Here’s a pair who need no introduction: if you’re a gamer (which you are) and you visit websites (which you do), it’s almost inconceivable that you’ll not have come across www.penny-arcade.com, the gaming webcomic that’s rumoured to have the busiest forums on the entire Internet.*
Tycho and Gabe, the brains behind Penny Arcade, have found fame lampooning the gaming world, pointing the finger at the ridiculous and the mercenary, with a particular place in their hate-filled hearts for big business and the way it treats games and gamers. So it was something of a brave step to risk making a game of their own, entering the arena in which they usually play the parts of judge, jury and executioners.
Brave, certainly, but not foolish. See, these guys have been around and played a fair few games, and it’d be very, very silly of them to put out a game with their name on it that was lacklustre and half-baked. They proved with the first instalment that this wasn’t going to happen.
It’s episodic, which of course is more of a business model than an actual style of game. It’ll set you back about a tenner, and for that you get roughly 6-8 hours of gameplay. So if you played episode 1 and found it to be good value, this is much the same.
For those who didn’t play the first episode, I’d strongly recommend starting with that before picking this one up. As with pretty much all episodic games that I’ve played, they’re like bite-sized chunks of an overall game experience, and you’d not play another game starting from level 2, would you? The game itself is a clever, playable mash-up of point-and-click adventure and MMO/Squaresoft-style RPG. The engine is solid and well-balanced and the comedy is character-based, bawdy and expletive-ridden. This last needs some kind of emphasis: there’s a lot of text to read, most of it eloquent and genuinely funny, and almost all of it vulgar. For example, the first two health power-ups you will find have descriptive text – none of which I can repeat here. That’s just the health power-ups!
Make no mistake – this isn’t the game to play when anyone with an already low opinion of gaming is in the room. Questions like “why did you just hit that woman with that garden implement?” can only truthfully be answered with “to steal her jewellery” or, more often, “I have literally no idea”. But hit them you will, as the combat system is engrossing and fun.
With Penny Arcade’s close connection to the videogame industry you’d expect ‘in-jokes’, poking fun at other games. But “On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness” must be given credit for resisting this temptation. Set in a demented version of 1920’s America, the story stands alone from the world of modern videogames with only an occasional Lovecraft reference and the odd D20 to dilute what can only be described as the Penny Arcade Mythos. Old favourites from the comic as well as new characters for the game populate the streets of New Arcadia, and the story is engrossing (if completely barking). At one point (SPOILER WARNING!) you find yourself climbing the inside of a giant metal orange that is being destroyed by the amorous advances of a hundred-foot-tall demon-possessed robot. You’ve got to hand it to them – this isn’t something you’ve ever experienced in any other videogame, ever.
As with Episode 1, there is a scattering of excellent voice acting for the narrator, but the main characters are wisely only given voice through text; anyone who reads the comic no doubt has their own voices in mind for the main characters, and any attempt to give them speech in the game would no doubt end up with forums awash with “you’re doing it wrong!”. As the player, you get to create a character of your own to join a party with Tycho and Gabe and explore the story along with them. Remarkably, once you’ve created the likeness of your character he (or she) will appear not only in the main game but also in the comic book panels that are used to illustrate major plot developments. Each of these special scenes looks hand-drawn in the Penny Arcade style, so the inclusion of your own personal character in these seemingly hand-drawn pages helps the player to feel like they’re properly involved in a Penny Arcade caper – and, of course, that’s the whole point.
The game is crammed with secrets, hidden items, puzzles, upgrades and unlockables, and there’s an ‘insane mode’ to give some kind of replayability, but to be honest once you’ve seen the story through you’re unlikely to plunge back into it for a good long while really. That said, you get what you pay for, and if you’re a fan of the Penny Arcade brand of humour, you’ll laugh out loud and thoroughly enjoy yourself. If you find them tawdry and revolting, and can’t see the point in pee jokes, you’re probably better off saving your money. Personally, I loved it.
* - Isn’t it funny how whenever anyone says “here’s something that needs no introduction”, they always follow it immediately with an introduction?