"Penny Arcade Episode 3 is a decent value for the money, as long as you keep your expectations in check."
As a fan of Penny Arcade, this is not an easy review to write. I've been following the series for as long as I can remember, and I've delighted in its dark sense of humor and commentary on gaming culture. When the creators announced their intent to make a game, I was cautiously optimistic, and my relatively low expectations were met with an enjoyable, if unremarkable, pair of adventures from Hothead Games. If nothing else, Penny Arcade: On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness has been a vehicle for some genuinely superb writing, and Episode 3 continues to deliver the laughs in spades. What it also delivers, however, is a disappointingly uneven game experience that reeks of squandered potential.
I've heard many times that Final Fantasy XIII is considered the epitome of linear game design. Penny Arcade Episode 3 effortlessly snatches that title away, and not to its benefit. Ninety-nine percent of battles take place at scripted locations and enemies never re-spawn, making it impossible to develop characters without progressing the story. A coliseum area serves as the lone leveling ground, but the amount of experience obtained there is an absolute pittance. To be fair, grinding is never necessary thanks to an even difficulty curve, but not having the option makes the game feel predictable and dull. Side-quests are also completely absent, much to my chagrin.
The small world of New Arcadia has very little to explore. New areas open up one-by-one, and there are no alternate routes aside from the occasional treasure chest just off the beaten path. One area, a haunted house, is an egregious offender: the party is split into two, and the player has to traverse the entire thing twice, scripted battles aplenty. Some clever dungeon ideas, including an homage to the oldest RPGs of yore, surface around the game's midpoint, but these stand in stark contrast to the rest of the game's uninspired setting.
The battle system is about what one would expect from a classically-styled RPG. Characters and enemies stand on opposite sides of the screen, unleashing turn-based fury on each other until one side falls. A few wrinkles come in the form of the item and class systems. Instead of being consumed upon use, items are replenished after every battle. Their potency and number of uses are upgraded by finding treasure chests or visiting a shop. Aside from the obligatory potion, I found the other items superfluous; healing status effects feels like a waste of time when characters are fully restored upon victory. The class system is considerably more interesting, with standard damage-dealing classes such as the Brute and Scholar alongside the amusing utility of classes like the ailment-inducing Hobo and prophecy-bearing Apocalypt. The overall balance is a bit off, as some classes feel outright weak while others have essential abilities useful throughout the entire game. It's a system that encourages experimentation up to a point, but once the player discovers a solid party build, there's no longer any incentive to switch things up. As a result, battles tend to fall into a pattern, with the only variable being a difference in enemy HP.
The game's disparate level of quality extends to its graphics. As I mentioned before, environments are largely unimpressive, save for a pair of mid-game surprises. The game shines graphically during battle, however, since Zeboyd's signature style meshes perfectly with the oddball designs of the Penny Arcade universe. There's a lot of creativity behind the plethora of well-animated enemy sprites, which makes discovering new opponents a pleasure. Ability effects are decent, but lack impact. I often felt that they were too fast, making them difficult to appreciate. I still have no idea what Jim's summoned skeleton looks like, and I've been using that ability since the beginning of the game.
There isn't a lot to say about the music. The battle theme is extremely simple, with a couple of measures that repeat indefinitely, and it started to grate on my nerves in no time. The boss theme isn't much better. The rest of the music is inoffensive, but unmemorable. Sound effects are recycled straight from Zeboyd's previous two games and also lack variety. Fireballs, ice spears, earthquakes, heal spells, and swarms of angry bees all sound the same: bwoop. How about punches, shotgun blasts, and claw swipes? Chik. I understand that the game has a retro aesthetic, but even NES games have more than two sound effects for battles.
The script is the one element of the game I cannot praise enough. Jerry Holkins' writing is nothing short of excellent, rife with wordplay and salacious wit. The trademark Penny Arcade sense of humor is wholly intact; Gabe frequently announces his intent to punch things, Tycho waxes philosophical about shotguns and paranormal phenomena with equal enthusiasm, and enemies with pun-inspired names outnumber their plebeian brethren three-to-one. I will never tire of fighting against dapper Flair-Wolves and tuxedo-wearing Epochosauruses. The few instances of dramatic dialogue are impressive and carry a poetic sensibility that tickled my inner linguaphile.
A good script does not necessarily make a cohesive story, however. From the beginning, the player is thrown into events at a breakneck pace, with character motivation often stopping at "we need to go to a place for a thing, so let's go!" While jokes are plentiful, it's difficult to get truly invested in the game's world because the distinction between humor and actual plot development is often unclear. The series' previous chapters can be very briefly recapped by examining two statues in the Startling Developments Detective Agency, both of which provide only a few text boxes to sum up quite a few hours' worth of story. It feels like a cheap way to boost the game's accessibility to newcomers and doesn't impress me from a design standpoint. Another nitpick: there's no option to adjust the text speed. Full boxes of dialogue appear instantly, and my overzealous fingers caused me to accidentally advance text on more than one occasion. This issue is exacerbated since the game's greatest strength lies in its writing.
At a final length of about six to eight hours, Penny Arcade Episode 3 is a decent value for the money, as long as you keep your expectations in check. Before long, an initially promising concept gives way to a fairly shallow gameplay experience. I have a lot of respect for Zeboyd, and I hope that the next episode of On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness will succeed where this one failed. Come for the game, but stay for the writing.