I watched in horror as the executioner’s blade met the neck of its target and blood gushed forth.
Given the choice between averting my eyes or facing the consequences of my actions, I clicked the latter. I owed it to this person to witness their death, having chosen to accuse them of the murder. Every action you take in Pentiment directly impacts the fate of everyone else, you can’t help but feel a deep sense of responsibility — and oftentimes guilt.
This historical murder mystery isn’t what you might expect from Obsidian Entertainment, known for first-person action RPGs like The Outer Worlds and Fallout: New Vegas, but there is still importance placed on building your character and choosing how you experience the world. It explores the societal, theological, and artistic beliefs of one town during a time of rapid change, and it does so with a beautiful art style unlike anything else in video games. Everything about Pentiment feels as carefully designed as the illuminated manuscripts it draws inspiration from, delivering an enthralling mystery that is a wonder to behold.
My so-called medieval life
The town of Tassing in 16th-century Bavaria is relatively unimportant. It sits along a road that has been around since the Roman Empire conquered Europe. While the town has a community of peasants and craftspeople, the main point of interest is a Benedictine Abbey that houses a shrine to an old saint as well as an increasingly irrelevant scriptorium, where monks illustrate and letter books by hand.
This is where we meet Andreas Maler, the game’s protagonist. He is a traveling artist who takes contract work illustrating manuscripts at the Abbey. But when a series of murders and mysterious happenings begin to occur in the town, Andreas is thrust into the center of it all as an impromptu detective who must solve the mysteries.
Andreas has already seen the world before taking up temporary residence in Tassing, but the details of his background are left for the player to decide. Say that Andreas studied in Italy and he will be able to read some Italian and understand the cultural touchstones of the region. Give Andreas a background in studying rhetoric and he will be able to make more convincing arguments and sway people to his way of thinking. Like in other Obsidian games, each option has the potential to open up different paths in the game based on what you choose.
While dialogue choices tied to your background will appear with a special icon next to them, it isn’t always clear what sort of consequences await your choices.
At several points in the game, you will have a discussion with someone that suddenly ends with a final attempt to convince them of your point. I sometimes found myself confused as to how I failed a sudden check because the game doesn’t warn you ahead of time. There are only a handful of these moments throughout Pentiment, most of them not related to important plot points, but they feel puzzling enough that it upsets the immersion. Why are they included here at all?
Mechanically, Pentiment is a game about talking to people, which comprises the majority of the game’s 20-hour playtime. The loose objective of solving each murder has a time limit, but beyond that, there is not much guidance. You simply must spend time with the townsfolk and learn about the intricacies and secrets of Tassing. After analyzing all of the information you uncover, you typically have to make an accusation. Some people might gripe about high taxes while others will tell you about a suspected affair. The player strings this together in hopes of discerning an overlooked detail that will lead you to the killer, or at least some kind of motive.
Talking to every person in town has its own charms. They all have jobs and dreams. Learning these nuanced stories is worth every minute. While you get to know them, they might task you with certain chores that ultimately amount to mini-games. These are joyfully mundane and give you the opportunity to experience the lives of these various humble people. This celebration of medieval life’s simplicity makes Pentiment feel like a gamified version of The Canterbury Tales.
It is distinctly literary in style, and there is truly nothing else like it in video games.
Every piece of information in Pentiment is communicated through text boxes, including dialogue. Different manners of speaking are expressed via unique fonts. These can give you insights into social status, educational background, and nationalities of characters. Townsfolk speak with a simple scratched-out script whereas the educated Abbey inhabitants talk in a more dignified font. There are even those who don’t talk in written script at all, rather they use printed block text as part of the technological and intellectual march forward.
By the time Andreas begins working in the Tassing scriptorium, half a century has passed since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. Copying manuscripts by hand is quickly becoming obsolete. The commentary on technology changing the nature of work feels oddly relevant for a story set 500 years in the past.
Who lives, who dies, who tells their story
These artistic and gameplay decisions from the small but dedicated team at Obsidian speak to Pentiment’s larger themes. The game investigates the march of time and how we manufacture history for the sake of fulfilling the desired narrative. Those with the means to write history ultimately control it.
In Pentiment, Andreas is the arbiter of this history. You alone get to accuse a murder suspect. Whether this is the person you think committed the crime or the person you think is most deserving of punishment is up to you. But when this decision is made, the accused’s fate is sealed. Even if you’re not holding the sword, a person still dies because of you — and you hold the quill that writes it into history.
Over the 25 years that Pentiment covers, Andreas watches the town mold its own history. A formerly beloved pillar of the community might leave behind a legacy as a backstabbing traitor just because you accused them of murder. The collective memory is not static, rather it shifts and moves in response to what the town needs to believe. As is often the case with history, it is the final impression that gets remembered and not necessarily the objective truth.
While ostensibly a murder mystery game, Pentiment is more about listening to stories and deciding how to mold the world around you by prioritizing certain truths over others. Like the town of Tassing, Pentiment is a game with hidden depths that asks the player to scratch below the surface. It takes a quarter of a century to sift through the conflicting accounts to forge Tassing’s place in history.
All of these pieces bind together to make Pentiment greater than the sum of its archaic-looking parts, solidifying it as an artistic masterpiece that Andreas would be proud of.
Pentiment releases on November 15th for Xbox Game Pass, Xbox One, Xbox Series consoles, and PC. Inverse reviewed the game on PC.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.