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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In ‘Pentiment,’ characters don’t shy away from history or heartbreak

Pentiment

Developed by: Obsidian Entertainment | Published by: Xbox Game Studios

Available on: Xbox Series X and Series S, Xbox One, PC

Release date: Nov. 15

While playing “Pentiment” for this review, I was going through a breakup that was amicable but hard. Every day, I felt the loss of my best friend. If “Pentiment” were a gripping novel, I could have lost myself in it. If “Pentiment” were a series of bingeable television episodes, it could have distracted me.

But “Pentiment” is neither of those. Instead, the game asks you to slow down and pause. Admire Roman sculptures. Walk through the forest. Pet cats and dogs. Absorb the history of 16th-century Bavaria. The game can be soothing, but it doesn’t shy away from tough questions. And unlike a lot of modern-day content we consume — think reality TV, beach reads or quick battle royale matches — “Pentiment” expects a lot of the player.

You play a painter, Andreas Maler, who is visiting the town of Tassing and working in the scriptorium of a church. Andreas is friendly with the peasants, but he is clearly in a class above: eating better and having the luxury to enjoy his daily work and the freedom to go around solving murder mysteries. This class difference becomes a recurring theme in the game, and it’s well illustrated by the meals that different villagers have. While the baroness and abbot eat a fine amount of wild game and often leave leftovers on their plates, the Gertners, a family of humble farmers Andreas stays with, barely scrape by with gruel and some pieces of bread.

At first, you are left to decipher the European Gothic font many characters from the abbey speak in and follow along as Andreas goes through his morning routine, greeting peasants like Clara and Martin. Andreas walks through a series of illustrations as a 2D character, while the 2D map shows a bird’s-eye view of the neighboring farms, church, forest and meadow. At first, it can be hard to gain a sense of direction. Along the way, most parts of the game don’t have music. Instead, the sounds of birds, farm animals and bugs fill the air.

A few hours in, though, I found myself in the swing of things, growing enthralled by the storyline. You try to help clear the name of a colleague, Piero, who has been blamed for the murder of a baron. While Andreas repeatedly argues that Piero is far too old and frail to have killed the baron (the remark is a touch ageist), his case doesn’t hold much weight with the church, so Andreas decides to secretly investigate the murder and find the true culprit.

I found the story gripping. Andreas has a limited amount of time to find the killer and deliver the suspect to the archdeacon. In mere days, he has to investigate the whole village and abbey. Each village family has its own interesting dynamics, and many have unexpected secrets. Meanwhile, Andreas has to entertain various friends for lunch and dinner, and sometimes complete errands for neighbors.

The gameplay is simple: You control Andreas and walk around town, mostly going through dialogue choices. There are some minigames and rare quick-time events when the action ramps up. I honestly didn’t mind how easy the game mechanics were, becoming more engrossed in figuring out if I was passing dialogue checks. Characters remember certain dialogue choices and can be persuaded if you’ve said the right thing. Trying to read some of the more inscrutable characters, and prioritizing important conversations in Andreas’s extremely limited time, posed their own challenges.

“Pentiment” feels like a very interesting excerpt of an art history textbook bisected by a European history textbook, except that you’re able to walk around inside the books. There’s a glossary feature that helps define historical terms and adds to this sense that the player is just enjoying a series of playable, sleek books.

The game’s historical politics are fascinating, and it does a great job of weaving in real history like Martin Luther’s reform of the church, the Twelve Articles that were part of peasants’ demands in 1525, as well as pagan and Roman myths. The game even highlights lesser-known elements of history, such as gay monks. Having seen the ending, and then nearly finishing a second playthrough, I appreciated how real history is at the core of the story’s conflict. The class differences that are more easily swept under the rug during the first act of the game are still hinted at, as peasants note increased taxes and how rainfall collects downstream, making the farms more susceptible than the abbey to flooding. It’s repeatedly mentioned that women can’t own property, and depending on the playthrough, Andreas is able to help with that problem or not.

