Just when I thought I had my top 10 games of 2022 sorted, Obsidian release Pentiment, forcing me to shred my former list and grab my quill and ink for a rewrite. It’s an odd pairing on paper – a detective thriller about a string of grisly murders set in the quaint countryside of 16th-century Bavaria – but, surprisingly, this coupling is a match made in heaven.
Its captivating story of conspiracy and murder is as rich and dense as its setting, and it’s clearly made by a passionate team who have a deep love for the period. Playing Pentiment feels like riffling through the painterly pages of a medieval manuscript, but instead of finding the written gospel of saints and sinners, there are tales of angry farmers, greedy landowners, church scandals, religious turmoil, and murder. Fundamentally though, it’s a historical tale about faith and truth, and the lengths that people are willing to go to preserve them.
You play as Andreas Maler, a travelling artist who has been commissioned by the church to illustrate monastery manuscripts in the rustic town of Tassing. With printing presses on the up and up, the church’s control over the writing and distribution of books is quickly becoming obsolete, during a time when long-held religious beliefs are being questioned too. With church taxes and greedy landowners squeezing pennies from peasants, tensions are slowly rising in the quaint countryside town. Then, to top it all off, a visiting nobleman only goes and gets himself murdered, sending ripples through the small community.
With his friend and mentor accused of the crime, Andreas sets out to find the real murderer. This is the 16th century, so with no modern crime-tech wizardry the best tool during your investigation is the gift of the gab. Andreas has a sketchbook for noting down investigation leads – as well as some handy maps and character profiles – but the only way you’re going to solve this murder is by speaking to the folk of Tassing to rummage through all the rumours, gossip, and general chatter of the town.
Near the beginning of your investigation, you get to define Andreas’ backstory, like where and what he studied, and these will trigger little Disco Elysium-esque pop-up prompts in conversation. A passion for occult magic might help you decipher ancient symbols, or a background in theology might give Andreas an edge when debating the church’s pushy monks. Your background choices also come into play when trying to pry out juicy bits of information from characters or asking them for favours. These character-building choices, together with your actions and dialogue picks, can help or hinder you with the mystery, like how I royally fluffed up my chances at getting an important clue from a nun because earlier in the day I’d run my mouth off about how shit the church is. Oops. On the flip-side, my anti-church ramblings had gained the favour of some of the local peasants who then let me in on all the hot goss from around town.
This tension between the townsfolk and the church is another aspect that you’ll have to carefully navigate, and it’s a big theme throughout the whole game. I think the focus on your relationships on this hierarchical ladder is much better placed than if it were solely on detective work. No Sherlock mind maps, clumsy LA Noire item inspections, no combining tat to make more tat, or obsessive Obra Dinn notetaking.
Sure, the game has plenty of detective game favourites – ciphers to decode, secret passageways to discover, notes soaked with blood, and the like – but there’s much more of a focus on world-building as Pentiment’s story is just as important as its mystery. There’s more than one suspect and you’re more or less free to pursue who you think dunnit, but whoever you eventually point the finger at has a direct impact on this community in what quickly unravels into a 25-year-long conspiracy. It’s difficult to explain exactly how your finger-pointing has impact without spoiling anything, but I’ll just say that I’m desperate for another playthrough to see how else I can twist the course of history for this little European town.
While multiple playthroughs aren’t needed, it almost feels like a must from the sheer volume of historical information Pentiment holds. The love and passion that has gone into researching this period is honestly incredible. It’s all a bit overwhelming at first – what the times of days are called (Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers??), who the hell Saint Luke is, what wanderjahre means, the various chambers of a medieval monastery, how well you know the writings of Martin Luther and Thomas Aquinas, on and on and on. Thankfully, you don’t need to be a medieval scholar to unravel Pentiment’s mystery (although it would certainly help), and a lot of it went straight over my head, but I love how Obsidian shoved it all in there anyway, together with the art style, the inclusion of so much information further helps the world-building.
I haven’t even talked about the art style yet! I mean just look at it. It’s like you’ve tumbled straight into the pages of an illustrated medieval manuscript. It’s gorgeous, no doubt, but what you can’t tell from the static screenshots is that there are also so many exciting little flourishes that, yet again, show how much love went into this game. A couple of examples: peasants, townsfolk, and church members all have their own style of font depending on their education and status. Ink in dialogue bubbles begin to splatter when the person speaking gets angry. When a character starts to grow old, their artwork will start to show signs of fading at the edges. It’s all beautifully crafted and nicely brings everything else in the game together.
I can’t recommend Pentiment enough. It’s an enthralling murder mystery (with a satisfying conclusion, I might add) and its use of Europe’s rich history during the 16th century as a backdrop is incredibly astute for a detective tale focused on faith and truth. Pentiment can sit nicely next to the likes of Paradise Killer, Disco Elysium, and Return Of The Obra Dinn as some of the best mystery games on PC. This is definitely one for the history books.