Thursday, June 28, 2012

Penny Arcade's On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3

As stated before, we here at the blog are fans of not only Penny Arcade, but also the Hothead Games series Penny Arcade Adventures: On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episodes One and Two. As soon as we finished playing them, we were gravely disappointed to find out that the other half of this four-part series was cancelled. Later on I found out that Jerry Holkins, the writer of Penny Arcade, was going to finish the story through prose chapters on the webcomic's site, but I never got around to reading them (not that I wasn't interested). Much later, I heard that the games sold extremely well when it ported to iOS devices, at the same time having the fires of hope for a third Hothead-made episode snuffed out. Then later still, it was announced that the reins would be handed over to Zeboyd games, an independent developer known for making the faux retro RPG games Breath of Death VII and Cthulu Saves the World. Knowing that this third episode would be done in a 16-bit graphical style, I was even more intrigued as to how this would be accomplished. With the release of Episode 3 on Monday, I can happily conclude that the four-year wait for a new installment is definitely worth it.

Having defeated Yog Sethis the Silent One and Yog Kathak, God of Gears, Gabe and Tycho of the Startlng Developments Detective Agency are called to handle the third of the Four Below -four evil gods that killed the four good gods- known as Yog Modiagh, God of Doors. The very power of Yog Modiagh threatens to destroy the universe itself, forcing the duo to work to prevent his summoning. Simultaneously, they need to take care of Dr. Raven Darktalon Blood, a man who wishes to speed up the process by gathering specific paintings together in one spot. On this journey, the past comes alive and new information is gained about the Brahe clan that may ultimately spell disaster.

The plot of On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness is still very fascinating. While the stakes still are certainly high, the mysteries introduced in the previous episodes are expanded upon here in a way that makes them even more intriguing to see unfold. New characters are introduced, notably the exclusive detective character Moira, and their connection to the Brahe clan introduces new mysteries that bring the events of the games, and Tycho himself, into a new light. Keeping the Cthulu elements of the story helps to keep the dark atmosphere present, but I feel as if the story is a bit more serious this time around, which only suits the many things that go on. It's a very engaging narrative that managed to elicit all of the right reactions during play.

The most notable change this time around has to be the combat. Since Zeboyd Games went in the direction of a 16-bit RPG, the combat system needed a complete overhaul to match. Where the previous installments had a very modern system with some throwback elements, Episode 3 is the complete opposite; it is a throwback system with some more modern elements.

To begin, combat is turn-based, but goes about it in an interesting way. At the top of the screen is a bar representing who performs an action at what time, be it an ally or an enemy. When an ally silhouette hits a certain point, the player is able to give them a command, which is then carried out when the character reaches the end of the bar, thus taking their turn. Character speed is to be taken into account, since a fast enough enemy can cut in line and take their next turn much quicker, adding some urgency to the system. When actually issuing a command, the player uses a drop down menu similar to the Final Fantasy games, with different sections to use items or actions, as well as an option to defend. It's a very good framework to base an entire combat system on, since you can even interrupt a turn, a special command that comes at the cost of an ally's turn, in order to push their place in line backward depending on where they are on the bar when the command is initiated.

What makes this system even better is another deeper subsystem regarding character classes. While characters do have a class that they begin with, Brute, Scholar, Necromaster and Gumshoe, you can give the characters additional classes that allow them more commands or passive abilities to work with. The additional classes are gained through Class Pins, which can be equipped in a similar fashion to weapons and accessories. These classes all offer something completely unique to the gameplay and are gained in sets at two specific points in the game. Some of these range from the Tube Samurai class, which uses stances for different powers, to the Cordwainer, which has the power of shoes. Some of these classes can even add abilities to the bar that repeat themselves by having their own turns until a command replaces them with something else. A great example would be the Apocalypt class, which places a prophecy with its own lengthy turn on the bar and can be stacked with various positive and damaging effects that will all simultaneously trigger at the end. And the best part about this class system? Up to two pins can be equipped, which means that all allies can have three different class setups, creating some incredible depth to the combat.

My personal setup. There are still more classes than this.
Modern elements include the fact that your health and items all regenerate at the end of each battle. So instead of having to purchase new items all the time, you purchase "Upgroids" that will allow additional uses in combat. However, if you're good enough in your tactics, you may never need to use the items all that often. It is because of these conveniences that combat is more like a puzzle, the solution being the combination of abilities you use to take down opponents. For example, with my setup I had a few base strategies to suit certain enemy configurations and adjusted what I did to suit the variables. All of this makes combat very fun and exciting, even with a couple of annoying fights toward the end.

Another great thing about this game is the enemy design. They are all very creative and suit the areas they are in perfectly; there are also quite a few references to a lot of the earlier strips from the original comic that are translated to 16-bit very faithfully. All of the attacks can present a different challenge to overcome and have interesting visuals. Groups also get progressively more difficult at a very good pace, with a small spike a couple of times that could still be surmounted with the right actions falling into place. It's always satisfying to finally see the victory screen and any rewards, with defeat only serving as a motivation to try again.

A reference to Rex Ready; one of my favorites. (Click for better view)
One of the best things about the game though would be just how well it preserves the humor of Penny Arcade. Every dialogue exchange, aside from the more serious conversations, has at least one line, usually from Gabe, that caused me to laugh hard in front of my laptop screen. This includes descriptions of enemies, which either explain something briefly about them or take a jab at something about them. There's even an entire section of the game where it shifts to a more 8-bit graphical style down to the music and swims around for a bit in a clichéd RPG setting that pokes fun at itself whenever it possibly can.

Aside from the humor, I also really liked the music. Not only does the score match the events and graphical style, it's also extremely memorable to the point where I found myself humming it during my regular breaks. How often these breaks happened though was a little inconsistent since the game is very engaging. So engaging, that when I decided to check on how long I had been playing, about two or three hours would have passed.

While I love the overall product, there are a couple of small annoyances. I'm not annoyed by the fact that you can't create your own character anymore, since recreating it in 16-bit would probably take up a lot of time to program and freeing up a character slot does help move the narrative along (plus, you are at least mentioned as a mysterious third party that helped them out). The only thing I did find wrong however was the fact that a key that you can collect in Episode 2 is now rendered completely useless, despite the fact that it was said to be usable in Episode 3. However, I suppose this can be attributed to a change in developer and Hothead dropping the project entirely. Still, I feel bad not being able to know what exactly was in Dr. Stripes' safe deposit box.

Penny Arcade's On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3 is an amazing product. It's gameplay is extremely well made and the humor is something that it almost never faults on, which helps it feel like a genuine Penny Arcade experience. I had a blast during my entire 12-hour playthrough and was wanting more when I finished. Plus, the cliffhanger at the end of the campaign now has me counting the days until the final episode is put out. Any fan of Penny Arcade, Zeboyd, or RPG games in general should definitely pick it up. And if I haven't convinced anyone outside of that circle to give it a try yet, then consider the fact that it is ridiculously cheap at only $5.

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