lives unfold is a joy to read about, and the creative use of Pentiment’s different fonts to show a person’s social status or level of education makes it even better. But giving the player less time to enjoy the best parts of the game hurts the overall experience too much.