The best stories in video games manage to fuse narrative, art, and gameplay in a way that elevates all three. Pentimant, the latest from Obsidian Entertainment, is a perfect example of this, telling a deep, complex story about religion, truth and history in the form of a book that the player experiences while writing. Despite some sections with inconsistent pacing, this is a must-play game for fans of adventure sports.
The painting tells the story of traveling artist Andreas Mäler and the time he spent in Tessing, a fictional town in the countryside of the Holy Roman Empire, set back in the year 1518. One of the local abbey’s manuscripts, he quickly becomes embroiled in a series of local mysteries that he tasks himself with solving.
Andreas can be customized with different backgrounds and personality traits to unlock different dialogue options. My Andreas was a religious scholar with a history of hedonism, but another may have studied law and spent his time enjoying nature. The dialogue options these various backgrounds unlock are usually nothing significant, but it’s nice to have a sense of control over your conversations as they make up the vast majority of the game.
Pentimento tells its story in three acts, two of which involve the investigation of murders. Amidst the high stakes and heavy charges, these murder mysteries are when the game is at its best. There’s only so much time to solve the case, but important actions like dining with suspects or exploring abandoned ruins will push you throughout the day, meaning you have a limited number of opportunities to uncover the truth. I was desperate to learn as much as possible, but they are more leads than time to follow. While many murder mysteries end with a satisfying conclusion, Pententiment forces you to choose a criminal with the information you have and live with the consequences of accusing them.
It’s not immediately clear whether you made the right decision or not, but it becomes immediately clear how the town feels about it. Accuse a brother of the abbey, and on your return the church is angry with you; Accuse a beloved member of the townspeople, and the people of Tasing may not admire you as they once did. These results are part of what makes Pententi’s story so impressive to me. Each act follows years past, and the effects of your choices in the previous chapter always feel significant. The town of Tassing also varies a lot; Children are born and grow into adults, elders grow old and pass away, and townspeople adapt and change. The city arguably owes more to the protagonist than Andreas.
Perhaps the strongest part of Paintiment is its adherence to core themes. It’s a game about passing stories from generation to generation and how truth can get distorted over time, for better or for worse. There are rumors that Tassing has ghosts, conspiracies, and a dark history, but the only sources of this information are the stories of local people, and each person has a different opinion of what is true and what is not. Andreas’ search for the truth is being copied into a book as a story, which is fitting. Like the player, he is trying to chronicle the whole truth once and for all.
This book-like aesthetic is one of the most attractive qualities of the painting. It starts from the first moments of a new save file, where you flip through the pages of an old book to write this new one. The characters and their surroundings are depicted as beautiful, era-specific images. The menu is also a book, complete with a glossary to keep the player filled with all the historical terms they may not be familiar with. You can press a button whenever one of these words appears to have their definitions appear scrawled in the margins of the book the game takes place in.
The dialogue also maintains the aesthetic of a storybook. You won’t hear the voice acting; Instead, the font changed depending on a character’s social or occupational status. Andreas speaks with a clean but detailed font, where each letter is traced, filled in and underlined. The common townspeople speak in plain cursive, the printer and his family speak in blocks of printed text, and the brothers of the abbey speak with ornate lettering that looks like it belongs on an inscription on a Roman statue. And as a reminder that the player is witnessing the creation of the book live, the dialogue is occasionally written with a typo or two that the book’s invisible author quickly erases. Tasing fonts is a wonderfully effective way to instill personality in characters, but if you have difficulty reading cursive, they can be disabled in the settings in favor of “easier-to-read” fonts.
While Pentimani’s presentation of the story is beautiful, its pacing leaves a little to be desired. I liked the sections with the murder mysteries, but the sections without them were slow. The story takes a while to progress past the first kill, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a less patient player gets kicked out of the game because of it. Still, it’s far more noticeable in the third act, when the stakes drop noticeably before ramping back up in the final hour. Without going into spoilers, the third act brings significant changes to the gameplay and story, both for good and for bad. At that point, it began to feel like I was watching the events in Tasing rather than playing them out; I still enjoyed the story, but I didn’t get to make big decisions like in the first two acts, and there were no impending trials to push the characters forward.
In these slower sections, I also began to process my issues with the game’s audio design. Most of the time, there’s no music playing in the background in Pententi, which seems odd when most of the gameplay is just people talking. The sound of quill scratching is nice, but I would have liked to hear more of the game’s score, even if it was somewhat sparse and atmospheric. Even background characters don’t stop their idle animations when you talk to a different person nearby, and the audio continues for these animations. Most silent conversations would be one thing, but talking to a character for two to three minutes while the only sound repeated was the incessant sweeping of a nearby broom had me taking my headphones off more than once.
Despite some issues with the audio and the slow pace of the third act, Pentimento has the feel of a wonderfully unique story flowing with respect for the historical era it attempts to recreate. Like sports themes of stories that endure over time, I will be thinking of Andreas Mäler and the city of Tsingh for years to come.