Monday, June 10, 2013

Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 4

Finally, after five long years, the long-awaited ending to Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness is finally here to provide closure to the tetralogy. Though the series has had to jump publishers in order to truly be completed, the journey has certainly been worth it. While Hothead's installments were faithful to the Penny Arcade brand, their light-hearted atmosphere would be overwritten by Zeboyd Games, which marked not only a great shift in gameplay style, but also to a darker and more serious tone (with jokes). The journey taken by the Startling Developments Detective Agency, comprised of Tycho Erasmus Brahe and John Gabriel, hit the ground running and continued to build momentum throughout the highly unique and original setting. Now their journey has at last come to an end with the release of Episode 4, the subject of this review, on Steam a couple of days ago for the low, low price of $4.49 (thanks to an early discount on Steam), and in the end, that journey was well worth taking.

The final verse of The Quartet for the Dusk of Man, an important poem.

Following the events of On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3, Gabe had been punching Dr. Blood for centuries whilst falling a great distance, Jim and Moira were also falling endlessly and Tycho had been torn apart by a dark energy created from the remaining presence of Yog Modaigh, God of Doors. It turns out that everyone still alive, though separated by a great distance, had landed in the Underhell, a malevolent land which exists underneath that of Earth. After Gabe begrudgingly agrees to team up with Dr. Blood to locate a woman named Hestia and Jim explains the situation to Moira, both groups learn that the only reason they are still alive is because a portion of reality still exists, thus preventing its destruction for the birth of a new one. To fully accomplish their goal, they must destroy three pillars separating the Underhell from the Overhell to eliminate both the Overhell and the final Evil God of the Four Below. As they set out to fulfill this mission, Tycho seems to appear and disappear before both groups, leading them to believe that something else must be going on.

As I stated above the story of this installment is pretty dark. In fact, it gets to be quite a bit darker than the previous installment, though the balance of a serious story and Penny Arcade's signature humor is strong and kept intact throughout. The relationships between the characters are actually explored, especially with a shift in party paradigms. With the reveal of who Hestia actually is, we get to find out what she's like as a character, and she's surprisingly fleshed out well, if a little odd, for a character who was merely mentioned in Episode 3 and only now seen in Episode 4. Jim also now has the ability to speak, which reveals some hidden depths to his knowledge and speech pattern (he was previously just a head floating in a jar). The information we also learn about the Brahe clan, as well as how they relate to the Long Project, is actually interesting to find out and apart from being thought-provoking in a way, it introduces further depth to the world and explains quite a bit about the series, especially why everyone was worried about Tycho in the previous episodes.

One of the many encounters with the ever-moving Tycho.

Throughout the story there are several twists and turns that are rather unexpected and used to the point where they actually get you to play further in order to find out the true nature of your work in the first three games. These are especially prevalent in the final chapter, which is not only very lengthy, but absolutely filled with boss battles. During this stretch of time, you not only find out who exactly the four good gods were that had been destroyed by the four evil gods, as well as the true identity of the fourth and final god of the Four Below: The Narrator, who had been with you since the beginning of the first game. The final boss fight against a possessed Tycho also reveals a lot about the character and their motivations regarding the Periphery in the third game. When all is said and done, the ending is actually worth it, if very bittersweet in its design. Regardless, the story was highly original and crafted a world in which I was always eager to learn more about. From the streets of New Arcadia to the arcane realm of the Underhell, I was very satisfied in my knowledge of what had happened and how it ended.

Combat remains somewhat the same from the previous game, though there are a few new twists introduced. For one thing, it is impossible for anyone in the parties to physically harm the monsters of the Underhell, so to get around this handicap, they must use the Monstorb, a strange orb with the ability to capture and summon monsters at will. This was a feature that Jerry Holkins, the writer of both Penny Arcade and the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness series, had revealed to me during a conversation at San Diego Comic-Con 2012, in which he sounded genuinely excited to be able to work on the project. He described it to the effect of "You capture these monsters and use them in battle and they all gain experience and level up at the same time." In a way this mechanic is similar to Pokémon, except that the monsters can also use a variation of the class system from Episode 3. Instead of using class pins, each monster has their own unique class relating to what they are, such as a Deep Crow, Philosofly, Brodent or even a Vending Machine, with their own passive and active abilities, but also has access to the class native to their trainer (which the player can change), complete with their own passive and active abilities. There are also a couple new items introduced, including one which allows you to switch one active monster out for another in reserve. With all of these elements in play, on top of forming unique strategies for each team, combat can easily get very fun, tense and hectic, sometimes all at once.

The Monstorb can take on many forms.
Thankfully, the increased amount of unique enemies, with little to no repetition, helped keep me on my toes and the ability to analyze their stats and arrange my party before actually fighting helped the flow of battle. I also commend the designs for being done in a way that while you know how many elemental weaknesses they have through analysis mode, you can sort of figure out what they might be based on what the enemy is supposed to resemble or be composed of.

You even get to fight a train. It is awesome.

The overall design of Rain-Slick 4 is a bit closer to a traditional RPG than previous games. Aside from my notes on the combat, there is also an overworld map spanning all of the Underhell, complete with secret areas, bosses and treasures. These design traits also appear to apply to individual levels, with plenty of alternate paths and treasure to discover, making everything more non-linear than Rain-Slick 3. While the graphics remain largely the same, the level architecture is noticeably more grim and varied, while enemy animations appear a little more complex when they are larger than normal. I liked the consistent atmosphere and deeper thought put into levels, the twisting and unusual paths usually worth exploring in the long run.

One of the darker moments (though it gets way worse later on).

One thing I liked about Rain-Slick 3 was its simple, but memorable music, with some additional themes for important or unique bosses. In Rain-Slick 4, the music isn't as memorable, but it is certainly more complex, with increased instrumentation and important battles donning a different atmosphere, like one at the end that brings about an certain presence that makes it more intimidating. There is also a certain piece that compliments a rather humorous Pokémon shout-out, which I won't discuss here so you may enjoy it on your own.

Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 4 is an incredible game. The improved Pokémon-esque monster combat is very fun and well thought out, the environments are darker but better in overall design and the story concludes the epic saga in a way that is very satisfactory. Existing fans of Penny Arcade are the most likely to buy this, and while it's sure to fly under the radar of most gamers, I'd still encourage whoever is reading this to play the series, which can be picked up on Steam for a grand total of $20 (a $12 bundle of the two Hothead installments and an $8 one for the two Zeboyd installments), an incredible bargain for such a great tetralogy. For being based on a webcomic, this game has provided me with thrills and laughs set in an original world that I have yet to see matched in conception or execution by most big-budget titles. Well done, Penny Arcade, well done.

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