Tuesday, May 27, 2008


On Wednesday, I grabbed Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Volume 1 from Xbox Live Arcade for $20.

I'd been looking forward to the game for a while, given that it's from the creators of Penny Arcade, was supposed to be some sort of pseudo-adventure-y turn-based combat episodic thingamabob. The short version is: If you're a fan of PA, it's worth getting. If you're not, it's not.

You play a custom character whose home gets flattened moments after the game starts. You meet up with Gabe & Tycho, though they're sort of alternate Steampunk-y versions thereof, and chase after the giant robot that smashed your house.

For the first part of the game, there's not much more to it than smashing garbage cans, walking to the right, and periodically fighting stuff. That's actually all there really is to the game, plus talking to some people and periodically walking in other directions.

The bulk of the gameplay is in the combat, and this part of it actually worked really well for me. It's a JRPG-derived "active timer" system, so each player can make a move when their meter fills. In this case, you can use an item after a short time, attack after a slightly longer time, and do a special attack after an even longer time. If multiple characters have specials ready, they can "team up" and do unique team-based attacks. When an enemy attacks, their health bar blinks - if you hit a button at the right time, you can block the attack or even counterattack for free.

It's relatively simple, but a little ungainly - you're constantly shifting your view from the upper window (where the attack/block indicator is) and the bottom half of the screen where the various characters' counters are running. There are a couple other mechanical "difficulties" here - you've got to have the right character highlighted to make a move, but if a special move then gets activated, it interrupts your menu commands, which can be a touch disorienting, for instance - but the core mechanics work pretty well.

More, they're *tuned* really well. You can get by against easier foes just doing straight up attacks, but very quickly you'll have to learn to manage your items, block attacks, and make sure you're accounting for the enemy's vulnerabilities and resistances. More, you can carry a relatively limited amount of each item, and in this case, it really works to encourage players to *use* the items, or exploration becomes basically meaningless.

So, the combat is engaging. The rest of the game doesn't *quite* measure up. The visual aesthetic is a reasonable approximation of PA, but there's something about it that definitely feels a little "off" - Gabe's smile in the talking sections, for instance. There's something really distinctive about "Gabe's" art style, and it's easy to spot even minor deviations from model.

The oddly disappointing bit for me was the writing. I *love* Tycho's weekly posts. He's got a really great way with words, and will often find turns of phrase that make me awestruck. So, when I say I'm disappointed by the writing, my expectations were really, really high. Looking at it with a (relatively) objective eye, it's not bad, it's even very consistent with the Penny Arcade's strips. It feels like Gabe and Tycho, for the most part - I just wish it felt like "Tycho" - that is, Jerry Holkins writing the news posts for Penny Arcade.

Still, the story's fun, the interactive dialog is funny in the way that old adventure games are funny - lots of humorous item descriptions, etc. I'll definitely be picking up future installments of the game, and I'd recommend it with some reservations to Penny Arcade fans. It's one of those games I wish I *loved*, but I just don't - it didn't quite pop for me, but it showed there's some potential there. Looking forward to seeing what these guys can do now that they've got some experience under their belts. I'd guess that for the most part, Ep. 2 is nearing completion already, so likely it's more of the same, but it'll be interesting to see how Ep. 3 & 4 evolve based on feedback from the first game.

B/75 - B for the episodic nature, the mix of JRPG-style combat with a slightly adventure-y feel, and 75 for the very well-tuned battle system, but a slight miss for the somewhat disappointing story. I'd love to see what these guys do next.

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