"By the end of the game, the entire series is wrapped up neatly, and having played all four parts, I really appreciated that."
Finally, we've reached the ending of a journey that once appeared as though it would be cut off at the half-way point. The second half was undeniably different from the first, but I suspect that those who were in this journey for the story are used to things that are "different." And how did the home stretch of this particular trip turn out? Well, that all depends on how you felt about part 3.
Over the course of the first three episodes of Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, players made their way through a Lovecraftian tale of gods who were in need of being killed. At the end of Episode 3, the team found themselves separated and sent to a mysterious place known as Underhell.
Episode 4 picks up right where 3 left off, with a team split in two and having very little idea of what they should be doing. Based on what they've seen, though, they know that there's one more god to kill... and that their one-time party leader Tycho is probably not an innocent party in all of this. In fact, given his family's history of trying to destroy the universe, he's likely to have a big share of the blame for whatever's going on.
By the end of the game, the entire series is wrapped up neatly, and having played all four parts, I really appreciated that. On the other hand, although Episode 4 is short, it still feels like there wasn't enough story to fill the game; like the developers had to pad out the gameplay in order to justify having an entire episode for the story they were given. What's there is fine, and it fits very well with what went before, but it really feels like Episode 3 could have been extended by a mere chapter or three to finish the whole story.
The battle system in Episode 4 is nominally different than Episode 3, but it plays out in an essentially identical fashion. You have up to four characters in your active party, each of whom has their own equipment and two jobs. You also have an ever-increasing number of inactive party members, all of whom gain experience at the same rate as the active party. You can switch your active party members at any point outside of battle free, but must use an item to swap someone out mid-battle. As in Episode 3, items regenerate at the end of each battle, which eliminates the inventory-shuffling and item hoarding I find myself doing in most games.
For the most part, I found a group that worked for me and stuck with them for long periods of time, but the final section of the game is full of boss fights (most of which I lost the first time), and each one necessitated nearly full party switches to deal with the boss' strengths and weaknesses. Fortunately, if you lose a fight, you lose no progress at all — you're just returned to the moment before you engaged the enemy. You can still save at any point, but the only time you really need to do so is when you plan to quit playing.
Episode 4's graphics are, as far as I can tell, identical to those of Episode 3. They have a retro style that does not sacrifice clarity despite its pixelation, and it combines well with Penny Arcade — characters you know from the comic are easily recognizable here. The environments are perhaps more varied this time around, as are the enemies, but there are still a few issues with the screen getting too crowded during a battle against more than four enemies. It's not a huge issue, but if you use an attack that damages all enemies, you'll just have to wonder how much you hurt some of them.
Musically, there appears to be more to like in this episode than there was in its predecessor — I laughed out loud when I heard the Fish Force theme song. However, I really would have loved a bigger variety of battle music. As with most RPGs, you spend a lot of time in battle, and even if there's a different tune for bosses than for normal fights, you're going to hear that theme a lot. Likewise, you have a wide variety of playable characters at your disposal, but they tend to all sound the same. This does play to the game's retro style, but the "you spend a lot of time in battle" argument comes into play here as well.
This game supports both keyboard and gamepad controls, and both do their job well. As a retro game, there aren't a lot of different buttons to press, so you can learn the control layout in just a few seconds. However, there were a few annoying things that I'd love to see fixed in a future patch if possible. The biggest of them was that you can't Alt+Tab away from the window while playing. You can bring up Steam chat windows, but that's all. And there are no volume sliders within the game, so you either have to get the volume set correctly before you start the game or quit, fix the volume, and start the game again.
In the end, Penny Arcade Episode 4 is similar to the final chapter in many things. If you've gotten this far, you should probably buy it and finish the thing. As of this writing, it's only $5, and while it's short, you will get your money's worth as well as closure on a story that we weren't sure would get any kind of ending at all. If you enjoyed Episode 3, you're likely to feel the same way about Episode 4, but the reverse is equally true.