Pentiment Review Layers of History

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I loved reading history books growing up, especially those written more like a storied account of what happened as opposed to straight facts on the page. There’s an implied truth to history when it’s told moreso as a story, as it admits that there’s no objective truth to the past. History is simply what we make of it. Pentiment is written around this idea, providing a means of exploring a point in history from an outsider’s perspective–the protagonist is not native to the region and we, the player, aren’t native to the time period. Rather than simply retell history, Pentiment affords the chance to influence it, and in doing so, delves into the subjectivity of historical record. Pentiment also features some fun nods to history with its fabulous art style and stylish fonts, but the narrative throughline of its three acts–a conspiracy of murder mysteries–feels lacking, given the frustrating restrictions to each investigation and the unceremoniously abrupt ending.

In Pentiment, you play as artist Andreas Maler, who is attempting to finish up his masterpiece while working for the Kiersau Abbey, which overlooks the Bavarian town of Tassing. A visiting baron draws the ire of both the farmers and craftspeople in town, as well as the Christian nuns and brothers of the abbey, but no one is prepared when he winds up dead. With Andreas’ mentor–a man too old and feeble to have possibly overpowered the baron–pinned for the crime, the young illustrator vows to conduct his own private investigation in hopes of bringing the true culprit to justice. In doing so, Andreas is drawn into a strange conspiracy of cryptic notes and unspoken secrets, and his actions shape both Tassing and Kiersau Abbey in a story that spans a quarter of a century.

Your actions have consequences in Pentiment. Most conversations can branch in a number of ways depending on the choices you pick, and Andreas’ relationship with those around him is further shaped by the resulting consequences. Oftentimes, these consequences are felt immediately–a worried wife catching you in a lie might not offer information on her husband, for example–but there are quite a few with much longer-reaching effects. During the second act of Pentiment, the game kept telling me that choice after choice I was making would “be remembered,” but it wasn’t until the final minutes of the act that the results of my actions were revealed. And in a twist of fate, my decision to repeatedly be nice to someone in the hours up to that point meant that they wouldn’t abandon me during a ous situation.

Pentiment often delights in these shocking outcomes in the latter half of its story, making for a far more exciting Act II and III in comparison to the rather meandering start. It certainly doesn’t help that the moment-to-moment gameplay isn’t all that exciting. Exploration is tediously slow, as fulfilling quests for folks can see you having to run from one side of Tassing to the other. Though Pentiment is depicted in a beautiful artistic style meant to emulate illuminated manuscripts and printed books of 16th-century Europe, the design of the world only changes between acts, and even then it’s not by a substantial degree. Until the story starts getting interesting, there’s not much to the experience beyond walking around and meeting people.

Talking with characters to learn more about Tassing and the matter you’re trying to solve is a lot of fun, but the game frustratingly limits how much of that you can do. Each day is divided into sections, with slots of time reserved for working, praying, and eating. Longer conversations will take up all of your available time for any one slot, meaning you’re unable to meet and talk to every single person over the course of your investigation.

All Pentiment entails, however, is meeting with and getting to know the interesting characters or pursuing leads for the matter at hand. That’s the extent to which you interact with Pentiment’s world. Putting a limit on how much of that you can do isn’t inherently bad on its own–lots of visual novels and RPGs utilize something similar so player are encouraged to best use their time and get to know the characters they like more. But within the scope of, too much of a limitation gets in the way of the fun. You just can’t dig enough into the people of Tassing within the confines allowed, leaving a lot of stones unturned when it’s time to present your evidence.

In theory, this system seems designed to push you to commit to one, maybe two, and put any and all time you have into figuring out their motive. But many lines of investigation in Pentiment lead to clear realizations that the person you thought might be the killer is, in all likelihood, innocent, and all the time you spent considering them was for nothing. So if you commit to probing the wrong person, you’re left with no time to scrutinize someone else upon realizing your mistake. But if you spread your investigation too thin, you might not have enough time to finish looking into anyone in depth. A system like this helps differentiate one playthrough from another, giving repeat playthroughs some variety, but it can make your first time through the game feel like you’re being needlessly taxed for wanting to conduct a detailed examination of every available. I’m also not a fan of the fact that grabbing dinner with someone can eat into your limited time as well, punishing you for wanting to learn more about the town and the characters unrelated to the matter at hand.

There’s some fun to be had in how you approach situations at least. Early on, you construct Andreas’ backstory–deciding what he studied in school, for instance. I opted for a man who had spent a bunch of time in Italy, had a knack for public speaking, the law, and the forbidden occult, and wanted to jump into the skirt of every woman in Tassing. And it was fun to have extra dialogue options that allowed me to flirt or talk about getting drunk in every other conversation or tell spooky ghost stories to the kids in town. And I used my knowledge of the law to aid the peasants in their troubles whenever I could. Pentiment goes a long way in rewarding the ways you shape Andreas, especially in how it allows you to get a better idea as to how people are feeling about what’s going on in the world. I just wish the game had allowed me the space to interact this way with everyone instead of cutting me off from all but the few I had time to deeply engage with.

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