Editor’s Note: This review covers both Episodes 1 and 2 of Penny Arcade Adventures.
Author’s Note: this game includes a character whose name is… a naughty word. If you’re offended by naughty words, please click away to something less salacious, ignore my score, and don’t play Penny Arcade Adventures. It’s a good game, but it’s not for you.
When I went to E3 in 2004, I got to see a lot of interesting games and famous people. Among them were Stan Lee and (at an unrelated table) the creators of the Penny Arcade webcomic. The fact that Stan Lee’s line was much shorter was depressing, but it was also an indicator of just how popular Penny Arcade is among gamers. Given that popularity, I was hardly surprised when they announced a video game based on the comic. An adventure/turn-based RPG was maybe a surprising choice, but my biggest surprise came when bad sales caused them to only release two of the planned four episodes. Well, I didn’t let that stop me – given the number of elements of Penny Arcade Adventures that appeal to me, I was still interested in half a game. And I’m happy I did – the day I finished this review, Zeboyd Games announced that they’ll be picking up where Hothead left off. They plan to release Episode 3 some time next year, and I hope they pull it off!
In Penny Arcade Adventures, you play as a random citizen of the suburbs of New Arcadia, a 1920’s steampunk metropolis. While out raking your lawn one day, an enormous robot walks by, crushing your house. A quick glance at the perpetrator is all it will take fans to recognize the robot as an enormous Fruit Fucker from the comic. The robot continues its path of destruction, pursued by Tycho and Gabe of the Startling Developments Detective Agency. You’re clearly out of your depth, but this is all in a day’s work for them, so you follow along, armed only with a rake, and quickly become caught up in their larger quest to stop the forces behind the giant robot. By the end of Episode 2, you have killed 2 gods, or at the very least destroyed their mortal vessels.
In addition to the webcomic from which it gets its name, this game draws loving inspiration from the works of H. P. Lovecraft. If either of those sources are distasteful to you, you will not like this game. It’s rare that I feel I can make such an unequivocal statement, but in this case, there’s no question of its veracity. You need not be an expert in either one to enjoy Penny Arcade Adventures, but the final boss of Episode 1 will mean a lot more to you if you know a bit of Lovecraft, and you’ll certainly be in a better position to appreciate the Episode 2 cameo of Twisp and Catsby if you’ve read some Penny Arcade. It’s written well, and the comic’s dark brand of humor comes through loud and clear.
True to its name, Penny Arcade Adventures pairs RPG combat with adventure game-style problem solving. The combat is turn-based, and uses an Active Time Battle system. Each of your party members has a 3-tiered timer for item usage, standard attacks, and special attacks. The item meter fills quickly, followed by the regular meter, which fills more slowly, and finally the special attack meter, which fills still a bit more slowly. If more than one character’s special meter is full, they can perform a team-up attack for bonus damage. Near the beginning of the game, damage is damage, but you encounter enemies later on who are resistant or weak against certain attacks. It allows for a nice learning curve; the game requires more of you roughly at the same pace as you become more familiar with the combat system.
Outside of combat, you have quests to complete, some of which are about killin’ some hobos or mini Fruit Fuckers, but others are about solving riddles and finding the objects you need to proceed. There’s nothing overly complicated, and the combat is clearly the focus, but the adventure portions of the game add some nice depth and keep it from becoming overly repetitious. The only negative in the gameplay is that you reach points in both episodes where you are forced to play minigames in order to proceed. I enjoyed the minigame in Episode 2, because it is a puzzle game that feels in keeping with the rest of the game. The minigames in Episode 1, however, are twitch-based, and I played only the bare minimum amount that I was forced to play.
