Fairly slick and definitely dark: Penny Arcade in game form

27May08

I read a number of webcomics, one of which is Penny Arcade. It’s one I was forwarded to by a friend who plays a lot more computer games than I do, so some of the time I don’t get it. But when I do, it’s usually very funny indeed.

So I downloaded the free demo of “On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness”, the Penny Arcade game, with a little trepidation. It could have been entirely gaming humour, and while I usually look up references from the comic if I don’t understand, I almost certainly wouldn’t have bothered for a game, and I doubt I would have played more than a few minutes of it.

Luckily for me, they seem to have moved completely in the other direction. The game is set in a vaguely 1920’s America-styled dystopia, and features Gabe and Tycho., the two main characters from the comic, (plus a user-chosen garden-rake-wielding third character) fighting robots, hobos and mimes, and solving puzzles. The humour is dark but tight and witty, and contains very few game references (or at least, if there are any, they fly high over my head). Instead it’s character- and situation-driven, with grotesque non-player characters and smart one-liners. Cut scenes unfold in animated 2D comic form, a nice touch given the game’s origins, but the game itself is played in a pretty good 3D interface, though fixed camera angles and limited space to move in the game areas don’t quite exploit this as much as perhaps they could.

Playing the game itself feels much like a standard RPG, on the Final Fantasy model. The “battle” system takes a little time to get used to, as it uses a fairly complex (on first use) system of timers, but it proves fairly versatile. The puzzles (so far – I’m around half-way through) are tricky, but not excruciatingly so – as are the “boss” battles.

The game isn’t perfect though – in particular, moving around is sometimes frustrating and I often find myself running around in circles after accidentally clicking on the wrong part of the screen. Though I’m using a trackpad, not a mouse, so that might be part of the problem.

The battle system too takes a little while to get used to, and it’s easy to mess up. There are three timers, one for items, one for attacks and one for special attacks, which fill up in order (the attack timer will only start when the item one is full) and then allow moves. But they all reset together, so using an item when the character is almost at ‘special attack’ level feels wasteful. Two or more special attacks can be combined, but the player must wait for enough timers to fill – allowing the enemy to attack multiple times. For me, used to simpler systems, this can be annoying (I lost a lot of battles early on in the game). But it certainly brings an extra tactical element to the game, which is interesting to explore once you get used to it.

Like all RPGs, your character has to collect items. These are hidden inside boxes, dustbins and other hollow objects, which must be broken with your character’s rake (did I mention the rake?). The boxes magically repair themselves between visits to each area, and so your character has limits on the number of each object he or she can carry. The problem this causes is that, after narrowly losing a boss battle or fleeing a battle that’s proving too hard, it’s necessary to run around and replenish stocks of each item before re-attempting. This is time-consuming, and becomes very frustrating after a few times.

And the game seems to take a long time to load. This may be because my overworked Mac is almost full, or may be because I’m used to near-instantaneous load speeds on the Nintendo DS. It’s certainly long enough to be annoying, though not quite of the brew-kettle-and-make-tea lengths I remember from last time I played computer games (around five years ago).

But these are all weak complaints in the face of what is a exceedingly enjoyable game. For me, the challenge will be to complete it – I have a history of playing through RPGs up to the final boss, and then failing to beat it. But for more experienced gamers than I, it should offer around 6 to 8 hours of gameplay – not bad for a price of $19.95 (around £10). A code to unlock the full game can be purchased from the website linked above.

The writing and humour – well, it will offend anyone who is very easily offended. If you find the idea of a robot seeking carnal knowledge of fresh fruit (complete with pelvic thrusts) distasteful, this is almost certainly not the game for you. But I would imagine that such people don’t find Penny Arcade itself funny, so probably would not be playing the game anyway. If you like the comic strip’s dark blend of clever wit, snarky remarks and violence on a grotesque scale, you’ll enjoy the plot elements of the game. Not, perhaps, recommended for under-fourteens. For over-fourteens with senses of humour varying from slightly twisted to corkcrew, it’s highly recommended.

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