[15 June 2008]
Once upon a time, there were two boys who liked video games. One of them was pretty good at writing and the other was pretty good at drawing, so they decided make some three-panel comic strips about video games and start a web site. And Penny Arcade was born.
Now the internet’s most popular web comic, Penny Arcade has been making fun of other people’s games for nearly 10 years. They’ve spawned a successful line of apparel, inspired music from nerdcore superstar MC Frontalot, started their own games expo, and established a wildly successful children’s charity. Now, finally, they have ventured into the medium that made them what they are, and the result is Penny Arcade Adventures: On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode 1.
Be forewarned: they’re not kidding about the “episode one” part. The game follows two story arcs, one of which is tied up with the final boss battle, and the other of which…is not. The cut scenes are compelling and showcase the comic strip’s bold, stylized illustrations, which translate very well into three dimensions. The graphics are surprisingly good, especially given that the game was developed on the inexpensively licensed Garage Games’ Torque engine, not known for its graphical dexterity. The music provides a moody backdrop for the game without being overwrought, and the end title even delivers a wry musical commentary on the genre by M.C. Frontalot himself.
Technical issues aside, the gameplay is not without fault. Combat controls are quasi-turn-based; the game requires a specified amount of time to elapse between attacks, but this time may vary based on buffs, debuffs, and the specific character targeted or used. Special attacks take the form of feverish minigames in which your success or failure determines the amount of damage inflicted. The interface is neither as intuitive as the continuous-turn-based pause-and-command mechanism that made Freedom Force the best game nobody played, nor as straightforward and fast-paced as a point-and-click real-time strategy game. The combat system feels slow and clunky in the early stages, hits its stride at the midpoint of the game, and then quickly becomes a rote exercise in click-block-wait-repeat maneuvers.
Constant exploration unfurls the silly and the macabre.
The result is a game which, despite creative control being held by two decidedly hardcore gamers, feels surprisingly casual. The dialog trees offered little choice but in which order information was to be retrieved; cut scenes might have better served the story at times. Furthermore, I completed it in just six hours, and I should stress that I am usually a very slow gamer. I cut my teeth on adventure games of the open-every-supply-crate variety, and even with my interminable exploring (and chuckling at the uniquely PA-style humor hidden in odd places), I was able to finish the game in just two nights. However, as a $20 download, the entertainment value provided may yet be a bargain.
Precipice is not driven by its combat, its missions, or even exploration of the terrain. It is at its heart a story-driven drama, and in that sense, at least, it is true to its sequential-art roots. The story is compelling, quirky, and often hilarious. Tycho and Gabe’s characters somehow seem to blend in perfectly with the steampunk-inspired backdrop of the game world. Precipice also allows players to create a custom character of either gender from a limited selection of face shapes and period costumes. Rife with potty humor, the dialogue sometimes seems to have been written by the funniest, most precocious fourth-grade boy in the universe. The “mature humor” that is partially responsible for the game receiving an M rating from the ESRB is best exemplified by the disturbingly amusing animations of tiny automatons which lust for the sweet, ripe flesh of fruit. The first time I threw an orange to distract one of these foes during combat, I was rendered unable to make a single attack, so mesmerized was I by the vigorous thrusting of those cursed mechanical hips.
Precipice sets the stage for future chapters not only be creating a story arc that is not completed, but also by creating a world that invites the player to explore. Aside from the “collectible” concept art and musical tracks hidden among the scenery, NPCs are as cleverly rendered as the main characters. Hobos attack, flashing placards read, “will deal damage for food.” Evil clowns—as if there were any other type—make squeaky-toy noises when hit, and defiantly flip the bird even as they lay dying. By the time you encounter a friendly NPC who claims to be a “urinologist,” studying the delicate science of peeing on stuff, his bizarre profession seems almost pedestrian.
The low point of the game is the series of ill-begotten carnival-inspired minigames that are required to obtain tokens for a near-endgame mission. These minigames feel tacked on, the controls are dodgy at best, and their mundane repetitiveness sticks out like a sore thumb. Confidential to Mike and Jerry: if I want to play arcade games, I’ll go to popcap.com and double-click until my mouse explodes. However, the carnival token collection missions are mercifully brief, and if you have a five-year-old in the house you can probably outsource that portion of the gameplay and be all the happier for it.
Despite its flaws, On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness is fun to play. It lacks the terrible arbitrariness of so many adventure/puzzle games, and while the combat system left me a bit cold, at no point did I find myself frustrated or confused. If anything, it erred on the side of being too easy, too accessible. As an interactive comic book, it succeeds wildly; as a video game, it does precisely what it intends to. In a world of games that seem to be racing breathlessly to become longer, harder, more challenging, and more immersive, Precipice gives gamers an opportunity to spend a few precious hours just goofing around. In short, Precipice is a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend six hours and twenty dollars.