Review: Penny Arcade Adventures Episode 1: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness

Platforms: PC, 360

Given a choice between two similar games, I’ll always go for the one that has a sense of humor. My favorite adventure games are the early classics made by LucasArts; hilarious games like Monkey Island and Full Throttle. I prefer Serious Sam to Painkiller, Portal to Halo, and Team Fortress 2 to Call of Duty 4. It’s to its advantage then that Penny Arcade’s new adventure-RPG hybrid On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness is so genuinely funny, because it adds an attractive sheen to the dull gameplay.

I’ll say right now that I’m a big fan of the online comic. I read Penny Arcade faithfully three times a week, but I recognize that its humor is not for everybody. So when I say that the game is funny, I’ll add that it’s funny in the same way as the comic strip. If you like one, you’ll like the other.

Much of the game’s humor comes from the dynamic between the established characters of Gabe and Tycho, the former a child-like brute with a penchant for fisticuffs and the latter an eloquent scholar packing a Tommy gun. Your character, which you create at the beginning of the game, fills the role of the straight man.

Of course, while your trio clings to vestiges of sanity, the NPCs you’ll encounter are even more absurd. Quest-givers include a poetic garbage man, a reformed mime, and an amateur “urinologist.” I won’t spoil just what that means.

The enemies you encounter range from small steam-driven robots (which fans of the strip will recognize as Fruit F***ers) to evil barbershop quartets. Some enemy attacks have great names and animations attached to them as well, but they’ll quickly get old after the tenth time you see them.

Then there is the absurdity of your environment, a bizarre mixture of steampunk technology and Lovecraftian horror. You’ll start out in the suburbs, where your character’s house is crushed by a larger version of the F.F. robots, but you’ll spend the majority of the game either in a street of run-down tenements, or at the seaside boardwalk. The environments are full of comical details, and often poke fun at gameplay tropes like benches you can’t sit on or doors that won’t open.

So it’s ironic that a game that takes pride in skewering mediocre gameplay should fall victim to some common design blunders. As a strange marriage of RPG and adventure elements, OtRSPoD (an acronym nearly as unwieldy as the full title) ends up executing neither style particularly well.

Outside of combat, the game plays as a traditional point-and-click adventure, as you build up an inventory of items which you use to advance the storyline. Rarely does the game require any thought here. The acquisition of any item will result in one of your characters, (usually Tycho,) reminding you of where that item should be brought, robbing you of the satisfaction of figuring it out for yourself. There are some path finding issues as well; your characters will try to take the straightest path to wherever you click, which will usually get them hung up on corners if you don’t baby-sit them a little.

The RPG-style combat falls somewhere between turn-based and real-time. There are three separate meters for each character, which fill one after the other; one full meter lets your character use an item, two permits a basic attack, and three allows a special attack, which are activated after a short mini-game. You have to click fast, however, as enemies can still attack you while you’re setting up your move, and you’ll have to block their attacks with well-timed presses of the spacebar.

How successful you are at each of these games determines the strength of your attack, but while the special moves for your character and Tycho are both reasonably fun to pull off, Gabe’s attack involves rapidly pounding the spacebar to fill up a meter in a short period of time, and will cause you to wince sympathetically for your keyboard.

The RPG stat system, while satisfying at first as characters quickly gain levels, soon reveals itself to be pretty shallow. Items are useful, but with the exception of health items, rarely needed, and there is never any danger of running out. I maxed out all my characters’ stats and weaponry without any difficulty in my first playthrough, which hurts replay value.

Higher difficulty levels may prove to involve more strategy, but the game’s real draw is the humor and atmosphere of its story. If anything, my future playthroughs will be set at the lowest difficulty, so I can get through the often tedious battles faster and get back to the real meat of the game, its writing.

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