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There's a good chance you know Obsidian Entertainment's Josh Sawyer as the lead designer on Fallout: New Vegas and Pillars of Eternity. But if you've been following the man's career, you might also know him as a bit of a history buff.
As such, it's no surprise that following Microsoft's acquisition of Obsidian, which resulted in greater freedom to experiment with more unorthodox projects, he jumped on the opportunity to direct a very much historical title in Pentiment.
The game itself is described as a narrative-driven adventure focusing on character development, heavily stylized art, and choice-driven storytelling in early 16th-century Bavaria. And with it being the latest Josh Sawyer production, we simply had to check it out.
All the World's a Game
Pentiment, the game's title, is derived from pentimento, a not exactly commonly used word defined as "a reappearance in a painting of an original drawn or painted element which was eventually painted over by the artist."
As far as titles go, this one is surprisingly apt, since the game's themes all revolve around this idea of old and long-since-buried things reemerging on the surface and wreaking all sorts of havoc.
The title makes sense if we look at the game's central decades-spanning mystery surrounding a series of murders in Tassing, a fictional Bavarian town, and the Kiersau abbey neighboring it.
It makes sense when we start delving into Tassing's history which stretches all the way from pre-Roman times and to around the invention of the printing press when the latter starts to gradually push the abbey's renowned book-writing scriptorium into irrelevance.
It also makes sense once we involve ourselves in the lives of Tassing's commoners and get a chance to watch generations change, children grow up and older people pass away or become progressively crankier.
And it even makes sense on a personal level for our protagonist Andreas Maler, initially a young painter with a lot to look forward to in life, but eventually a man with plenty of regrets and things he wouldn't mind forgetting.
When it was originally revealed, Pentiment was positioned as a narrative RPG following in the footsteps of Disco Elysium. It was later rebranded into a narrative adventure. Games like Night in the Woods were mentioned among its inspirations. In fact, at some point, Pentiment makes a not-so-subtle nod to Dear Esther, a title you might know as a fairly prominent example of a "walking simulator."
And so, here we come to the rather tricky hurdle of defining what a game even is and whether Pentiment qualifies. Which is only slightly easier than defining what an RPG is.
It's generally accepted that for a piece of interactive fiction to be considered a game, it needs to have express or implied failure states. Pentiment doesn't go easy on us here, as it seems that even if you don't engage with the game in any way other than mindlessly clicking on its perpetually highlighted hotspots, eventually you'll end up solving its central mystery.
If all you care about is learning whodunit, then chances are you'll be disappointed by the lack of agency in figuring it out. However, if you engage with the game on its own terms, you'll soon realize that it's the journey, not the destination that matters here.
Throughout the game, Andreas, being an artist instead of a detective, will have to balance his crime-solving hobby with his professional duties at the abbey. And with Pentiment being set in the simpler times when people lived in communities and interacted with their neighbors on a regular basis, Andreas will also be building friendships and rivalries with the townsfolk.
And it's precisely those parts where you have plenty of room for failure. Once you become a part of Tassing, you'll be able to influence it in various, oftentimes unpredictable ways. Maybe you'll decide that you want to help out some family that's been kind to you or maybe you'll take it upon yourself to expose some crook. But making that happen can actually be quite tricky.
Moreover, it can be hard to predict how your actions will end up affecting Tassing and its inhabitants in the long run. And with the way the game is structured, you'll get plenty of opportunities to face the consequences of your choices.