Price: 400 MSP ($5)
Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Episode 3 Review
Penny Arcade, the web comic, is famed for its humorous take on all things video game. What started out as a small tri-weekly snarky-at-the-games-industry has grown to a point where it is now considered to be at the forefront of gaming culture on the internet. Over the years, however, the brainchild of Messrs’ Holkins and Krahulik has expanded beyond the realm of mere website. These days it holds conventions, runs a successful charity, and has even created its own series of RPG titles. This is the third game in that series, and even though it may not look like it, it is indeed a continuation of the story told in the other two.
The reason things look different is because the development reigns have been handed over to Zeboyd Studios. The developers of cult retro-inspired indie RPG parodies Cthulhu Saves The World and Breath of Death VII, Zeboyd have made a bit of a name for themselves with their deft handling of the genre, bringing things back to a look and feel that encapsulates the best of the 16-bit era. This means 2D, top-down, pixelated sprites, and turn-based combat. Some would say this means “old-school”, and they would have a point. What it does not mean, though, is old.
It would be fair to say that Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Episode 3 (to give it its full title) has more in common with the 13th game in the Final Fantasy series than it does with the 3rd. Despite looking dated, the combat system is one that players who are used to Active Time systems will feel right at home with. Player and enemy actions are queued along a timeline, being triggered when they reach the ‘Action’ section. At first, this seems quite meaningless, but options are opened up after a short while. Some attacks have the ability to interrupt, moving the target backwards along the timeline. This extra layer of strategy becomes quite useful as enemies get tougher.
Things are further livened up combat-wise by the inclusion of a comprehensive class system. Each character is able to equip class pins that open up secondary and even tertiary roles for them to fulfil. In a nice touch, even unused classes level up alongside the equipped ones, albeit at a slightly reduced rate, which means that you can swap them around between battles. This is important, because some battles include additional clauses that may hinder or benefit certain classes. Of course, you won’t know this until you attempt the encounter for the first time, but since failure just takes you right back to before the battle anyway it is the simplest of tasks to switch the pins around afterwards. This has the effect of making many encounters seem like self-contained puzzles, which lengthens the time before repetition and predictability set in. And it is worth mentioning that battles are non-random, so that some can be avoided if you can find a path around them. You probably won’t want to, and may even find yourself going back into cleared areas to find ones that you missed, but the possibility is there.
So, mechanically at least, what we have is a very accomplished piece of work from a studio that is exceptionally comfortable with the genre. This would be for nothing if the story was lacking, but thankfully, Zeboyd are also highly regarded for their writing skills, which makes them a particularly good fit for Gabe and Tyco; this is one of the stronger examples of writing seen in a video game for quite some time. There are some truly laugh out loud moments along the way. The characters from the web comic are transposed faultlessly to your TV screen, and the dialogues between them are as good as anything from the countless strips on the site itself. Tycho is suitably verbose, Gabe is appropriately psychotic, and newcomer Moira sits between them as a very effective anchor. The references to the long-running strip are numerous, as are the in-jokes and nods to other popular game series. (Not the least of which are Zeboyd’s own titles!)
Penny Arcade 3 (to save time!) is a finely tuned collection of all the things that make RPGs so enjoyable, that conveniently discards many of the trappings that can make them interminable. With no random encounters of any kind, a refreshing lack of cut-scenes that are top heavy with exposition, opting instead for a focus on tightly managed conversations to move the plot along, it is very much a successful marriage of the old and the new. The lack of checkpoints may be a bugbear, but since the entire party is healed after each encounter then the only real potential fly in the ointment comes if you forget to save in a given area for a while. Even better, there is no need to be familiar with the previous games in the series to enjoy the ride, although a familiarity with Penny Arcade, and for that matter RPGs in general, is pretty much essential to get the most out of it.
Surprisingly, this is not an Xbox Live Arcade title. To download this beauty, you will need to head into the sometimes dangerous waters known as Xbox Live Indie Games. You won’t be seeing this one as part of any summer promotions, but the flipside of this particular coin is that you will also not be charged a small fortune to play it. For the bargainous entry price of 400 MS points, Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Episode 3 can consider itself as amongst the very best games on its particular distribution channel.
Penny Arcade was reviewed with a copy provided by Zeboyd Games.