On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Video Game Review

June 6, 2008


Mike Krahulik and Jerry Jolkins, otherwise known to the “it” crowd as Gabe and Tycho from Penny Arcade web comic, are no strangers to the world of video games. So it should come as no surprise that the dynamic duo would eventually dabble in games themselves. As a result, we have the episodic Penny Arcade Adventures and the first of four in the series, On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness for the Xbox 360. The boys have been known to put many a game on blast in their web comic, and now we’ll see if their own game is worthy of such praise.

Episode one of the Penny Arcade saga kicks off, appropriately enough, on a dark and stormy night in 1920’s New Arcadia where evil is afoot; namely in the form of giant, house-stomping robots. Unfortunately for you, the “house-stomping” part applies itself a little bit too well as you watch your pad become yet another footprint.

It isn’t long thereafter that you bump into the main stars of the game, Gabe and Tycho. As members of the S.D.D.A, or Startling Developments Detective Agency, the pair of paranormal investigators takes you on as an assistant to help uncover the many mysterious supernatural happenings going on around town.

More Lovecraft than Warcraft, Penny Arcade’s gamer-centric material may have taken a turn for the occult but the brand’s trademark flair for quirky humor and snappy quips is in full effect. What’s more is that players can inject a bit of their own smartassery into the mix with SCUMM-inspired dialogue trees. The sort of choices and responses you make in the game don’t have a visible effect on the game’s outcome, but exploring the various hilarious permutations in conversations is definitely a lot more entertaining than most in the genre.

True to its namesake, Penny Arcade Adventures falls very much in line with Lucas Arts adventure game classics like Monkey Island, Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango.

With Gabe and Tycho being huge World of Warcraft fans, however, it should come as no surprise that Penny Arcade Adventures also features some MMO-flavored features in its design as well. The biggest influence from the genre comes at the game’s parallel quest lines, or, as Penny Arcade likes to call them, case files. Rather than progressing linearly, players can interchangeably switch between completing certain objectives ahead of the others in an unrestricted, free-roaming style. In theory, this sounds like a promising venture, but the game’s cases are so tightly wound together that the freedom of independent completion is really just an illusion.

Another aspect that lends itself to the game’s MMORPG influences is with weapon upgrades. After collecting some spare parts scattered out on the field, Tycho’s niece Anne can fashion stronger variants of your party’s core weapons. Apart from being useful in battle, players can also reference collected parts to track just how much they’ve progressed through the game.

And if scrounging around for parts isn’t enough to satisfy the collector in you, the game also features a spread of hidden concept art and content to unlock as you blow through every crevice of the game.

For an Xbox Live Marketplace game Penny Arcade Adventures has a good amount of content, though players will find that the journey ends a bit sooner than expected. With a total play time of around five hours, Episode One won’t hold its own as a standalone game, but then you’re only paying around $20 for it.

It makes bold strokes in melding a few genres together, but the puzzles definitely disappoint. You won’t find much challenge in the simple A to B tasks each case file disperses, nor will you ever have to rely on your inventory and MacGuyver-like intellect to creatively solve problems out in the field. Rather, most of the challenge of the game lies in its array of RPG-style encounters that threaten to do you in at every turn.

Combat in Penny Arcade Adventures plays into the experience almost as much as the adventuring itself. Here, the Penny Arcade crew is armed with what you’d expect from a traditional RPG battle: weapons for swinging, items for swilling, and hit points to keep it all in tally. What Penny Arcade Adventures does differently is with its treatment of special moves.

Instead of drawing upon reserves of mana or special points, your party slowly regenerates a ring timer which, if left alone to fill up, allows you to attack physically, call for help from a supporting character, or save up for an even stronger special attack complete with quicktime event inputs. If you really wanna wait, multiple party members can cross swords and execute a Chrono Trigger-esque double or triple tech for maximum damage.

That being said, battles usually take a turn for the defensive as you wait patiently for your special attack gauge to fill. Thankfully, the game gives you something to do during this time with button press blocking a la Super Mario RPG. Time it just right, and your character will either block or counter an incoming attack--a vital skill required for surviving some of the game’s more vicious battles.

RPG fans not fond of grinding will be pleased to find that the game features a fixed number of enemy encounters, though this actually comes as somewhat of a mixed blessing. With no way to reliably level up, you’ll have to slug through each battle in sequence without fail. While not a necessarily demanding task, the enemy scaling fluctuates quite a bit from fight to fight, making for an uneven difficulty that will catch some players off-guard.

That said, the battles in Penny Arcade Adventure are still a blast to play. The various mechanics hand picked from other games in the genre find a comfortable niche to fill that nostalgic RPG fans are sure to appreciate. Admittedly, the system isn’t quite as complex or strategic as others in the genre, but being able to splatter the pastel-colored remains of a clown all over the boardwalk with a well-timed overkill make it all the more enjoyable.

If there’s anything that sticks out the most in Penny Arcade Adventures’ presentation it’s the art, and rightfully so. Mike Krahulic’s trademark style looks great with the in-game portraits, and even better in motion thanks to the game’s bevy of gorgeous animated cutscenes that seamlessly work your avatar into the action. The cel-shaded graphics don’t quite impress as much, though they remain faithful to the web comic’s cartoon aesthetic.

Spotty as the graphics are, the game’s soundtrack, on the other hand, remains consistently strong throughout with whimsical orchestral scores that would feel right at home in a Disney animated movie. Well, one with hobo-kidnapping landlords and deranged mime cults, anyway.

While Penny Arcade: Episode One is no doubt a hopeful introduction into the world of New Arcadia, it’s hard to find the franchise’s bravado for monsters and mischief enough for a game relatively high in price and low on content. On the other hand, players with a soft spot for old-school RPG battles, adventure games, and Gabe and Tycho’s online misadventures will certainly find something to appreciate.

Version Tested: XBOX 360