I'd like to start by explaining my opinion of Penny Arcade as a comic strip, because your enjoyment of On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness will be, either partly or in whole, dependent on whether or not you buy into Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik's particular brand of humor.
Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode One (PC, Mac, Linux, XBLA Reviewed)
Developed by Hothead Games
Released on May 21st, 2008
I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised when I finally put down Precipice of Darkness after a nonstop eight-hour playthrough last night. I expected it would be reasonably amusing, and I'd hoped the gameplay would be at least passable; I wasn't expecting one of the funniest, most oddly enjoyable XBLA games I've yet played, but that's exactly what I got.
The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness follows Tycho, Gabe, and a customizable Penny Arcade-ified avatar in your own likeness. After Fruit Fucker Prime crushes your house beneath his iron feet, your character runs off with Gabe and Tycho (founders and only members of the Startling Developments Detective Agency) to unearth evil conspiraces, solve phantasmagoric cases, and beat mimes to death.
Upon starting up the game, you'll run into the character creator which, while nowhere near as robust as I would have preferred, has a much larger effect on your enjoyment of the game than you might expect (especially if you're a PA fan). Your avatar, in addition to showing up in the regular 3D gameplay, also appears in the gorgeous 2D cut scenes and dialogue windows, right alongside Gabe and Tycho. As you can see from the various images of my Penny Arcade avatar sprinkled throughout this post, your customizable character fits perfectly with the other images and, depending on how happy you are with the customization choices you're given, can look awfully badass.
But therein lies the problem: there's a definite possibility, given the modest number of customization choices, that you won't be able to render a version of yourself you're happy with. I'm reasonably happy with my own avatar (though I'd contend that my nose is much less penis-shaped in real life), but my attempts to create PA versions of my close friends and family were sometimes in vain: in the world of on the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, there are evidently no blacks or overweight people. There are only three different kinds of torso clothing the player can wear (perfectly content to emulate David Tennant, I settled on a brown trenchcoat), and almost all of the noses players can choose from are startlingly huge. There is, sad to say, a significant potential that players might not be able to create a modestly true-to-life version of themselves.
The players who can, however, will find the cut scenes to be nothing less than visually spectacular. To watch a gorgeously animated version of myself running to and from danger right alongside Tycho and Gabe inspired a sort of egocentric happiness in my gut that I haven't felt in a long, long time. It's different from creating an avatar in Mass Effect, who just looks like a slightly uncanny valley-ish version of yourself; Mike Krahulik's art style leaves just enough room for inference that I often felt my player looked exactly like me, and was just pleased as punch to see myself inserted so seamlessly into the world of New Arcadia.
Jerry Holkins ("Tycho") wrote all the dialogue for the game, and it shows: the words are often several syllables longer than they need to be, highbrow comedy is frequently and lovingly mixed with lowbrow, and every other word is in italics. If you like Penny Arcade's sense of humor, you'll laugh out loud on innumerable occasions throughout the game's eight-hour running time.
Where actual gameplay is concerned (yes, I was getting to that), the game consists of a streamlined, quasi-turn-based RPG combat system the likes of which I've never quite seen before. It's not that the combat is anything revolutionary; it's that it's so intuitive, so accessible, and so involving that it ends up being more than the sum of its parts. Each character can perform three actions: they can summon an item (A), execute a regular attack (X), or perform a special attack (Y). These commands can only be used once their circular icons light up after an amount of time (modified by the player's speed rating), and only if the commands below it are lit up as well. In other words, the item circle lights up first, then the regular attack, then the special attack; you can't use a special attack until the regular attack command is available, and you can't use a regular attack until the item command is available.
Because of this, the battle system is very much based around time management: do you wait a little longer in order to pull off a devastating special attack, or do you go for a regular bludgeoning while you've got the chance? There are no limit breaks, no mana, no action points and no item shops; you can use your special attacks as frequently as you want, you've just got to make time for them. You can find the items you'll need through combat, or by whacking various boxes and trash cans scattered throughout the world.
Speaking of special attacks, each of the three characters' unique moves are activated in the form of a minigame -- Gabe's requires the player to hammer the A button repeatedly before making a final, timed button press, Tycho's is basically DDR with the face buttons, and your character's is a weird reflex-based sort of thing. These little minigames help keep the player totally involved in the combat, rewarding skill and good reflexes with damage bonuses. It's sort of like what you might have seen in Super Mario RPG for the SNES, only cranked up to eleven.
As intuitive and unique as the battle system is, however, it suffers from a rather irritating flaw which will present itself about halfway through the campaign: the difficulty curve. Or rather, the difficulty rollercoaster. Once the player is let out into the world, the fighting is satisfyingly difficult; the Fruit Fuckers will eviscerate the player rather quickly unless he manages to time his blocks correctly and use the right status-affecting items. Eventually, the player learns the skills and strategies necessary to overcome these enemies, and is ready to face progressively more difficult challenges. The problem is, these challenges never arise.
The game is very hard near the beginning, then gets progressively easier until its midpoint, at which time the difficulty almost becomes laughable. For instance, you do a lot of backtracking in the game, and though you'll be sent back to somewhere like Hobo Alley five hours into the campaign, the enemies will be just as weak or tough as they were at the two-hour mark despite the fact that your characters have levelled up at least three or four times in the meantime. Once the player's party becomes so powerful that none of the regular enemies present a threat, the latter half of the game begins to plod a bit as the party runs to and fro, engaging in too-easy battles and collecting quest items. It's still hilarious and the combat remains fun and involving, but that wonderful challenge -- that nerve-wracking stress and intensity that colored the first hour or so of playtime -- is missing. Only when the player reaches the final boss does any sense of true difficulty finally return...but by then it's a bit too late.
I could nitpick at a few smaller problems Precipice has (I'd really, really like to control the camera, or indeed move it at all, during fights), but to do that is to miss the point. Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode One is a hilarious, immersive, and goddamned fun gameplay package.
If you're thinking about whether to get it for the PC or 360, I'd suggest the latter; as you can probably see from the PC demo, mindlessly clicking the ground over and over just to move from place to place can get pretty old, pretty fast. Not to mention that seeing my own Penny Arcadeified self on an HDTV gave me a three-hour erection.The $20 price tag may seem a bit steep compared to other XBLA games, but we're talking about eight solid hours of gameplay, here. That's even longer than Portal. Unless you don't find Penny Arcade remotely funny, or if you demand that your action-RPGs be really deep and really challenging, then I'd highly recommend Episode One.
Here's looking forward to episode two.
Score: 9.0 (Fantastic. Negligible flaws. Otherwise very, very good; a fine example of excellence in the genre.)