Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Review: Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode One

Hothead Games

Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Mac, Linux

Imagine, for a moment, that you’ve spent the past decade building up a hobby of writing and drawing comics into a self-sustainable business, with legions of fans worldwide waiting for your biweekly updates on You have the power to ‘wang’ all but the biggest corporate servers, with a link, faint praise and a casual flick of the wrist. After the cataclysmic failure of the E3 convention to simply do right by gamers, you start your own convention, by gamers, for gamers, and by following the cardinal rule of ‘not being a dick’, end up with the premiere gaming expo in North America. Oh, and you’ve also kicked into gear a charity for sick children, raising millions of dollars worldwide by harnessing the bountiful goodwill of gamers sick and tired of being characterised in the media as violent misfits. So what’s next?

If you’re Mike ‘Gabe’ Krahulik and Jerry ‘Tycho’ Holkins, you hook up with Ron Gilbert (of Monkey Island fame) and Hothead Games, and design your own episodic RPG game with the longest title imaginable, all set in a Lovecraftian-cum-steampunk world. It’s the stuff a certain subset of dreams are made of – and as if to prove that a) cross-platform releases are entirely plausible, if not the best idea since sliced bread, and b) we are living in the future, Hothead released the game simultaneously for three different home computer operating systems and the Xbox 360’s Live Arcade store. Any day now, they’ll come up with a downloadable flying car. Probably.

Episode One of On the Rain-slick Precipice of Darkness kicks off with a rather basic character creation system, which lets you choose a gender, gives you a few choices of skin and hair colour, as well as a limited number of wardrobe options. It’s actually a disappointing beginning to the game, but the restrictions are likely to cover up for the fact that, somehow, your 3D character is also transmuted to a perfect rendition of Krahulik’s drawings, for use in the 2D cutscenes. Particularly for fans of Krahulik’s online offerings, seeing your avatar come to life in these interstitial comics more than makes up for any shortcomings of the creation.

The game kicks off with your character’s house being destroyed by a gigantic steam-powered Fruit Fucker, which Krahulik’s and Holkins’ alter-egos Gabe and Tycho have been tracking. Armed only with a simple rake, you team up with the two detectives, and quickly find yourself embroiled in a world where the twin evils of mimes and Cthulhu are hilariously conflated, where hobos with shiny hair rule supreme, and where evil clowns, barbershop quartets and sexually vigourous juicers run amok on the streets of New Arcadia.

Holkins and Krahulik are obviously trying to cram a lot in here, and it’s not really until you reach the end of the game that you realise just how much humour is packed into a scant three environments. While Penny Arcades’s humour can be a hit-and-miss affair, there’s no single line of dialogue that Holkins hasn’t tweaked to a sharp edge. Similarly, Krahulik’s skill and flair are obvious throughout, in both the level and character designs.

When it comes to gameplay, Precipice is basically an adventure game (get item A, use it on / give it to NPC B) with solid turn-based battle mechanics. Each of the three characters you control have three gauges, which fill at different rates – the items gauge fills first (useful if you need to heal an ally or throw a cheap grenade), followed by the attack gauge (each character has a different attack to complement different enemy weaknesses), and then the special attack gauge. Special attacks, while effective, try to incorporate minigame elements to decide on the exact amount of damage done to your enemies, but these aren’t challenging enough, and waiting a long time to see the same attack animations gets boring after a while – it’s more satisfying to use your normal attacks and finish off that roving barbershop quartet faster.

Despite its minor flaws (and brevity, although 6-8 hours of gameplay for $30 isn’t such a bad deal), Penny Arcade Adventures is definitely onto a good thing. Later episodes can only improve the already-solid battle system, and as long as Holkins continues his Lovecraft pastiche and reveals the origins of the so-far unexplained Fruit Fucker Prime, the story will lead the way. Overall, it’s a great start to what’s likely to be a classic series, and with such a strong focus on equalising different gaming platforms and emphasising the end of the bricks-and-mortar retail experience, it’s also a sign of things to come for gaming.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

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