Xbox's 'Pentiment' embodies the idea of video games as art

Pentiment
(Image credit: Obsidian Entertainment, Microsoft)

At Gamescom 2022, I got a little hands-on time with an upcoming Xbox Game Pass launch title from Microsoft team Obsidian – Pentiment.

Pentiment was revealed in full at the Xbox E3-style showcase back in June. As expected, Pentiment is an artistic and unique murder mystery game from a team led by Josh Sawyer of Fallout and Pillars of Eternity fame. Taking place in 16th century Bavaria, Germany, the game tasks the player to solve a murder your friend has seemingly been framed for. The game is narrative-driven first and foremost -- similarly to titles like L.A. Noire, players will be rewarded for their deductive skills and attention to detail. Pentiment sets itself apart with a charming and authentic art style, reminiscent of a living tapestry.

Pentiment isn’t trying to compete with mega-blockbuster AAA-budgeted games, but from my brief time with the title, I found myself enchanted by its humor, refreshing art, and instantaneously gripping story direction. If you’ve ever fancied yourself a medieval detective, Pentiment may be your next favorite Xbox Game Pass title.

A mystery through history

(Image credit: Obsidian Entertainment, Microsoft)

In Pentiment, you play as artisan painter Andreas Maler who finds himself embroiled in a strange criminal intrigue that winds up having far broader implications than a simple murder might have you expect. My hands-on time with the game was relatively brief, clocking in at around 20 minutes, but even in this short space of time I found myself immediately enchanted by the mystery unravelling.

The 16th century was a time of political and social upheaval in Germany. Martin Luther famously led the protestant reformation out of Germany, which challenged the authority and superiority of the Catholic church. The proclamations of Luther also led to a popular uprising known as the Great Peasant’s Revolt, although Luther condemned the insurrectionists and sided with the nobility, which led to hundreds of thousands of deaths in the ensuing war.

Put extremely simply, Luther’s philosophy revolved around a more accessible version of Christianity that greatly influenced today’s versions. He translated the Bible from Latin and Greek into German for the first time, allowing followers in the peasantry to bypass the Catholic papal structure to access scripture. For this, Luther was outlawed and excommunicated from the Catholic church, and his followers were branded as heretics. These are just some of the historical events Pentiment finds itself among, and it makes for a very intriguing and dynamic backdrop for the game.

(Image credit: Obsidian Entertainment, Microsoft)

Set in the town of Tassing and nearby Keirsau Abbey, Andreas’ friend Brother Piero is mistakenly assumed to be the killer of a local Baron. Caught with a bloodied blade and a dead noble, the case seems closed to interpretation on the part of the authorities. Proving Piero’s innocence is your initial mission.

Pentiment is wholly a narrative adventure game, where player choice, dialogue trees, and deductive skills form the basis of play. Andreas is offered a range of options for making his first round of inquiries, including interviewing friends and family of the deceased, while also opting to join in on the autopsy at the abbey. You can also choose backgrounds for Andreas as well, which will present new dialogue opportunities and contextual clues that will guide you on your investigation.

I opted for the autopsy for my demo, naturally. I wasn’t expecting to see camera perspective shifts, however, as Andreas sketched aspects of the deceased it presented the grisly details to the player. 

(Image credit: Obsidian Entertainment, Microsoft)

Fans of true crime media or games like L.A. Noire will feel immediately at home in Pentiment. The autopsy revealed some crucial details about how the Baron actually died, but Andreas and his cohort were interrupted before any further examination could be completed. The state sent their own coroner to examine the body, and from his demeanour, it seems apparent that there are elements in society that want to see this particular murder covered up.

Obsidian’s signature wit and dry humor shone through in Pentiment, and while I didn’t get to see how my dialogue choices could affect outcomes, one has come to expect as such from Josh Sawyer’s particular brand of narrative delivery. Despite being a “smaller” game in terms of raw budget, Pentiment doesn’t want for quality, exemplified by its art, steeped in historical allure.

