Pentiment - Murder Mystery Is In Its Renaissance Era
“pentimento” – noun
“a reappearance in a painting of an original drawn or painted element which was eventually painted over by the artist”
I didn’t seek out the meaning of Pentiment’s title until after I’d already finished the game, but upon learning its origins, it immediately became clear just why it’s so clever. Pentiment is a mystery-driven adventure game about uncovering a town’s secrets and history, and discovering how your own actions in the present will shape the town’s future. It is in parts about the choices you make, and in seeing how those choices can affect a community decades into the future, and in part about learning how those before you have rewritten how history sees their own origins and contributions. It’s a game unlike any I’ve played before, and while it definitely isn’t going to be for everyone, it also contains moments of beauty that make it an unforgettable experience.
In Pentiment, you play the role of Andreas Maler, a 16th century artist who is paying his dues working at Kiersau Abbey’s scriptorium (a place for writing and copying manuscripts) while he attempts to finish the masterpiece that will help his on his way to becoming a true master painter. He’s overworked, juggling monastery illustration work with his true passion while also ruminating on the fact that in order to truly be given the title of master, he must see through his arranged marriage to a woman he has never met, and who he will meet upon his return to his hometown of Nuremberg (once the manuscript has done). He’s in a complex headspace, having the relatable struggle of trying to work out his place in the world and whether or not he’s truly working towards his ultimate life goals, and things are already pretty tough for him – and then a murder happens.
Without spoiling too much about the events that follow, the person who is accused of this murder is someone Andreas holds in high esteem, and believing wholeheartedly in their innocence, the painter sets out to prove that they can’t possibly be the culprit, collecting evidence that incriminates alternate suspects amongst the townspeople. While investigating the crime, Andreas will need to speak to members of the community from all different walks of life, from the farmers and peasants (who live in the town of Tassing in which he resides while working at the monastery) to the monks at the abbey alongside whom he works every day, and as is always the case with a good murder mystery, he finds out a lot more than he bargained for along the way.
While Pentiment provides you with a journal and some tips when it comes to leads you might want to follow, or individuals you might want to talk to, it isn’t exactly a game that holds your hand. Unless you’re willing to explore areas on your own, you might miss key pieces of evidence that could open up doors you’d never even considered – but then it’s up to you what you do with the information you find. This is a game about choice, even though the narrative feels like it feels like whatever choice you ended up making was the inevitable one. From the dialogue choices you make in a single conversation, to the accusations you make around the true natures of those around you, everything is up to you, but everything feels simultaneously like you’re making the right choice, wrong choice, and only choice, even though the options are in actuality completely different.
What makes this feeling so impressive, is that you will see how your choices play out across 25 years of the town’s history. People come and go, lives are lost and created, and community dynamics will shift, and all of these can be affected by your decisions. I wish I’d had time to go back and play the whole game again a second time to see just how different things could become if I’d accused someone different, or followed a different lead, but doing so would have required starting a whole new save file (there’s no manual saving to be had here), so I can’t comment on exactly how much things change, I can only say that it certainly feels like you’re having an effect on the town. You can even see it in the small moments – sometimes dialogue choices you make in one conversation will come back to haunt you the next time you talk to someone, particularly if you’re trying to convince them of something they are hesitant to agree with. The game will show you the choices you’ve made that are affecting how likely they are to believe you, so you can see just where you went wrong if you were hoping to sway them, but there isn’t much you can do about it without starting the whole game over again. You, Andreas, and the town, must live with your choices.
In many ways, Pentiment plays like a point and click adventure. You’ll find information or clues about events that occurred in the town, which will then open up new dialogue options, or provide you with entry to a new area. Sometimes you’ll solve standalone puzzles to break up the action and give you a chance to learn more about the lives of the townspeople. Time passes in a way that means you won’t be able to investigate everything you want to, so you need to be sure about which leads you choose to follow. It’s tense, and even after completing the game, I honestly don’t know whether or not any of my choices were the right ones – but they’re the ones I made while being guided by my own morals, so I suppose they have to be. At the beginning of the game, you’re asked to make some choices that shape Andreas’ personality, which can help or hinder you at moments throughout the game, making him a skilled orator who is able to charm people with his words, or a logician capable of complex logical and deductive reasoning – among several other options. He can have a background in medical study, or philosophy, or extensive religious knowledge, and you can choose just where he came from, which can affect the languages he can read (and therefore how he interacts with some of the clues you find). There’s an element of customisation and choice even in a character that is otherwise deep and quite fully-formed.
I think that what you take from Pentiment will depend on the way you approach it. The town of Tassing is full of characters with rich interwoven histories and personalities, but you can only uncover those if you take the time to do so, and when you do, at times it can feel a little hard to keep track of everyone as the in-game years pass. This game is asking a lot of big questions about faith, religion, and socio-economic status, and the role that someone’s position in society plays in how much they are able to contribute to the way history sees them and the events in their lives. It’s very clever, incredibly well-written, and there is a lot of dense lore here – perhaps, at times, too much. The journal is helpful, but flicking back and forth through it can take you out of the action, so I found myself just wanting to see my understanding as ‘good enough’ to get me through until I found another way to give myself context.
Beyond anything else, what sets this game apart is its Renaissance-inspired art style and clear love for the time period. Every scene feels like it could be taken straight from a canvas, and every single object looked purposeful. Characters are expressive despite their simple and often hard to see features, and even the font choices are beautiful. Each character will be represented by a font that’s tied into what Andreas perceives their intellectual or academic status to be, which is genuinely one of the coolest ideas I’ve ever seen implemented. It doesn’t always work, given the font choices are (while period appropriate) often difficult to read, so turning on ‘Easy Read Fonts’ is very tempting pretty early on in the game if you don’t want to have to really work to read each bit of dialogue – but it’s still a very cool idea.
There are some things that held this game back a little, for me. None of the dialogue is voice-acted, which is entirely fine, but there are also long sections where there isn’t really any backing music, only the sound effects used to represent the scribbling of characters’ words on parchment as they ‘write’ them to you. This means that much of the game is silence and scribbles, and I wish that there’d been a little more going on. There are some dedicated sections where music is used perfectly, and even some moments where you’ll specifically listen to characters sing or perform, and these are nice, if occasionally a little longer than I wanted them to be. The religious setting, while definitely key to the game’s foundations, forced me at times to be a little more pious than I was comfortable being – but I know that this is a personal response, and many won’t feel this way.
There’s a lot to love about Pentiment, and a lot that will grant it a permanent place in my mind. The art style is unforgettable, the satisfaction that comes with gathering evidence and having the choice to decide how you use it is rare, and the town of Tassing (and the adjacent Kiersau Abbey) feel more alive than many other game worlds I’ve lingered in even longer than this one. The historical and religious setting won’t be for everyone, but the moral and philosophical questions it poses are important ones for anyone to consider, at least on some level. This game provided me with some clever twists and turns that I didn’t see coming, and the way it plays with time and the consequences of our actions is commendable. While it isn’t a perfect game, Pentiment is definitely something special, and it will no doubt find a core audience among those who are keen on a more cerebral historical mystery.
Pentiment was reviewed on Xbox Series X using a code kindly supplied by Xbox.