Penny Arcade Adventures Episode 1: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness review
Shaun gets stuck into Penny Arcade: the game. So, that's the game version of an online comic strip about gaming. Okay, then...
Like many gamers I’m a fan of Penny Arcade. The thrice-weekly strip successfully walks a fine line between highbrow and lowbrow humour. Its efforts at satire can be heavy-handed, but this doesn’t make them less amusing or true. It helps that Tycho has a knack for distinct dialogue and clearly understands the dynamic between the strip’s two main characters (something most of their imitators fail to understand), and that Gabe’s art has, over the years, evolved into something visually arresting, unique, but most importantly charming.
So we have a writer with a unique voice and an artist with a unique style. You have two very well-known characters. And you have a huge community of fans and readers, almost all of whom are gamers to some degree. Given this it seems strange that it took this long for a Penny Arcade game to appear. Obviously this has been made possible by changes in the market in recent years; smaller-scale games and indie releases have become increasingly economically feasible – thanks in no small part to the new heavyweights of digital distribution like Xbox Live Arcade and Steam. It must be an exciting time to be a small developer.
You’ve made it three paragraphs in, so thanks for humouring me and I’ll get on with talking about the game now. In case you’ve drifted, that’s Penny Arcade Adventures Episode 1: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness. That alone squarely places us in RPG territory. The genre can delight in names like Chronicles of Hero: Epic Struggle against Evil IV: The Stabbing. Generally this is because the writers and designers are taking their cookie-cutter tales of cod-medieval combat far, far too seriously, so poking a bit of fun at foolish conventions is a welcome thing. That said, I was concerned that the game might turn out to be as flawed as the similarly parodic Bard’s Tale (Xbox) or as limited as Progress Quest (probably the most accurate satire on CRPGs ever put to code).
Gameplay consists primarily of activities in two different areas; an explorable game world, divided into levels and areas and populated with objects and NPCs, and timer-based combat in which you and your opponents use skills, special abilities and items to beat the crap out of each other. This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Yes, it all sounds a bit JRPG, a genre recently revitalised by Final Fantasy XII (which turned away from a format famous for scripted melodrama and tedious grinds in favour of a format lifted from MMOs, which are in turn famous for social melodrama and tedious grinds).
Fortunately, the combat is an absolute joy to play. This is the first game of its type in which I’ve really wanted to learn the ins and outs of the different characters, to max out their abilities, to discover what works best against the different enemies you face, how to correctly block and counter, and so on. In other words I wanted to be good at it because it was fun, rather than because I wanted to get the fight over with quickly so that I could move on. The characters are animated and designed with charm and wit, and plenty of imagination has been put into the various attacks you’ll see. A few of my favourites would be the hobo who holds up a sign reading “Will Deal Damage For Food”, and the mimes with “I’m Throwing A Boulder At You”. It’s not outrageously funny but it’s a lot better than smacking someone with a sword twice the length of your body, and I like that.
The game’s small scale also boosts the combat’s appeal. There are three player characters and about twenty different opponents spread across four areas and about 6 to 10 hours of playtime. Mastering this seems a lot more attainable than the sixty or eighty hours you need to finish the story of many JRPGs, let alone the absurd demands top-level characters or equipment make on players. You’re left free to enjoy the game for what it is rather than being faced with the realisation that you’ll be repeating the same actions for the next three billion years.
The exploration aspect of the game is a lot simpler. You run about and talk with characters (most of whom repeat the same few looping lines), smash objects to collect items, approach enemies to fight them, and occasionally meet NPCs who offer you quests. The game areas are small but distinct and nicely designed, which helps make up for the irritating and surely unnecessary loading screens. Then there’s the fantastic character dialogue in those special NPC conversations, and the well-judged facial expressions which add a lot to the humour. Occasionally the jokes fall a little flat but most of the conversations you’ll have will prompt you to crack a smile, and a few will probably make you laugh out loud (Gabe’s aside to Tycho after your first conversation with Anne-Claire did it for me).
Overall this foul-mouthed sense of humour makes the game, instilling it with a sense of narrative purpose more through its wonderful characters than the plot (giant clockwork robots, evil mimes, crazy hobos, etc). Alone this wouldn’t be enough to make more than a flawed gem, but when married to an entertaining combat system that demands skill, good timing and planning in equal measure, it results in a game that I can only recommend. My one reservation is whether the sequels will be able to provide enough variety on the combat formula to make the series worth pursuing – but we’ll leave that concern for episode 2, because episode 1 is more than worth your time and money.