Penny Arcade is a comic strip about Tycho and Gabe, who are characterizations of their real-life creators. They have appeared in two previous video games. They (well, the real-life versions) host expos twice a year where thousands of fans wait for hours to hear them speak and revel in general nerdiness. They are also vastly more wealthy and famous than I will ever be. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is about the entirety of my knowledge of the Penny Arcade universe until I plugged in my Xbox controller and booted up Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3.
I think I should have studied a bit more.
Zeboyd Games, who previously helped that Lovecraftian monster save the world, has resurrected the dormant franchise and spruced it up with their 16-bit can of paint. Even though there’s a new developer, the game picks up just a few weeks after the previous two and feels very much a part of the same world. At least, I have to assume it does since I haven’t spent ten minutes with the previous games. If you’re better versed in Penny Arcade lore than I – and odds are, you are – the frequent cameos, plot twists, and references to events long-ago transpired probably make a lot more sense. But since we all only get one brain, I’m forced to approach the game through my n00b eyeballs, and you know what? It’s still pretty damned funny.
Don’t get me wrong; I rarely had much of a clue as to what was going on. From what I could gather, Dr. Blood is a bad dude. My first clue was that his name was entirely too cool to be a hero. The second was that heroes rarely trot around with skulls adorned to their outfits. What sealed the deal was when he stole our heroes’ evil book, the Necrowomblicon.
That’s about the only part of the story I really understood, and it transpired during the first 45 seconds. The rest of the narrative is a metaphysical hodgepodge of astral travelling, made-up gods coming back to life, and cosmic artwork. It’s an excuse to journey through all kinds of terrain to keep the scenery interesting and the things to punch fresh. So basically, it’s a Douglas Niles book. Works for me! At a certain point, I buckled up for the ride and stopped asking questions. It’s the kind of story where it’s impossible to predict or use any form of logic to figure out what is going on, because there is always a convenient, but completely foreign plot device that will solve the problem, and most likely introduce the next. Trapped in the underwater nest of a fire-breathing squid-vulture? No problem! Just pull out that fossilized cyclopean Atlantean monk foot and it will solve everything! Now about that rash…
It’s a damned good thing that the writing is so solid in Penny Arcade 3, because the characters talk like they’ve only recently discovered that their mouths can be used for more than food receptacles. Tycho and Gabe crack jokes and converse between every few battles and in every single new environment. It was never the kind of seam-splitting humor that would have me audibly laughing, but then again, we all know I’m a humor-less sourpuss. The writing has a whimsical, playful style that could describe mundane events in a way that would make them sound radically out of the ordinary. Just imagine what happens when the events are already radically out of the ordinary. Nowhere is this more evident than with the narrator, whose witty text consistently brought a smile on my face. “Tycho and Gabe manhandle the dearly deceased for a while. And I mean a while. As in, too long.”
All of that fantastic writing does come at a price though. The game is so focused on making sure you see read every joke that there is literally no way you can stray from the guided path. It almost feels like the game is more of an interactive comic strip than an actual real-life game. Many of the standard RPG elements like sidequests and new towns to explore take a backseat to the story. Even the world map is a Super Mario World-esque grid system that connects each locale with a line. Penny Arcade 3 is all about conversations…oh, and that combat, combat, combat…
When I wasn’t reading a Necrowomblicon’s worth of text, I was hacking up some of the many ludicrous enemies. This is an RPG after all, and that means random combat. I recently returned to Phantasy Star II, and I nearly had a Scanners moment from the incessant, infuriating, eye-gouging amount of combat. PA3 follows the Zeboyd zeitgeist of eliminating the tedious aspects of RPGs. That means the auto-healing after each battle returns, and inventory management is a no-no. Potions and other items can be used a set amount of times each battle, but there isn’t a physical stash of beakers that must be replenished. Since I tend to play every game like it’s Silent Hill 2, I rarely use disposable items, and by the end of the game, my characters have to hire extra hands just to truck around my stock of level 1 potions. Some may feel like this dummies the game down, but I found the change refreshing.
The game also (mostly) abandons the truly random combat in favor of Chrono Trigger-style battles where the monsters appear on the screen ahead of time. It sounds like such a small change, but it helps the combat frequency seem more balanced and eliminates the punishment of tedious battles when exploring and backtracking.
The actual hacking and slashing most resembles Grandia 2’s battle system, where an action bar charts each character’s progress throughout a round. Enemies appear on the bar as well, and it’s possible to use spells or abilities to stall their progress or even bump them backwards. In an interesting twist, characters actually start with just one magic point each battle and earn a point every round. This adds a bit of strategy to the fisticuffs, but it also slows the pace. Despite my intrinsic hatred for anything that makes RPGs more laborious, I actually really enjoyed this aspect of the combat, and it adds a lot of strategy that is beyond just “use the best spell every turn.” This may also be the first RPG ever where “defend” is actually a useful action since it awards an extra MP for the next round.
Each of the four main characters have their own natural strengths and weaknesses, but there’s a huge amount of customization thanks to the pin-system. Each character can equip two pins that grant magic spells and stat bumps, and each pin levels up and gains new abilities and bonuses regardless of whether it’s currently equipped to a character. Classes range from the fairly vanilla Elemenstor, which grants lightning and fire spells, to the Dinosorcerer, which lets the character morph into a dino for a few turns. Messing around with the different spells was a lot of fun, and it felt reminiscent of the egg system in Grandia 2 or the materia system in Final Fantasy VII.
Even with this cool little system, I certainly fell into familiar patterns of spells that got me through huge chunks of the game. There were plenty of long battles where my eyes glazed over and I repeated a sequences of spells until I pummeled everything into oblivion. Nearly every battle yields level-ups for multiple pins, so it can be a bit of a nuisance tracking which pin now includes a +25 health bonus and which pin grants the ability to make hobos fight. It felt like the game wanted to reward me with a new piece of candy every few seconds to make sure I still cared, but I ended up just skipping through menus after each battle and periodically checking in on each pin to see what was added.
Die hard Penny Arcade fans should have probably long ago stopped reading this review and are hopefully playing the game already. Zeboyd Games has made a game for you, and you should be overjoyed that after four years of dormancy, the series is finally continuing. But I think those guys and gals were going to pick up the game no matter what. The really good news is that there’s still a pretty slick game in there for the rest of us. You don’t have to sleep on Tycho sheets or wrapped in a Gabe Snuggie to get a few kicks out of Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3. But it wouldn’t hurt to do a little homework.
This review is based on the press copy of the full PC version of the game, which was provided by Zeboyd Games. The game is available on Steam for $4.99, and will be available on XBLIG, Android, and iOS shortly.