With only two of the four Penny Arcade games published to consoles, it seemed the virtual adventures of Tycho and Gabe had met their premature end four years ago. After a falling-out with the comic’s creators, Hothead Games discontinued the project to develop its own IP, Deathspank. But Penny Arcade's Rain-Slick Precipice franchise would not go quietly into The Periphery, Hell, or whatever afterlife dimension proved most befitting. The indie minds at Zeboyd Games are bringing the continuation of the series to the PC and Xbox Live Indie market, and much has changed during its extended hiatus. The latest Precipice of Darkness combines all the tropes of a pseudo-JRPG with the satirical witticism of the premier webcomic to conflicting effects.
I missed out on Penny Arcade’s first two forays into the world of video games, and as such, many of the third’s initial references fell on deaf ears. Mike Krahulik’s and Jerry Holkins’ alter egos, Gabe and Tycho, exist in the ominous year of 1922, where supernatural forces transformed by the mystical tome of the Necrowombicon give the two’s detective agency purpose when they aren't testing out waterslides, staring at telephones, or contemplating the purchase of a dog or cat. “Severing a God’s connection to the mortal realm” has also become their addiction of sorts.
Tycho usually gets his way.
Whereas most role-playing games gorge their fantasy, apocalyptic, or sci-fi settings with complex protagonists that grow over time, Rain-Slick 3 establishes the characters’ personalities outright. Tycho Brahe comes from a prestigious lineage specializing in temporal artifacts, and Johnathan Gabriel is just ... Gabe. Tycho’s rants indulge in social commentary on the fundamental underpinnings of time and space; Gabe likes to punch stuff. Their brawn and brain chemistry clash like baking soda and vinegar, with their hilarious frothing feuds often spilling over into the relationships of Tycho’s ex-wife or Jim, a floating skull freely suspended in a jar of embalming fluid.
Holkins’ writing presents itself as wordy diatribes wrapped in confusing sophistication, yet humor relies heavily on the delivery, and sarcasm rarely translates well into written form. Rain-Slick 3’s text proves to be a source of great strength, but also great weakness. Gabe’s consistent ploy to emulate the lead villain’s cool factor by donning a similar red cape and combustible brooch produced a worthy chuckle, but more often than I care to admit, I forgot Tycho’s long-winded buildups once he reached the punchline. Sometimes the dialogue works against the appointed design, forcing players away from the Precipice of Darkness fiction, a disappointment I cannot ignore.
Jim would retort if his select methods of communication were anything but bubbles and gurgles.
The first two Rain-Slick Precipice titles colored the world in hand-drawn environments faithful to the comics. That said, I adored every minute of the third’s reskinned, 16-bit aesthetic, but I expected nothing less from the developers of Cthulhu Saves the World. The town of New Arcadia evokes a dreary sensation of early-1920s London constructed with slate-grey cobblestones and homely wooden cottages. The overworld is dotted with points of interest that you travel between in the vein of Super Mario Bros., negating any ill-needed exploration. A haunted house, hobo alley, mime-patrolled boardwalk, and New Arcadia’s bank harbor Gabe’s and Tycho’s destructive antics, yet the world is want for originality next to the assortment of creative enemies.
The fluctuating effects of the Necrowombicon produce a staggering list of absurd creature combinations out of place even for an RPG. Gabe and Tycho grapple with a portly gentleman riding a walrus, an octopus donning the makeup of the mime brotherhood, and a massive Crabomancer rocking a fez and beard within the first half hour. I hate to spoil a future encounter, but who can say no to a Tyrannosaurus wearing a tuxedo? Compounding these inventive confrontations are equally thoughtful bios. Most RPGs run down the list of a monster’s weaknesses for strategy’s sake. Precipice of Darkness 3 lampoons its 16-bit inspirations to provide players with more idiosyncratic charm. Broodlords include the “patented ‘double mandible’ and breeding pouch,” an Evil Anchor earned the title of “‘Most Nefarious Anchor’ by Anchor Magazine,” and Dr. Blood’s “timely appearance in the narrative marks him as a man to watch...”
I have no words for this image.
The turn-based combat remains the most grounded part of the Rain-Slick 3 experience. Enemies “adhere to the ‘spatiality’ of their universe,” an overly complicated way of saying there are never random encounters, but that did not stop the developers from harkening back to the 8-bit days of Final Fantasy. The fighting progresses like a traditional RPG, where foes cannot attack until you input your next command(s). Each party member deals in physical and magical skills too, but mana points only build one point per turn. Some abilities cost three or four MP to cast, so finding the right support balance of physical punishment and elemental assaults is best learned early on. At least the party’s health is fully replenished upon victory.
Class pins toggle the moves available to Tycho, Gabe, and company. Each badge levels up as the wielder becomes more proficient with its uses, though unequipped pins level at a slower rate, too. Like the opponents they are used to combat, each pin shows clever promise in a genre stifled with the archetypes of warriors of healers. The Tube Samurai swaps stances to increase one’s offensive, defensive, and speed capabilities, the Hobo pin inflicts hoboism (the victim suffers health loss each turn), and the Dinosorcerer transforms the wearer into an uncontrollable dinosaur.
Rain-Slick 3 contains the best use of dinosaurs in video games this year.
A slight change to the turn-based formula requires players to focus strikes instead of mindlessly spamming the attack order. A combat meter divided between a waiting period, command period, and action period queues the turn of attacks between your party and the opposition. The greater a fighter’s speed, the sooner he or she cycles back to the command selection, while several pins allow the bearer to interrupt another’s position in the combat rotation. For example, Moira’s inherent Gumshoe class can “Interrogate” her target to send it back to the waiting stage.
Naturally, creatures succumb differently to the effects of elemental magic. Just forget about an accompanying bestiary. This Precipice of Darkness hails back to old-school RPG years of jotting down super-effective moves in a manual’s designated notes section, that is, if you’re playing on Hard or Insane. On Normal, I breezed through this occult caper in six hours.
Long-time readers may recognize the more sinister abominations.
And while the writing contains all the tongue-in-cheek laughs I associate with the Penny Arcade comics, the sometimes whimsical dialogue interferes with the gameplay. Browsing the various class pins, I noticed one titled Slacker, but the expected information detailing the Slacker’s ideal role is replaced with a vague description of the pin’s power “to... um... hang out, and stuff.” How this class functions in combat is only revealed once you visit the cathedral responsible for the pins’ creations and inspect their statues.
When I think of defining 16-bit RPGs, the Final Fantasy franchise elicits faint memories of airships, conflicted knights, loathsome villains, cunning boss battles, and symphonic scores crackling through the speakers of ‘90s CRT television. Precipice of Darkness 3 differs substantially from the role-players of the Super Nintendo era, yet your takeaway from Penny Arcade’s third adventure hinges highly upon your enjoyment of the series’ cheeky self-awareness and pop culture humor. The replay value is stretched thin unless you wish to return to New Arcadia for more challenging brawls too, and like a poor cliffhanger ending, the journey discontinued while I was still craving more.
Publisher: Penny Arcade, Inc.
Developer: Zeboyd Games
Release Date: June 25, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Xbox Live Indie Games, iOS, Android