The term ‘educational game’ has gotten a bad rep over the years. It was once associated with marrying the interactivity of games with strong educational themes and lessons. However, years of less-than-solid experiences in the school library, along with games utilizing history as a backdrop, have come to dilute the idea of the educational game.
Even still, every once in a while, there comes a game that reignites the sparks that forebearers such as The Oregon Trail left behind. Pentiment is the latest in this line, and one with a minor twist: it’s for adults.
This move, on paper, is incredibly risky, but if there are two names that should inspire trust, it should be Josh Sawyer and Obsidian Entertainment. However, have they managed to create a game that educates and entertains in equal measure, or have they lost sight of the forest for the trees? Let’s find out.
To cut to the chase, Pentiment is one of the finest games of the generation, one of the finest games on the Xbox Series X… it’s one of the finest games Obsidian has ever made.
I have nothing but immense praise for this game, but to go back a few steps, Pentiment is a game like no other. Set in the 15th century, Pentiment is a point-and-click adventure with role-playing elements and a branching narrative. It tells the story of Andreas Mahler, an aspiring master painter in the small Bavarian (now German) town of Tassing. One day, when on his way to work, Andreas comes across a Baron. They quickly hit it off, but the next day, the Baron is found in the town’s abbey with a knife in his chest and a large blow to his skull, lying in a pool of blood. Andreas’ close friend, Brother Piero, is first on the scene and is quickly accused of the crime. Now, the onus is on Andreas to clear Piero’s name, solve the mystery and maybe even uncover the mystery behind the quaint town.
To say much more on the story just ruins the mystique around the game, so I will refrain from any further spoilers. However, I will be the first to say that both the writing and the narrative are superb. This game is not just well-written for a video game, it’s well-written period. There is a quiet brilliance to the dialogue here, touching upon controversial topics such as the protestant reformation, the intersection of commerce and religion and class politics with immense tact. Pentiment’s M for Mature rating is less a reflection of the content of the game, and more of the type of audience this work is targeting.
The aesthetics of the game are also incredibly well-realized. Taking inspiration from illuminated manuscripts from the time, Pentiment looks like a work from the time brought to life. Colourful, vibrant and striking, the game’s style is one of its best aspects. The visual stylings are coupled with a period-accurate score which is used sparingly but effectively. The bulk of the game’s audio is mostly folly sounds (fields being tilled, dogs barking, etc.) to bring a level of immersion to the environment.
The game does not have any voice acting, instead opting for the tone to be communicated through font styles. Aristocratic individuals use period-accurate fonts similar to the handwriting of their counterparts, whereas religious individuals have text which mirrors writings found within the churches and abbeys of the time. It’s an effective way to communicate a lot about a character with a little, and in several instances, the fonts will change as the characters grow and we know more.
Finally, I’d like to briefly touch upon the RPG elements which are found within the game. On the surface, Pentiment is closer in line to, say, a Telltale game or an old-school Lucasarts point-and-click adventure than an Obsidian RPG. However, as you peel back the layers, you begin to make choices that have profound impacts on the way the story unfolds. These choices can range from character backgrounds to a book you decide to gift a young child, but they have significant importance to the story. This adds an extensive level of replayability, which makes the low cost even more of a bargain.
To conclude, Pentiment is a superb game that marks an important step forward for its genre. Quiet, contemplative and intelligent, it is a shining example of what happens when a team is allowed to expand their horizons and take risks. Hopefully, Xbox will continue to embrace innovative titles like these.
As for Josh Sawyer, it remains to be seen what he and his team will do next (he has indicated in interviews that a Fire-Emblem style Pillars of Eternity game, a Fallout title and a bike shop management simulator are all on the cards) but I look forward to seeing it. Pentiment sets the bar very, very high.
Pentiment is available on the Xbox Store