It’s hard for me to really come at this from an unbiased angle. Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness is a very weird concept. In sum, it is a video game based off of a webcomic that makes fun of video games. I have to admit that I came into the experience with a healthy amount of raving fan boy bias. So, if you’re like me and find Jerry Holkins’ tri-weekly rants to be one of the best features of an otherwise-dreary existence, chances are that this review will be applicable to you. However, if you’re one of those deviants out there who doesn’t see golden light pouring out from his mouth, eyes, and presumably other bodily features, then don’t you worry. Just assume the story sucks and everything else should apply nicely.
The Startling Developments Detective Agency has long stood as a vigilant sentinel for the pristine little community of New Arcadia, a sweet platter of purest vanilla ice cream sandwiched between the vile dark cookies of madmen and madder devils. Composed of two members, Tycho Brahe (founder of the agency and tommy gun-totin’ scholar in matters of cataclysmic importance) and Gabe (a pugilist whose life became arcanely tainted ever since he happened to punch the Devil), the SDDA found itself giving chase after a titanic automaton with a passion for citrus one bright autumn morning. While this was no unusual event by their standards, you find it much more troubling, especially when the rampaging construct brought its great alloyed stomper boot right down on your house. Freshly homeless and armed only with your trusty combat rake, you pursue the strange men, hoping to find answers and, perhaps, an affordable apartment complex that doesn’t ask too much for utilities.
PAA: OtR-SPoD is the first chapter in a series of Penny Arcade Adventures titles, and as such it clocks in at only around 5-10 hours, depending on how much you feel like hunting down extras and goodies. Three parts classic RPG, one part adventure game, you start out by creating your character and are then dumped into the world of New Arcadia, where your custom hero and the SDDA investigate all manner of weirdness that crosses your path. Gameplay is primarily combat-based (although there are also adventure game elements) and the majority of play time is spent smashing perverse juicers and wicked carnival folk.
Combat is initiated when you approach enemies, and usually consists of your party facing off against 2 to 4 opponents. Each of your characters can act once enough time has elapsed, and three combat options are available: Use Item, Attack, or Special (not to mention Flee, which can be used at any time if you really want to). Each of these requires more charge time than the last, so although Special moves are free to use as often as you want, it may be more prudent at times to use normal attacks or attack items when hurried. However, Special moves also deliver much higher amounts of damage and, on occasion, special status effects if you are able to pull them off correctly. Each character uses a different mechanic for his Special moves: the main character has to tap the space bar in-time with the displayed instructions, Gabe requires heavy button mashing to charge his damage, and Tycho proves much more lethal with precise typing.
While these Specials do get upgraded over time, you really end up performing the same attacks again and again from the first fight to the final, epic showdown, especially because finishing an enemy off with a perfectly executed Special Attack gives the weapon an Overkill bonus, increasing its base damage output. What keeps this from growing stagnant is the fact that each enemy is varied enough that you can’t just blindly enter attacks and come out alive. Remembering what attack types and which items enemies are vulnerable or immune to is vital, especially since the enemies in the game hit fairly hard. Tapping the space bar at just the right time during an enemy’s attack animation allows you to reduce or even negate the damage dealt, but when confronting new enemies in new areas, don’t be surprised to see your party collapse. The timing on these guards can be very demanding, and because the pace of combat can get a bit hairy at times, it’s hard to remember to watch for enemy attacks when you’re fumbling through your inventory looking for just the right kind of incendiary device to lob at your foes.
On top of all this, you gradually accumulate summonable guest party members. Each have their own timer which fills during combat, and once this timer is full, the character can be called up to make a devastating attack. These timers are static between battles, so saving them up for a nasty moment might be a good idea, especially because your characters continue to have their own timers charge during the summon attack animations. By calling up your allies carefully, you can chain your specials together, preventing the enemy from getting a single attack in! Woo!
Apart from the combat, the game resembles a very light-hearted, low-fat adventure game. You explore New Arcadia’s pleasantly small neighborhoods, killing most living creatures you come across but also collecting items from trashcans or investigating the ridiculous number of gag items littering the scenery. Almost every object you see that doesn’t contain an item of some sort has a few lines of bizarre text attached to it for your enjoyment. However, apart from examining background doodads, collecting key items, and bringing them where they need to go, the game really is just a lot of rather satisfying combat between over-the-top cutscenes and conversations.
Good gameplay, however, was a surprising bonus that probably didn’t need to be there. Going into this, I’d expected the entire package to just be a vessel for Holkins to write Penny Arcade comics into, and his characteristically verbose sense of humor shines through every inch of the way. If you’re unfamiliar with his writing style, I’d recommend you read a few hundred strips before even considering buying the game. If you don’t find this webcomic funny, then it’s safe to reason that the comedic game Tycho and Gabe have put together is not for you.
If you are a fan of the series, however, then there’s a lot here to like. The world of New Arcadia is filled with thinly-veiled characters from the series and references old events very heavily, but doesn’t rely on an encyclopedic knowledge of inside jokes to work. The non-sequitors and poop jokes flow like wine, the back and forth banter between scholarly Tycho and borderline-mentally challenged Gabe comes across nicely, and the environment is just very, very silly with lots of charmingly Lovecraftian little touches to appreciate. So long as you don’t expect even a single serious moment, and so long as you’re not predisposed to hate this kind of material, the game delivers a very fun little story.
Just as important as the writing, however, are the visual gags. Mike Krahulik’s characters have always been pleasantly bouncy and cartoonish, contrasting wonderfully with the plentiful pelvic thrusts, middle fingers and gouts of blood. Although the texturing and animation are clearly a little low-budget, watching enemies explode into unparalleled showers of gore and rib cages easily made up for it. Cutscenes are all rendered in Flash with jerky-but-effective animation and comic book panel scene separation. Although this game will win no awards for visual effects, the only part that actually bothered me was the characters’ faces during dialogue. These shuffled rapidly during conversations, and while it was great seeing Gabe’s face light up while everyone else grimaced at the sight of some orphanage atrocity, the expressions often failed to match up quite right, especially for the main character.
The game’s soundtrack was actually one of its weaker points, though not terribly so. When music was present, it fit the darkly macabre theme of the game perfectly, matching Saturday morning cartoon ditties to dizzying levels of gun violence; but long stretches of the exploration portion of the game actually went without music, enough to make its absence really stand out. In combat, however, this problem is absent. Many enemies have unique and clever battle music, and sound effects are solid throughout the game. Best of all, voice acting is restricted to the mysteeeerious narrator who pops up from time to time, and there isn’t a single awkward line of dialogue to be found. I may also be awarding bonus points for the presence of original music by MC Frontalot.
Finally, I should point out that the game is probably one of the most user-friendly titles of this level of complexity I’ve ever encountered. Almost every aspect of the game, from movement to selecting actions in combat, is point-n-click. When minigames pop up, they’re brief and self-explanatory and contain fun little easter eggs to poke at. Saving occurs between screens, which isn’t annoying because you can never accidentally ruin the game by doing something wrong. I even managed to play the whole way through without crashing or bugging out once, a rare feat in this day and age, especially before a single patch comes out.
I think that sums it all up. If you’re a fan of the comic, rejoice! They’ve managed to put together a very respectable little gaming appetizer for a bargain bin price, which promises incalculable amazing sequels to come! If you’re not familiar with the comic, give this a try. If you’re not weirded out by the demo five minutes in, spend a cool twenty bucks and get the full version. And if you happen to hate Penny Arcade, tough cookies. Maybe one of those other gaming webcomics will get a sweet game publishing deal sometime soon.