Penny Arcade Adventures: Attack of the Lengthy Subtitle
When your livelihood and reputation are based on mocking videogames, it takes guts to open yourself to the same sort of ridicule. Yet with a title like Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rainslick Precipice of Darkness Episode One, that mockery apparently comes from within. It deftly translates Penny Arcade's oddly hypnotic blend of lowbrow subject matter and subtle wit into video game form, and combines it with role-playing gameplay that, while not incredibly deep, is entertaining and tactically engaging by removing some bloated RPG conventions.
I would describe Penny Arcade's style of humor myself, but this is the Internet, so check it out yourself if you haven't already. The comic's style makes the transition smoothly - the style of humor, the art style and the in-jokes are all here... only less free.
It would have been easy to use a standard modern-day setting, but instead, PA uses a steampunk setting that actually matches well with the over-the-top vulgarity. There is also, shockingly, an actual story here, and it's far above your standard video game dreck. In fact, it is stylish and hilarious dreck. You may be saving the world, but who you're saving it from - and how - are highly entertaining touches that are worth paying to discover. It's the first episode of several, so there aren't many plot developments, but for the length of the game, it's well-paced and funny.
A lot of role-playing games consist of inefficient quirks and tactical indifference that pay off through long-term strategic gameplay. Penny Arcade Adventures is the reverse; character development consists of basic leveling and buying a scant number of weapon upgrades, but there's strong tactical design in the combat and a streamlined interface. Each character has three options - use an item, use a normal attack, and use a special attack - that only become available after a charge-up period. Item use is the quickest available action, while your special attack takes a while to charge.
However, since enemies also operate on this semi-real-time system, charging up a special attack will often allow them to get in multiple attacks. Likewise, you can use several items, which can change the statistics of allies and enemies, in the time it takes to charge up a special attack. There's just the right balance between the charge time being fast enough to force you to act quickly and being slow enough to give you some time to plan.
There are also numerous smart touches that fill out the action. Healing items double as revival items in case you have a knocked-out character. Your characters automatically return to full health after battle, which ensures difficulty balance and not having to piddle around a menu screen to heal after every battle. There's a cap on the number of items you can have at any one time, but they're plenty to be found, which encourages you to actually use your items instead of hoarding them for boss battles.
Every enemy has weaknesses and strengths against certain types of attacks, and the game always tells you straight out whether your attack was effective or ineffective, Pokémon-style. And there's a twenty-sided die roll to determine initiative, because you know, a RPG based on an internet webcomic that lampoons videogames set in a steampunk universe isn't nerdy enough. This is a smart, smart game, and it retains the depth you would expect from a 40-hour RPG.
That isn't to say that On the Rainslick Precipice of Darkness is free of problems (games with titles this long rarely are). It's been labeled as an adventure RPG, but there's very little adventuring, as you're limited to about three major locations, and running back and forth between them can get repetitive. There's also very little in the way of sound, to the point that when you do hear a prominent special effect or piece of music, it's nearly a shock, helped none by the fact that there's exactly one, albeit one rather hilarious, voice actor in the game. A more prominent soundscape or musical score would have helped fill out the experience. And the price tag at $20 is a touch steep for a single episode, although the "cost to hours of gameplay" ratio is still strong enough that if you're interested, and a fan, you shouldn't let the price scare you.
Future episodes will likely have to introduce deeper gameplay, since it's easy to master Episode One. But on its own, Penny Arcade Adventures is a very solid game with a unique and refined take on role-playing gameplay that would stand on its own even without the Penny Arcade brand of humor. But with its setting and humorous storytelling, it's a genuinely unique RPG worth the time and money. And since it's not over forty hours, you can actually expect to finish this one.