Pentiment – Zero Punctuation – The Escapist

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Oh god, games industry, would it kill you to show a little originality now and again? I’m so sick of playing game after game about journeyman artists in 16th century Bavaria. Why don’t you ever make games about being a soldier in World War 2? Or a space marine with so many LEDs on their armored pajamas they look like an alarm going off in a Christmas tree shop? For the benefit of the Youtube commenters, that was sarcasm. Apologies if you already picked up on that with your keen penetrative insight. That was also sarcasm. Anyway, yes. Pentiment is a point and click adventure game by Obsidian Entertainment, who, after The Outer Worlds succeeded in setting the world of gaming ablaze around as well as a spritzer full of slightly lukewarm water, have apparently decided to make one big last ditch effort to get some use out of their college educations before they go bust. In Pentiment, we play Andreas Maler, an artist serving an apprenticeship in an abbey in small town upper Bavaria who ends up having to investigate the murder of a visiting nobleman because the villagers are all too busy farming and the monks are all too busy knobbing each other and Columbo’s not due to be born for 400 years so your ability to write and be condescending to people make you the closest thing to a detective these reformation-era fuckwits are ever going to get.

Pentiment is visually very striking. All the backgrounds and characters are designed to look like Reformation-era woodcuts and margin doodles, and all the dialogue appears in an authentic medieval font and style that varies depending on the character’s status. Peasants have scribbly handwriting, artisans with access to printing technology get movable type, the monks have that elaborate gothic font you see on a lot of metal albums and on energy drinks that take themselves too seriously. The words actually fade and get bolder at points to simulate the writer having to refill their pen, sometimes you see typos that then get scribbled out and corrected. So much effort has gone into this authentic medieval manuscript being written before your very eyes feel, and there’s something about that that comes across as a little bit… what’s the word. Smug. A little bit “Crikey we did a lot of research for this one and by Pope Leo X’s holy kneecaps we are gonna put that on screen.” It’s like a dude wearing a T-shirt with an obscure academic reference on it standing in the corner of a party hoping to God someone will ask him about it.

Still, there’s a commendable effort on display in the writing. The town and abbey are just jam packed with fully realized characters from all walks of life, all with relationships with each other and unique secrets and situations, and your dialogue cup need never run dry. But there are so many characters it’s hard to keep track of them all in my head. If you click on someone’s name the game helpfully shows you a picture of them, which is of somewhat limited usefulness, I mean, with the traditional medieval costumes 90% of the game’s female characters resemble some breed of slightly harassed-looking penguin. In the third act you play as an adult version of one of the children from the previous act and I could barely remember who the fuck she was. Didn’t seem worth commiting all those little gremlins to memory after the first time jump happened and half of them died of the plague. Meanwhile, the depth of characters is inversely proportional to the shallowness of the environments. The whole game takes place in a small village over three different time periods, a village that somehow hits the sweet spot between being really pokey and yet just large enough to be really fucking annoying to have to keep backing and forth across.

On the off-chance that the prioress at the convent might have new dialogue relating to the fact that you just caught one of her novices putting shoes on the neighbor’s cat or whatever. Fast travel would’ve been nice. Would that have been too inauthentic? I wasn’t expecting Andreas to deploy the Fulton recovery system. It probably sounds like I’m being catty towards Pentiment, and that might be because I dropped out of high school and get insecure around educated people, but it’s also because Pentiment is one of those games that would be tagged on some hypothetical digital distribution service as “choices matter.” And as is becoming the running gag with such things, your choices do not matter for platypus poo. They make a big show of having you pick Andreas’ background and skill sets from multiple options like you’re picking your class in an RPG but all that results from you rolling him as, say, a Paris-educated hedonist is that you get a couple of extra dialogue lines here and there mentioning how he once brought himself off on the wall of Notre Dame Cathedral. None of the actually significant plot events change at all.

Even the choices around which the entire game revolves, choosing who to pin the murders on, don’t matter and don’t change much except some later dialogue and who no longer has a stocking over the fireplace at Christmas. And the reason why it doesn’t matter is that it’s doing that Sherlock Holmes Chapter One thing again where you pick one of the suspects who all equally plausibly could have done it and then the game goes “Oh, you think that’s what happened, do you? Interesting theory. Anyway, moving on.” What? Aren’t you going to tell me if I guessed right? Print the answer upside down at the bottom of the page like Slylock Fox? Well maybe the intended point of the game wasn’t just to be a straightforward murder mystery puzzle, Yahtz. Well what was the fucking point, then? To illustrate that medieval people really suck at investigating murders? Yeah, I guessed as much from the aforementioned Columbo deficiency. There’s also a Persona-style time crunch element that means you can’t follow up on all of your leads, so chances are good you’ll just end up fingering whoever you investigated most, and maybe that would say something about confronting our inherent prejudices. if I’d had any sense that my choice of suspect actually sodding mattered.

Still, the thing about murder mystery puzzles is they have no replay value, they’re all wrapped up and over the moment the guilty party breaks down in confession and Poirot puts his hat on. At least there’s lingering uncertainty around Pentiment’s story that might drive a second playthrough. At which point you will go “Hey hang on, I’m making completely different choices and exactly the same shit’s happening, big hairy post-Renaissance bolts to this.” Funny, isn’t it, nobody EXPECTS branching plots. Non-branching plots are perfectly acceptable. But the moment you promise a branching plot, or give the player the impression that their choices matter, then we inevitably get disappointed when it turns out they don’t. Here’s my advice: go into Pentiment expecting a nice, densely written slice o’life drama about 16th century European religious politics from the perspective of ordinary people. Then when you’re finished, put a bucket on your head so that you never play it again or discuss it with anyone else. Then you can craft a wonderful delusion in your mind that your choices were actually really important and if you’d taken a different route Andreas would’ve ended up moving to Gran Canaria and turning into a herring.

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