Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Release Date: November 14, 2022
Reviewed On: Xbox Series X
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Genre: Narrative Adventure
The narrative adventure genre is rather niche, which makes it a strange inclusion on a first-party studio’s lineup. However, the team at Obsidian has proven time and time again that they understand how to create lasting narrative adventures in a cinematic space. Still, their newest release, Pentiment, strips away the graphical bells and whistles to be a minimalistic 2D experience. Although a game like this isn’t something you’d typically see from such a prominent developer, it hooked me on its clever systems and character writing.
Pentiment doesn’t set up its narrative or characters with a lengthy introduction explaining the period in which the events occur. Instead, we meet the painter Andreas in a dream, where he explains his current situation to a group of prominent names in history and philosophy. Although the player assumes the role of Andreas, he’s not exactly an empty shell of a protagonist. Still, he absolutely could be, and the character writing is just so good that I couldn’t imagine having so much control over the narrative.
Andreas has accepted a job at an abbot to illustrate a manuscript while he works on a potential masterpiece. As an outsider of the abbot, he isn’t completely held to the rules of the Monks and Nuns, so he has some extra freedom, including the option to disagree with some of the teachings or ignore orders. This is important after a high-class figure is found murdered, and he must investigate the scene, so an incent person doesn’t end up imprisoned. I choose my words carefully so as not to spoil any opening moments.
You see, there’s no true cannon to this title. The story beats don’t hang over the player’s head to make the “right” choices even though they may lead to future benefits. Further, the responses to dialogue have more effects than simply affecting how much an NPC likes you. Through conversations, you’ll gain helpful information about other events around town or people of interest. However, this is optional and will only affect your experience, but that’s neither good nor bad since there’s no right or wrong way to go about this game.
In the first two hours, you’ll set up Andreas’ backstory, which affects his interactions and responses for the remainder of the game. You have the option of changing the subjects that he studied in school to where he spent time living before arriving. Now, during dialogue, he’ll pull from this knowledge to assist, but using it may not always be needed. It’s clear that Andreas is an intelligent individual, but he gets along with most of the townspeople, which there are a lot. Thankfully, the exquisite character writing makes them all stand out as individuals. They are all memorable and have an impact on the issues at hand. Each interaction carries some weight, begging for the player’s full attention.
Some interesting systems of the game aren’t fully explained but make a considerable impact on character interactions. For example, townspeople have a specific font, which relates to how Andreas views their social class. This is supposed to mimic the speaking person’s handwriting as well, so if a character doesn’t know how to write, it first appears as jumbled letters, or if a person is yelling, you’ll see blotches of ink splattered. The font evolves over the 25 in-game years, which took me 17 hours to get through on my first playthrough. With that said, there is no spoken dialogue in the game. Surprisingly, this didn’t affect my immersion in the experience.
Other systems include highlighted text added to your glossary and light puzzles throughout the environment. Exploration is optional, but taking time to revisit areas during each part of the day sometimes leads to beneficial information. I would have liked more ways to interact with map, though, only to mark points of interest to which I want to return. Still, it at least points toward your current main objective.
Creatively, Pentiment’s minimalist approach adds to its 16th Century Appeal. Again, you’re shaping history through a storybook, and the designer’s used this to create charming illustrations and animations between characters that give it a high degree of charm. However, I wish Andreas had a few more reactions; I felt he could have used a bit more personality in that department.
The sound design of Pentiment is fantastic. Its ambient sounds of nature and bustling town life are often paired with beautiful tracks that fit right in this setting. I immersed myself in each area as the sounds reflect where you are in the world and what period.
Pentiment shows that even with a small team, Obsidian can create a narrative masterpiece. Its clever systems allow players to craft a unique experience through a gripping story fueled by some of the strongest character writing I have ever seen. Don’t let the graphical direction fool you; this is a beautiful game through and through. I can only hope to see more of these types of unique gaming experiences from Xbox Games Studios.
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