Much of your control input, whether in or out of combat, is mouse-based. Outside of combat, you point and click to move places, use or examine items, and talk to people. The cursor changes based on what you’re currently pointing at to let you know what you can do there. Unfortunately, there are times when this method doesn’t work out as well as you’d hope. I ran into many cases where a spot on the ground seemed perfectly reachable by foot, and yet I could not click on it to move there. I also noticed that the characters take a fairly straight-line approach to pathfinding, meaning that if there’s an obstacle between them and the place you want them to be, you need to click to the side to make them walk around it. Both of these problems are more pronounced in Episode 2, but they exist in Episode 1 as well. I had one other issue, and it was consistent through both episodes: when you click an item to examine or destroy it, you get a screen telling you about what you see or picked up from the newly-destroyed item, with a message to click anywhere to continue… except that clicking didn’t seem to do anything. Perhaps the developers thought I’d read more slowly, and I just wasn’t patient enough. Hitting the space bar let me move on quickly enough, but the message to “click anywhere” was a constant annoyance.
The one area where the keyboard comes into play is when executing special attacks. These are essentially keyboard-based minigames, and the better you do at them, the more damage you do. In fact, you gain a permanent damage bonus if you kill an enemy with a perfectly-executed special attack, which is pretty cool. It’s definitely motivation to wait for that last meter to fill up! Each character has a different style of button presses, and it changes from Episode 1 to Episode 2. For example, in Episode 1, the character you design wields a rake, and its special attacks are reminiscent of the Judgement Ring in Shadow Hearts. There is a circle with four highlighted areas, and as an arrow moves through them, you need to hit the space bar. In Episode 2, you switch to a hoe, and the circle changes to just two highlighted areas. The arrow bounces back and forth between them, and every time you hit the space bar in the highlighted area, the arrow speeds up, but get it wrong, and the speed goes way down, stopping you from dealing as much damage as you otherwise could. The special attacks are definitely more challenging in Episode 2 than in Episode 1, but not to the extent that they stop being fun. The controls are tight, and I never felt like the game cheated me out of full damage when I messed up.
Graphically, this game is focused more on its art than its tech, and I think that was the right direction to go. Its look is taken directly from the comic, and the characters who come directly from the comic are instantly recognizable. What’s more fun is that at the beginning of the game, you get to design your character in that same style. And I was quite impressed that your custom character appears in the comic-style cutscenes. No cheating by making you a silhouette, either. It’s this kind of attention to detail that I always love to see. The only visual complaint I could offer is that Episode 2 has an area where you have to find tiny pieces of paper on the ground, among a great number of other similar shapes on the ground. It was the one time where I had to resort to a walkthrough.
I have mentioned in some previous reviews that I often play games on mute. I broke that habit for Penny Arcade Adventures, and got some very strange looks from my wife as a result. This is a game full of sound, and having all of that audio input is another factor that keeps you interested in progressing. Clicking destructible items like trash cans or boxes of fireworks produce the kind of sounds you should expect, and when you’re in a fight, all of the actions you take are also accompanied by an appropriate sound. Even when you flee from a battle, you get feedback. The music is good as well and it fits the game, except in the closing credits of both episodes. Episode 1’s closing credits feature the song Final Boss by MC Frontalot, which feels completely out of place even if you like nerdcore rap (and I don’t), and Episode 2’s closing credits are accompanied by Some Things Man Was Not Meant To Know by The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets. The concept behind this song fits in extremely well with the game, but as a rock song full of electric guitar, it just doesn’t fit stylistically.
I’m a guy who loves a good story, and I have a somewhat twisted sense of humor, which means that a Penny Arcade game is right up my alley. The games that have been released thus far only get us to the halfway mark in the story, but as I mentioned earlier, Zeboyd Games says they’ll be continuing the series. Whether they make it or not, you might be interested to know that after the cancellation of Episode 3, the Penny Arcade boys released a sort of storyline for that game in text form on their website, but they have recently redesigned the site, and the page is no longer available. Somewhere out there, a fan compiled the text into an ePub file, if you can find it in some obscure corner of the internet*.
That doesn’t carry you to the end of the whole story – just to the 75% point – and assuming the Zeboyd Games version is released, there’s no way to know how closely the two will line up. If you’re OK with the possibility of maybe not knowing how this story ends, like some Lovecraft in your games, don’t mind a whole lotta cussin’, and enjoy Penny Arcade, then this game was literally made just for you. If one of those things puts you off, though, you might want to look at one of Hothead’s other releases for your gaming fun.
* The original version of this review linked to a downloadable version that is no longer available.