But “Pentiment’s” real strength lies in its character work and writing, as well as its gorgeously rendered art beside its more cartoonishly drawn characters. During a second playthrough, I fell in love with the entire ensemble. Once I finally learned the map and everyone’s names, it was fun to see the families evolve over the course of the 25-year span the game covers.

Life expectancies were short, but babies were also plentiful. Each generation built things to be just slightly better than the past. For instance, I expressed to a villager that I was very optimistic about love, and after a 25-year time skip, I was able to see my advice be followed. There was a lot of charm to the town bakery, inventor and printmaking shop, clearly meant to appeal to history nerds like myself.

The intergenerational struggles and historical accuracy brought to mind Min Jin Lee’s 2017 novel, “Pachinko,” which has since been adapted into a TV show. “Pachinko” is about a Korean-Japanese family, following them from 1915 in Japan to the United States in the present day. It’s obviously wildly different from “Pentiment” in terms of culture, time and place. But the same themes of existential crisis, feminine sacrifice, and the soothing sense that humanity can survive tragedy and violence by placing hope in the next generation carry forward.

“Pentiment” marks a departure from developer Obsidian’s previous titles that involved more role-playing, such as “The Outer Worlds” and “Pillars of Eternity.” There isn’t a lot of character customization in “Pentiment.” The player is unable to affect the characters’ core essence very much. Even though you can select traits and skills for Andreas, these only result in slight differences to the overall narrative being told.

Andreas is a talented artist determined to paint his masterpiece. He inadvertently gets tasked with solving the town’s murders. Both of these missions cause him a great deal of stress, and by the midpoint of the game, he’s clearly disillusioned and melancholic. Even though I directed Andreas to answer inquiring friends with positive, sunny answers about his outlook on marriage, kids and his career, it was clear that his depression was bleeding through.

Curious, I sought to change this outcome in my second playthrough. I tried to answer every villager who asked how I was doing with nice pleasantries, similar to how I’ve answered most friends who asked me about the breakup by saying I’m fine and happy. But Andreas’ actual mental state isn’t something players can affect or cover up.

But even though I chose a different murder suspect for the archdeacon to order executed, some characters still expressed anger over Andreas’s role in the investigation, and a dark cloud was still cast over his time in the town. It seems like the game was simply saying that no justice could be served with this kind of circumstantial evidence and amateur sleuthing. There is no right answer. And Andreas, try as he might to deny it, knew he had condemned a potentially innocent person to death. That weighs on his conscience.

In my first playthrough, I made Andreas a hedonist, and he ended up upsetting his wife with his various affairs. On my second playthrough, his rapscallion antics made his wife lose respect for him. And no matter what I did, his son could not be brought back to life. His mind palace, represented by a literal palace, is completely askew, even after he told everybody he was enjoying a lavish life of riches and fame.

“Pentiment” has no New Game Plus. There’s no benefit to replaying the game, besides the personal satisfaction of enjoying more meals with different characters and fitting more tasks into the limited time Andreas is given. After I figured out the true culprit of the murder, I tried to replay the game to catch them faster, but there was no option to do that, either. It is frustrating, but fitting, to see history repeat itself, over and over, in the end.

“Pentiment” invites players to just sit with the sadness of hard truths: of a loved one passing before their time, of a loveless marriage, of peasants suffering while the church enjoys more wealth than it knows what to do with. While playing, I found myself repeatedly pondering my own life and mortality, as well as wondering about the state of the game developers who had worked on this title and how they were faring.

The game’s name refers to the reappearance of an element in a painting that an artist had painted over. As much as characters in “Pentiment” might fight to maintain the status quo or to turn away from history and heartbreak, they’re no match for the forces that send humanity hurtling forward. While I initially started “Pentiment” hoping for a riveting distraction, what I ended up with was a game about uncovering history and past trauma. In many ways, it is more admirable, brutal and perhaps healing to just face these problems head on.

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