Penny Arcade Adventures: Episode 2 Review
If you’re a gamer, you’ve probably heard of Penny Arcade. The long-running comic strip featuring the hilarious duo of Tycho and Gabe has poked fun at the world of gaming since the turn of the century, and now, they have their own game. It’s fittingly called Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice Of Darkness, and we say “fittingly” because that title perfectly reflects the genuine zaniness of PA. The pair of “heroes” run the Startling Detective Agency, and the player progresses through a series of panels ala comic book style, seeking to solve case after case in your quest to discover the ultimate answer. Believe it or not, this may be closer to a RPG than an Adventure game, just because the combat will remind you of a traditional turn-based mechanic, although the action progresses in real time. The story is loaded with plenty of that patented PA hilarity, but you don’t necessarily have to be a loyal fan of the comic strip to enjoy this unique production. It would certainly help, but it’s not a requirement. Many should get a kick out of Penny Arcade Adventures.
We’re taking a look at Episode 2, which just hit the PlayStation Store this past week. In terms of visuals, all we really have to analyze is the PA comic strip brought to life on our screens. It’s almost exactly what you would expect, but we have to admit that we’re somewhat impressed at the level of artistry and detail depicted in the game, especially considering it’s just a downloadable product. Everything sports clean, rounded lines and we found ourselves chuckling as we recalled PA’s numerous comics that mentioned the “jagginess” of first-generation PS2 titles. They wouldn’t have wanted this game on that machine! The adventure has you wandering about through the aforementioned digital comic book, but it basically just feels as if you’re exploring a colorful, cartoony environment. The cut-scenes remind you of the comic foundation, though, and while there’s no real animation in those cut-scenes, there really isn’t supposed to be. It makes sense that Hothead wouldn’t want to stray too far from what everyone has recognized as “Penny Arcade” for the past decade. Chances are, provided your expectations aren’t abnormally high, you’ll be happy with these graphics.
The sound isn’t quite so good, only because they opted not to include voices and the soundtrack never really blossoms. The music is appropriate, but it sits too much in the background and although the adventuring effects are great, the contrast is a little too jarring. During combat, we’re always happy with what we hear, but when we’re just wandering about, checking around for clues and items, we quickly recognize the lacking soundtrack and oddly quiet atmosphere. We’re actually happy with the decision not to include voice actors, for several reasons: 1. chances are, they wouldn’t be as good as we would want, and 2. I think we’ve all unconsciously applied voices to Gabe and Tycho, and no matter what we heard in the game, it wouldn’t fit the voice in our heads…and thus, everyone would be disappointed. Really, it’s all very psychological. Anyway, like we said, the effects are very good – even surprisingly diverse – and this helps to keep the player interested in all that sleuthing going on. We just wish they could’ve done more with the soundtrack. Heck, give us the option to customize the music…that’d be cool.
If you played the first episode, you know what to expect, but we’re going to assume that most of you haven’t (if you had, you probably wouldn’t be reading this review). So let’s explain- you are the unwitting third wheel in a 3-man party that includes Tycho and Gabe of the Startling Detective Agency. Essentially, you create your own character and after a personal – yet still comical – disaster at the start of the game, you tag along with the dastardly duo in an attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery. We won’t get too involved in the story, but let’s just say it involves evil robots that appear to have leaped straight out of a 1950s sci-fi movie…which is weird, because the setting for Penny Arcade Adventures is the year 1922. Anywho, you will have a central hub where you can check everything from unlocked artwork to your current inventory (you can access this hub at any time), and you will travel between different “panels” to further your quest. You’ll visit new places, encounter new characters, laugh a whole lot, and oh yeah, fight a bunch of enemies RPG-style!
The combat is the crux of the gameplay. When you encounter an enemy, you will be brought to a separate screen (wow, remember that?) where your character and those effective detectives face off against your foe(s). You carry a hoe – that’s right, the gardening tool – Tycho carries a double-barreled shotgun, and Gabe just punches people. In fact, early on in your adventure, when asked what he does, Gabe says very specifically, “I punch people. I’m the… ‘pause’ …Face Puncher.” Classic PA. You need to keep a close eye on the bottom panels that show everyone’s vital statistics, because when your Attack, Special Attack, or Item icons are lit, they become accessible. You can watch them fill up over time; your character is the fastest and Tycho with his shotgun is the slowest, and you have to remember that enemy attacks are ceaseless. They won’t stop until they’re dead, and it’s not “turn-based” because the game doesn’t pause when you go to select a command. This means you have to act very quickly to select your move, but at the same time, you have to watch your attackers closely. When they attack, if you press the R2 button at just the right time, you’ll block.
At first, we found this quite difficult, and although we did get used to it, it seems as if Hothead was trying to do too much with this mechanic. We love the Special Attacks, where you have to perform well in a preliminary mini-game in order to dole out maximum damage (and the mini-game is different for each character), but the idea of blocking with R2 seems unnecessary and even annoying. We have to pay such close attention to the bottom panels and our character’s health bars, which are only seen beneath each party member during the fight, that we found blocking to be a tiresome task. But if you don’t block, you will be at a definite disadvantage because each battle is a serious challenge. All three of your characters can easily bite the dust, and you have to be super speedy in selecting your plan of attack. Items are the life-blood of your party, as they will drastically increase or decrease attack and defense of allies or enemies, heal and revive, and even inflict major damage and status abnormalities on the opposition. You will pick these up after successfully winning a battle, and you’ll also find them laying around in crates that you can bash with your hoe.
The good news is that regardless of the outcome, everyone in the party is completely healed after each encounter. It’s a good thing, too, because the game would quickly become impossible if they weren’t. Furthermore, even if one of your characters dies during battle, and combat ends with him still laying on the ground, he won’t miss out on the valuable experience. This is another much-appreciated feature, and to be honest, it’s these two acts of leniency that kept us playing…well, that, and the never-ending PA humor that we’ve been enjoying for years. It’s just so funny. Another cool part of the game is that you will be allowed to choose your response during cut-scenes, and some of those responses will make you laugh aloud; then you’ll laugh again when Tycho and Gabe respond to it. We’re not entirely sure if your replies have any impact on the story – we doubt it – but it really helps to boost this game to another interactive level. More humor ensues when you inspect any number of objects in your immediate environment, so this is one game where you really want to read everything. Skipping cut-scenes would be absolutely pointless.
The combat is flawed and perhaps overly challenging, and the learning curve may be a bit high for a downloadable title. Most people perusing the Store for a simple, fun adventure may not be expecting this level of intricacy, while others will consider it a pleasant surprise. For the most part, we’re in the latter group, although it’s easy to get irritated, especially when the battles keep coming at a relatively fast pace. The encounters themselves don’t get repetitive, but it did feel as if we were spending too much time fighting through one particular section. This is another potential negative, but it really depends on what type of gamer you are. In the end, the control is fine, the story is both loopy and entertaining, we never really grew tired of traveling about in our adventure, and at the very least, the combat is ambitious for a smaller title. We liked having a central base of operations and the design throughout is actually quite impressive. There’s no doubt that the game is catering more to the PA crowd, but like we said in the intro, it’s not a necessary prerequisite for enjoyment.
The PSN has already seen several fantastic additions this year (Wipeout HD and echochrome are two examples), and although this one isn’t quite amongst the elite, it’s still well worth your time. Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Episode Two will cost you $14.99, and while we think it’d be more of a must-have deal at $9.99, the extra five bucks is worth it for fans. It’s really quite well done, and that’s all we have to say about it. Gotta love PA, right?
12/20/2008 Ben Dutka