In Obsidian Entertainment’s Pentiment, history is constantly building on itself. When traveling artist Andreas Maler visits the Bavarian town of Tassing, it’s already dealing with class division, liturgical disagreements, and community drama, all influenced by everything from interpersonal conflict to centuries of religious change to the political specifics of the 16th-century Holy Roman Empire. And then the murders begin.
The game takes place across 25 years, with Andreas and the townsfolk accumulating their own histories as time goes on. These are, of course, driven in part by the player’s actions. But the game is constantly revealing that its narrative roots go much deeper than that. Pentiment is about history as a force, as well as a moment.
You spend Andreas’ days exploring the town and speaking to its inhabitants, trying to understand the murder mystery that the artist has been drawn into. You can chat to as many people as you like, but they’ll sometimes invite you into longer activities in the form of small, simple minigames, like spinning wool or playing cards. Afterward, time will advance and push the plot along.
Pentiment’s art style is inspired by the late illuminated manuscripts and early printed books of the Renaissance era. Some of this translates smoothly into gameplay, like the ability to click on potentially unfamiliar words, causing the entire page to zoom out and display its decorative edges (as well as a definition for the word in question). The margins are stuffed full of those weird and wonderful animals famously included in these manuscripts, and they immediately bring a sense of style to what otherwise might be a dry history. Pentiment achieves that kind of liveliness throughout.
Still, not all of the bookish skin of the game works quite as well. Some elements were jarring at first, although they eventually meshed with the general mood, like the way that every line of dialogue is accompanied by a harsh quill-scratching sound. Other parts of the manuscript concept just never really worked for me. For example, when characters speak and their lines are written out, they often have errors that are then erased and replaced. These never blend fully into the aesthetic, instead halting the momentum of conversations.
Where the game’s push to evoke a living history succeeds much more consistently is in the town itself, and its people. There is a constant clamor of noise. The small tasks carried out while talking to locals feel tactile and sensory. Days are segmented and usually feature two meals, which can be taken with various families around town. These familiar moments ground Andreas’ story despite its setting in the past. In doing so, Pentiment excels at making its setting feel alive, rather than covered by the dust of time.
Nailing this sense of place and vitality is crucial to propping up its characters, who are central to Pentiment. The town’s dozens of inhabitants each have their own concerns, relationships, and secrets, and understanding — and helping — them is key to unraveling the mysteries of the town. But their struggles and dreams aren’t simple. They deal with poverty, political repression, and unfair hierarchies, and don’t always agree on the solutions to their issues. In this way, Pentiment doesn’t fall into the trap of conflating their political and personal demands with modern ones — but it does highlight that, despite its archaic trappings, the people at Pentiment’s core are nuanced, and their issues reflect those of today in complex ways.
The game uses that complexity to explore how much of a community’s direction can be influenced by one person. It’s not Andreas or the player that really propel Pentiment’s main storyline, but a complex web of interpersonal and cultural interactions. In fact, for most of the game’s run time (10 hours played quickly, probably 15 if you stop to pet all the cats), there’s a real sense that Andreas can detect but not fully comprehend the full scale of knock-on influences going on. It acts like a current under the narrative, driving you to want to know more while also feeling impossible to grasp.
There’s always more to do than time allows. After the first murder, Andreas is given only a couple days to come up with a culprit, and more leads than he could reasonably track down. Whoever you end up pointing the finger at, it’s not likely to feel satisfying; even less so when time passes and the people you inevitably upset hold an all-too-reasonable grudge.
Instead, dominoes fall, pushed by both Andreas and others — sometimes others who lived thousands of years before him. Its conclusion does tie together all of its threads in a fulfilling way, although it’s very much in keeping with the best of Obsidian’s previous work, like Fallout: New Vegas, in that there’s no easy choices, no “best” options that will lead to the “good” ending.
Because even though Pentiment is set in the past, it demonstrates how history is never static, and how it influences places, communities, and individuals. That’s something that’s easily lost when we look back through time, but Pentiment’s living characters and spiraling mystery won’t let you forget it.
Pentiment will be released on Nov. 15 on Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Xbox Game Studios. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.