Before Cthulhu saved the world or death took seven breaths, there was Penny Arcade. Robert Boyd and Bill Stiernberg, the duo Zeboyd Games, met on the Penny Arcade forums when Boyd was searching for help on Breath of Death VII. Two and a half years later, the pair has quit their day jobs and is now putting the final touches on Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3 (we’ll just call it Penny Arcade 3).
After the disappointing sales of Penny Arcade Adventures Episode 2, it appeared the series may go the Shenmue route and fade into obscurity. That changed when a devoted fan suggested that Tycho and Gabe allow an indie developer to pick up the series, and specifically suggested Zeboyd Games. “I posted on the thread that it would be really cool, but I don’t think they’d be interested. A few weeks after that, I got an email from Robert Khoo at Penny Arcade.”
Penny Arcade 3 has actually been in development since 2010, before Cthulhu Save the World was even released. “As you can imagine, it’s been hard to keep it under wraps for so long,” said Boyd. One fan even guessed that Zeboyd was working on the game after he spotted their name on a whiteboard in the background of an episode of Penny Arcade TV, but his commented disappeared into the ether of the Internet without much fanfare.
Although it’s the third game in the series, Penny Arcade 3 is actually a reboot of sorts. The team is attempting the balancing act of connecting the game enough to the first two to please the die-hards, while being approachable enough for new players. “They’ve given us a lot of freedom. They want it to be a fresh start,” said Stiernberg. Part of that fresh start is evident in the adoption of Zeboyd Games’ retro look that departs from the series’ modern look. “Penny Arcade’s style meshes well with this era of game. All the characters have a distinct look,” said Stiernberg, “I genuinely feel like if Penny Arcade was a game in 1994, this is what it would look like.”
He’s not kidding. The game noticeably improves on the detail of the 16-bit sprites and environments from Cthulhu Saves the World. “We haven’t gone anywhere near our potential for the whole retro presentation,” said Stiernberg, who re-read every single comic strip for inspiration. The enemies are a mixture of Zeboyd’s typical eclectic monsters and references to the strips. The level I played took place at Pelican Bay, a locale that fans should find familiar, and featured wacky villains like “Dude on a Walrus,” and “Freemuters,” a group of mime-pirates.
I’ve honestly only read a handful of Penny Arcade comics, so it’s telling that even with my limited knowledge, I still chuckled at the game’s zany dialogue. “There’s definitely going to be a lot of more text in this game than previous games,” said Boyd. That’s putting it lightly. The characters stop and ramble about every splinter on the boardwalk, but they’re back-and-forth antics were consistently amusing during the demo. When one of the heroes commented “this is a shithole for sure,” the narrator derided him for his potty mouth in front of a lady, and our hero corrected himself: “I mean poophole.”
Boyd clearly relished writing characters he had followed for so long, and said he enjoyed writing with a partner for the first time. The script and dialogue were approved and co-written by Penny Arcade co-founder Jerry Holkins. “For a lot of the game I’ll write the first draft and he’ll look at it and add some jokes or spruce it up,” said Boyd.
Characters and scripts are just dandy, but 90% of RPGs (okay, 88% in this case) are combat. Zeboyd has ditched the first-person combat of its first two games in favor of a Final Fantasy style. “Since these are well recognized characters. We wanted to see them in the battles so you could see Tycho and Gabe and all the other Penny Arcade characters,” said Boyd. The combat is reminiscent of Grandia 2, where the combat order is represented by each character’s mug sliding along a meter at the top of the screen. You input commands at one spot, and then the characters do their thing when their head slides along to the end of the bar.
There are a few other twists to the combat. Consumable items regenerate each battle, so you can use a certain amount of items every battle without fear of running out. “Players will try to conserve items so much that they never actually use them. What if we made it so you could freely use your items every battle?” said Boyd. As the type of person who plays every game like it’s the original Resident Evil, I like the idea of using health potions without fear of running out.
Characters begin each battle with 0 MP and gain a point every round they don’t use magic. The system makes magic points extremely valuable, and entices you to save up for powerful spells. It’s a different approach, and one that made the combat feel tactical and forced me to think about what I wanted to do over the course of a few turns. Although I appreciated the new systems, the battles moved too slowly for my tastes. I tend to have the attention span of a 5-year old snorting Pixie Sticks during JRPG combat, and I impatiently mashed the A button as the characters methodically took turns exchanging blows. It’s not necessarily slower than other games of its ilk, but it felt lethargic compared to Zeboyd’s previous games. After seeing the characters flail their arms about a few times, I just wanted to skip to damage.
The series is also ditching XBLA and PSN and is targeting Xbox Live Indie Games, PC, and mobile platforms. “We didn’t ever consider XBLA. We wanted it to be multiplatform and XBLA wants to lock you into exclusivity,” said Boyd. He dismissed the notion that it might be overlooked on the XBLIG marketplace because of the dedication of Penny Arcade’s fans and the site’s massive marketing muscle. “They give us more attention than we know what to do with. If we release on Xbox Live Indie Games, hopefully we can bring that attention to other indies,” said Boyd.
Not too many studios can effectively integrate humor into games, but from what I saw of Penny Arcade 3, it looks like Zeboyd is on the right track. Fans of the series should be pleased to hear the game will end with a cliffhanger that will roll right into Penny Arcade 4 next year, which Zeboyd Games will begin developing once they put the final pixelated touches on this one. That means they won’t be exploring other retro genres anytime soon, but they’re confident they’ll get there eventually. The duo has discussed everything from a Zelda-like adventure to a turn-based strategy game, but for now is savoring working with the characters that united them in the first place. “We’re planning on doing this for some time,” said Boyd.