Layers of Pentimenti

(Image credit: Obsidian Entertainment, Microsoft)

It just so happens that I live in Bavaria, Germany, near the historic towns of Wurzburg and Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Rothenburg in particular is dripping in fairy tale charm, with some of Europe’s best-preserved medieval ramparts, buildings, and other structures. It’s also home to a large array of historic museums, including the Medieval Crime Museum, which is crammed with archaic tapestries, tomes, and information on the life and trials of our ancestors. In that sense, I felt uniquely placed to examine Pentiment at Gamescom. 

I am by no means a scholar, but my partner who works at a medieval museum found much to love in Pentiment’s attentiveness to history and detail. Pentiment’s user interface is essentially like a living manuscript, alive with stylized illustrations befitting of the time period. Selecting words from the script zooms out of the game to the page of a book, providing additional contextual notes on places and people in the borders. 

(Image credit: Obsidian Entertainment, Microsoft)

The loading screens appear like the turning of a page, and the dialogue boxes appear on-screen as inked calligraphy, complete with glistening ink as it dries, and even handwriting errors that get quickly corrected by the author. I’ve not really experienced anything like this in a game, and it feels like an ideal way to deliver a narrative adventure set in this oft-overlooked period of history in games and other media.

While my time with the demo was brief, it offered a glimpse at what to expect from Pentiment's historical murder mystery. The trailer for the game hints at far more involved events, showcasing things like riots, pagan rituals, puzzle gameplay, mini card games, and much more. Andreas' story takes place over a period of 25 years, offering up a broad canvas of potential scandals and drama throughout the course of the game. 

Pentiment embodies the notion of video games as art

The very word “Pentiment” and describes hidden layers within paintings that are lost as artists intentionally or unintentionally paint over them with new features or landscapes. It’s the perfect name for the game, as you delve through layer upon layer of a murder mystery that could have far deeper implications than its humble abbey roots may initially suggest. Every NPC I spoke to in the brief demonstration had something interesting to say, whether it was further historical context of the region and time period, or important details to drive the plot forward. Obsidian clearly did heaps of research to preserve the culture and climate of 16th century Bavaria, showcasing it through that uniquely Obsidian lens that makes some of their games the best in the business.

The wider media often debates whether or not video games truly constitute art. And while I think the debate is pretty tired and has already reached the obvious conclusion (of course video games are art), if you ever needed a title to point to prove the fact that video games are art, Pentiment serves as a very stark example. The raw quality that Obsidian is able to achieve both across smaller and bigger teams is always impressive to behold, and Pentiment looks set to sit among some of their most unique and intriguing titles yet.

(Image credit: Obsidian Entertainment, Microsoft)

I often feel like platform holders like Xbox have this strange expectation attached by press and commentators, which determines every game needs to hit multi-million dollar budgets. As such, I can see Pentiment being overlooked by some, and I frankly feel sorry for those people. After going hands on, I can safely say Pentiment is one of my most anticipated Xbox games for the rest of the year. I can’t wait to see how this game’s humble beginnings lead to some of the chaotic scenes we’ve seen from the trailer, and how the events of the 16th century will intersect and interweave with the fiction being presented by some of the industry’s most celebrated writers and game makers. I believe Pentiment is going to review very positively, and if you’ve ever enjoyed mysterious narrative adventure games, you absolutely need to put this on your list.

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Pentiment 

Pentiment is an upcoming Xbox and PC exclusive narrative adventure game from the team behind Fallout New Vegas and Pillars of Eternity. Play as Andreas Maler and unravel a series of political scandals and murder mysteries in 16th century Germany. Gorgeous art, witty writing, and devious puzzles await. 

See at: Xbox Store (Digital) (opens in new tab) | Xbox Game Pass (opens in new tab) 

Pentiment is targeting a November 2022 launch for Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Windows PC, launching day one into Xbox Game Pass.  

Jez Corden
Managing Editor

Jez Corden is the Managing Editor for Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!