WHERE better than a medieval monastery to set a murder mystery?
After all, it’s got everything – piety, devotion, strict rules, commentary on man’s nature vs spiritual calling, and a cast of fascinating characters.
Umberto Ecco certainly saw the potential in 1980 when he wrote the classic novel The Name Of The Rose (which was turned into a film starring Sean Connery in 1986), and now the genre has received another worthy entry in the form of the video game Pentiment.
Developed by Obsidian and published by Microsoft for Xbox and PC, Pentiment is a historical narrative adventure set in Bavaria in the earlyish 1500s.
The implied framing device for the story is the main character, Andreas Maler, essentially illustrating a Renaissance book about the events he experienced in the German town of Tassing and nearby Kiersau Abbey.
As the game opens, Andreas is a journeyman artist working in a Scriptorium (a room where medieval illuminated manuscripts are created) at Kiersau Abbey, alternating his time between illustrating a commissioned work for one of the Abbey’s clients, and working on his own masterpiece to cement his name as a Master Artist in the eyes of the Holy Roman Empire’s major artistic guild.
The Abbey is rocked by a shocking murder and while it seems the culprit is clear, Andreas believes an innocent person is being framed and sets out to investigate the murder and discover what really happened – which gets him tangled up in assorted scandals and sub-mysteries involving the town’s residents as well as the Monks and Nuns and the Abbey.
The outcome of his investigation will have far-reaching repercussions – as both Andreas and the player will discover.
The attention to detail in the game is truly remarkable. The star of the show is obviously the art style – drawing inspiration from Late Medieval illuminated manuscripts as well as Renaissance woodcut illustrations – followed closely by the way dialogue is presented.
The font for each character is different depending on Andreas’ perception of their education level – a barely literate peasant will have a handwriting-style font, educated people have a standard print font, Monks have elaborate gothic font, and so on.
Recognising that a lot of people struggle to read different fonts – especially fancy ones from centuries ago – the developers have helpfully added an option to make them into something easier to read, too.
Given the text represents handwriting, there’s a neat gimmick where mistakes are made and corrected as the character is “speaking”, and words relating to God or Jesus are rendered last, in red – as typically encountered in historical illuminated manuscripts. It’s a nice touch.
There is a lot of reading in this game. It is extremely dialogue heavy; there’s no combat, no jumping puzzles, no resource management.
The game helps this by having a sort of glossary – you can push a button to “zoom out” to see the whole manuscript page, with annotations explaining a concept or showing an illustration of a character to help you keep track of who’s who. Each time you change locations, it is shown as a page in a manuscript turning – and looking for the fun marginalia and drolleries (several of which are real examples, including my favourite which is a cat with what appears to be a rocket strapped to its back)
In a broad sense the game is a whodunit, and without spoiling anything I will say the reveal was genuinely rewarding and unexpected in a good way that didn’t feel like a cop-out or having Sir Not Appearing In This Game Until Just Now as the culprit.
While I adored the art style and loved the “different font for different classes of speaker” thing, I really felt the lack of voice acting held the experience back a bit.
The game is very much a visual experience and I appreciate what the developers are doing there, but it takes ages to get through the game and the lack of human voices (except, notably, for a monk singing liturgical songs) was very much noticed – the scratching of pens/quills was nice at first but got quite repetitive.
There are some fairly light RPG elements to Pentiment – you can choose a few background skills/experiences for Andreas, which may unlock different conversation options or responses – but I couldn’t work out if your skills were really making much of a different to the outcome or simply providing different forms of colour for the game’s events.
The game takes place over about 30 years and I liked how changes in the town and society were portrayed as part of that – for example, in the first two acts the days are divided by the Canonical Hours (widely used to denote prayer times, and by extension time generally, in pre-Reformation Christianity), but in the third act, a clock is used to represent the hours of the day shifting, representing the greater technology available at the time.
While I really enjoyed both the central mystery and the side-mysteries, I was disappointed there’s no way to replay specific parts of the game to see how each chapter’s sub-mystery plays out if you choose to investigate it differently. Once you reach the end of the game, you have to start over again if you want to see how things will play out differently (or give it a couple of weeks and look it up on a gaming guide site, I guess).
If you enjoyed books such as The Name Of The Rose or Ken Follett’s The Pillars Of The Earth (which, incidentally, was also made into a game a few years ago), I think you’ll particularly appreciate what Pentiment is offering.
The name is a clever play on words too – “Pentimento” is a concept originally from Renaissance art where elements of a painting which have been painted over become visible again, while there are obvious similarities to the word “Penitent” as it relates to a religious sense too.
Pentiment isn’t going to be for everyone, but if you have patience for it and can appreciate what it’s trying to do (and I certainly did), it’s a rewarding and enlightening experience which I’m very glad I’ve had the ability to play and enjoy.
The game is excellent in its own right, but what’s even better is it’s free on Game Pass (for the record, Microsoft provided me a code ahead of release so I could review the game) – so make sure you check it out if you’re looking for a slower-paced, visually distinctive narrative experience with an engaging and illuminating story.