Penny Arcade is, without a doubt, one of the most widely read webcomics available today. With their unique brand of wit, scathing commentary on the gaming industry and even their own annual gaming convention, Jerry Holkins and Mike Kruhalik have entrenched themselves as two die-hard gamers with a sense of humour since launching Penny Arcade in 1998. Ten years on, they finally take a stab into the medium they have merrily been lampooning for so long with the launch of their first game, Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness – Episode 1 (hereafter Precipice.)
I’ll start off by saying I’m a huge fan of Penny Arcade. For the vast majority of the time, their comic is either laugh-out-loud funny, or contains a hilarious quip that breaks the monotony of the workday. As such, a large part of whether you enjoy this game will depend on whether you buy into the combination of alternately low-brow and high concept humour that is a staple of the webcomic. That said, no prior knowledge of the webcomic is required to understand the story, though some familiarity will certainly bring a smile to your face when witnessing the banter between Gabe and Tycho.
Seeing as the game is apparently too â€˜mature’ for a certain certification board (you know who I’m talking about), us South Africans cannot download this game via Xbox Live – not without getting inventive, that is. Have a look around on Lazygamer for a way to sidestep the content-blocking issue. Nevertheless, I downloaded the PC version (weighing in at roughly 210 MB), and then activated it online for $20 – roughly R150. I’ll discuss the cost versus enjoyment argument in more detail later in the review.
Precipice takes place in 1922 within the fictional city of New Arcadia. Combining elements of the Lovecraft Cthulu pantheon with a strong dose of steampunk, the game sees you (as a character of your own design) join with the intrepid Tycho and Gabe – brains and muscle, respectively, of the Startling Developments Detective Agency – in a wild dash to rid the city of vicious mimes, feral hobos, violent barber shop quartets and little mechanical fruit juicers (with an excess of libido) before the apocalypse comes.
The setting is certainly unique, and the plot is completely off the wall, but in the best sense of the phrase. While there is a mystery interesting enough to provoke curiosity, the true beauty of this game lies in the cast of characters and the cleverly written dialogue. Double meanings and wordplay abound in the comic-within-a-game video sections – but I am getting ahead of myself.
At the start of the game, you are presented with a character creation screen. While the options are somewhat limited in terms of appearance, it soon becomes obvious why. The story is told through beautifully drawn animations, featuring Kruhalik’s signature artistic style. Seeing as your character is a fully animated character in these segments, it is apparent that choice had to be somewhat limited to ensure the high quality of the animation. The character design itself is a continuation of this style, driven very strongly by the look of the webcomic. The gameplay sections itself are viewed from a semi-isometric viewpoint, and all the characters are rendered in very much the same way. It’s interesting to see how the character you designed – essentially a 2D drawing – gets converted into a 3D version that looks every part the equal of the models used for pre-defined characters.
For the majority of the time, you’ll guide your party around the world by clicking on the ground, sending them off to the indicated destination. Every so often, you’ll come across a character that you need to converse with, which kicks off the above-mentioned comic strip sequences.
Most of the depth of the gameplay lies in the combat system, which can most easily be compared to the turn-based JRPG elements of a game like the recent Lost Odyssey, although it has nowhere near the complexity of the combat system of a game like the latter. This serves as both a blessing and somewhat of a curse. The combat and gameplay is readily accessible to everyone, but doesn’t offer a vast amount of depth in the long term.
At any rate, you will square off against your enemies, and will have to choose between employing an inventory item, launching a regular attack, or launching a special attack. Inventory items include health items and buffs which modify stats, either for your party or the enemy. There are also a few combat items, such as the invisible box (used to trap mimes) or some old-fashioned TNT. Regular attacks employ the signature weapon of each of the characters: Gabe wades in with his fists, Tycho lets rip with a Tommy-gun, and your character is equipped with a very potent rake. The special attack for each character kicks off a minigame unique to him. If completed successfully, you can vastly increase the potency of your attacks. The only real variable in your combat scenarios is deciding in when to apply all the above options. It takes a few seconds for the inventory slot to become available, and when this happens, the clock starts running down on the regular attack becoming available as well. When both these are unlocked, the special attacks start charging. Your choice it thus between launching lesser attacks with greater frequency, or keeping on the defensive until your special attacks are available. If more than one character has a primed special attack at any point, you can initiate a team attack, where all three characters combine their abilities to launch a devastating team effort.
The game has an eccentric soundtrack that fits the setting very well, but doesn’t feature any memorable themes. The game contains virtually no voice acting (bar the narrator during the intro and ending animations, as well as the tutorial section,) preferring to stick with the speech bubbles usually found in comics.
The game is not without its detractors. The plot is as linear as they come, with a surprisingly small amount of gameplay devoted to puzzle solving, considering the RPG-lite nature of the game. As I mentioned earlier in the review, your enjoyment of the game will largely depend on whether the humour appeals to you. Considering that the game can be finished in roughly six solid hours of gameplay – less, if you’re in a particularly hurry, it’s only fair to ask whether it’s worth your bandwidth and hard earned cash. In my opinion, the answer for SA users would be to download the PC demo and have a look, especially if you’re a fan. Still, there is no denying it: it’s not a very long game.
In summation, I’d say that On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness – Episode 1 is a fun, entertaining, and utterly hilarious adventure that isn’t hard to get into. As a start to the Penny Arcade Adventures series, it succeeds in standing on its own merits as a game, and is a pleasant gaming experience. Whether the easy and somewhat shallow gameplay will remain entertaining through the follow-up episodes remains to be seen, but for its initial attempt, it’s an enjoyable system. Brimming with high production values, a solid and intriguing story rife with genuine laughs, Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness – Episode 1 is definitely worth your consideration. The highest compliment I can pay this game is to say it is a worthy homage to the LucasArts adventure games of the 1990’s, such as the Monkey Island games, Day of the Tentacle or Maniac Mansion.
Not flawless, but entertaining enough not to become a bore for the duration of the game.
The comic-strip look is implemented exceptionally well and looks very good.
The music serves the atmosphere the game is trying to create, but the lack of voice acting is disappointing.
A bit short, considering the price after applying the exchange rate and accounting for bandwidth.
Enjoyable and very, very funny.
Last Updated: May 27, 2008