Forget about knights, princesses, castles or troubadours: Penance Although it borrows its aesthetic from medieval manuscripts, the new game from the Californians at Obsidian Entertainment, which is scheduled for release on PC and Xbox on November 15, propels us a little further back in time. The action, which we got a glimpse of during Gamescom in Cologne at the end of August, takes place in the early 16th century.me century in Bavaria, in full Renaissance.
Its protagonist, named Andreas Maler, wears neither armor nor helmet. He is wearing shorts and a hat. He also doesn’t excel at swordsmanship, more like penmanship. His profession? Manuscript artist. His superpower from him? His ability to reason and argue with people from all walks of life. He stands out profoundly from the medieval warriors that abound in video game productions.
Half artist, half detective
By slowing down action in favor of abundant dialogue, Penance constitutes significant risk-taking for its director, Josh Sawyer, chief thinker of Fallout New Vegas (2010), one of the most beloved installments in the post-apocalyptic franchise and co-creator of pillars of eternity (2015).
The director does not lose sight of the fundamentals of the role-playing game that has made his specialty, and the introduction does not escape the traditional hero customization phase. Except that, contrary to our habits, there is no question here of defining the look of Andreas, whose appearance is reminiscent of Albrecht Dürer, one of the most famous German designers of this time. Rather, it is necessary to fill out a kind of curriculum that familiarizes us with the profile of the intellectuals of the time. Would you rather Andreas be good at Latin or occult? If he studied medicine or theology? Did he travel to Italy or Flanders to train? The chosen paths will guide our game and will open (or close) the field of possibilities in the dialogues.
Your progress is similar to that of an interactive comic strip: words written with a pen are displayed in bubbles. During each discussion, questions or reactions are suggested to us. It is up to us to choose the most suitable one.
The dialogues are motivated by an investigation after a murder. Our Bavarian artist seeks to identify the suspects and unmask the culprit by questioning the inhabitants of a village and a monastery, just like in an Agatha Christie novel. In the manner of the novel. The name of the rose, by Umberto Eco, a crime novel transferred to the Middle Ages, the anachronism allows the player to grasp a time with customs very different from ours. It is up to us to adapt to this exotic socio-cultural context, whose authenticity is one of the main concerns of the team at Penancewho hired the services of three historians.
Neighbor survey goes wrong
Our game is punctuated by a twenty-minute encounter with the Widow Kemperyn, a woman of execrable character who spends her time rejecting and blaspheming us. In the absence of cooperation from her, we try to appease her by collecting wood for her, which offers a chance to relax with a mini-game phase.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t work. Impossible to get the worms out of the widow’s nose, which nevertheless exposes us to the tragic circumstances at the origin of her bitterness. We realize in hindsight that, during the exchange, our haste to pressure the poor woman to get her testimony only hurt her feelings. Worse yet, our clumsiness was met by a notification that our actions will have consequences for the rest of the adventure.
Next to us, one of our colleagues who has chosen another path is copiously mistreated by a blacksmith. Testing our will, making us feel cheated by interlocutors who do not care about us, paradoxically increases the realism of this paper world.
Within Penance, non-player characters (NPCs) don’t just seem to be there to reward us with useful information or regularly awarded items to keep our attention. The villagers found may well be ordinary people, but they are dignified beings with a well-thought-out psychology. Each one is a small puzzle that must be deciphered taking into account their social status and motivations. It is what represents the role-playing video game (generally designated by the acronym RPG, for role playing game) in its most mature and fascinating form.
Since the demonstration organized by Microsoft was strictly limited to thirty minutes, it is impossible to know if Penance maintains such a density throughout history, which spans twenty-five years. Still, its mix of brains and humor makes it one of the most unique jobs interviewed at Gamescom 2022… and certainly one of the most promising of the year.
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