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Pentiment preview – playing with history

GameCentral peers behind the curtain for Obsidian’s Pentiment and learns how it could make art and history fun for everyone.

Considering Obsidian Entertainment is already plenty busy with two major role-playing games (Avowed and The Outer Worlds 2), plus the full release of survival game Grounded (which is next month), we’re kind of surprised it has the time for a fourth project, but Pentiment isn’t quite like anything else they’ve ever done.

Announced during Microsoft’s not-E3 presentation in June, it looks like it has a much smaller budget than their other projects. So much so that you’d assume it was being helmed by a small indie team, and not one of Microsoft’s premier studios.

In a way, that’s not wholly inaccurate. We recently attended a digital preview for Pentiment, where game director Josh Sawyer (who also directed Fallout: New Vegas) revealed that the team consists of only 13 people.

Although it’s not unknown (Ubisoft did something similar with Child Of Light and Valiant Hearts: The Great War), that’s an unusual approach for any big developer, which allows smaller teams to put out more niche projects while everyone else focuses on the next triple-A blockbuster.

While we couldn’t play the game ourselves, we did learn plenty of new details, as well as the intentions and motivation behind Pentiment’s development. Set in Upper Baravia during the 16th century, a time when it was part of the Holy Roman Empire, you play as an artist who finds himself caught up in a series of murders and scandals that span across 25 years.

Described as a narrative adventure game, Pentiment is very different to previous Obsidian projects, something Sawyer admits to. Between its 2D presentation and emphasis on dialogue and character interactions, it feels more reminiscent of an old school point ‘n’ click game, like the classic Monkey Island titles.

It still bears some of the role-playing hallmarks from Obsidian’s other games though, as while you’ll always be playing as artist Andreas Maler, you get to build his background and personality yourself.

For example, his university background will determine what subjects he specialises in and this will contribute to what sort of choices he can make. Having the Orator background, for instance, can make it easier to persuade an old woman into not destroying the cross in her home.

These choices are also said to have lasting impacts (complete with Telltale style ‘this will be remembered’ word balloons), but we couldn’t clarify how much of an effect they’ll have on the narrative or its ending.

A lot of time has been spent on making Pentiment as authentic as possible, with art director Hannah Kennedy explaining how the team has been doing a lot of in-person and online research to ensure its art style and setting are accurate to the time period.

Some creative liberties have been taken, however, which is why the game will take place in a fictional abbey; to allow for the occasional anachronism. Although you’re unlikely to notice unless you’re a historian yourself.

The art style has had a lot of care put into it, aiming to evoke illuminated manuscripts from Medieval times and early modern woodcuts, making for one of the more unique looking games we’ve seen in a while – even if you can’t help think of Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animations.

Characters are depicted in different art styles to represent their sensibilities, so someone with old fashioned values will have an older art style, compared to our more modern protagonist.

Pentiment feels like something of a passion project for the team, especially since Sawyer himself has a history degree and studied this exact period during his time as a student.

There’s even a lot of significance behind the game’s title. Pentiment is derived from ‘pentimento,’ which is both the Italian word for ‘repentance’ and a painting term that refers to revealing earlier images or brush strokes that have been painted over – which is said to be very important to the game’s themes.

Hopefully the game will spark some players’ interest in the period’s art and history, but Pentiment does risk being something of a hard sell to the average gamer, given how much emphasis there is on the game’s overall aesthetic (the team even had trouble pitching the idea, until they had something tangible to show).

Sawyer appears to be aware of this, as one of the main aims with Pentiment is to keep the game simple and approachable, so that anyone can play through and enjoy it.

For example, while there are various types of mini-games (such as breaking sticks so they can be used for firewood), none of them will be remotely challenging and are more for ‘vibes and immersion’. So, there’s never going to be a moment where a mini-game will block off progress.

Sawyer also took time to highlight some of the accessibility features, such as an option to turn off the fancy font for those who may struggle to read it. Plus, there’s an in-game glossary to explain words and terms that may not be familiar to non-history buffs.

There remains a lot we don’t know about the game’s structure, the amount of freedom given to the player in how they approach tasks, and how much replay value it offers.

Judging from the roughly 18 minutes of gameplay we’ve seen, it looks like you’ll be given multiple quests to pursue in your search for the truth, but possibly a limited amount of time to attempt them. That perhaps suggests that you’ll be forced to miss some quests, so you need to prioritise what sort of information you want.

At this point, Pentiment feels like a game that the team at Obsidian is making for themselves, first and foremost. There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact it’s encouraging to see, as Pentiment is easily one of the more novel and intriguing games scheduled for release this year.

It probably won’t be a massive hit but given its small budget that’s not a problem. Plus, being on Game Pass will ensure everyone will be able to try it for free, if they dare. Pentiment’s apparent lack of challenge does mean everything hinges on its narrative and dialogue though, and that’s something that’s difficult to judge from just 18 minutes of footage.

Still, we’re hopeful the team’s enthusiasm for Pentiment will rub off on players and the game will be successful enough to encourage other major publishers into letting smaller teams work on their own passion projects.

Formats: Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Release Date: 15th November 2022

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