Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness is a niche appeal title, there’s no escaping that particular fact. It’s been perfectly constructed from the ground up to appeal to fans of the Penny Arcade webcomic leaving all others both befuddled and bewildered. Fortunately, I’ve been a fan for many a year, so it’s definitely one for me.
The third title in a planned quadrilogy, headed up by Zeboyd Games after Hothead Games dropped it in favour of working on their Deathspank series, the game takes the series in a new direction from its predecessors. Where the earlier games attempted to mimic Mike Krahulik’s comic art style as closely as possible, with Krahulik himself acting as artistic lead, Zeboyd have instead favoured their own pixel-art retro RPG style. Likewise, the first two games played out in a traditional turn-based RPG style, but this now attempts to modernise a lot of the old mechanics. It’s a joyous blend of the very old and the very new.
One thing has remained mercifully constant. The writing – in its entirety – was forged at the pen (or keyboard, whatever) of Jerry Holkins. A man I hold an immense respect for, he has a way with words like no other mortal. He has constructed a Lovecraftian world of mysticism, the occult and deities that can be slain if you only hit them with a rake hard enough. A dark world with an even darker plot, very liberally filled with puns, slapstick, general silliness and far more Penny Arcade references than you could imagine existed. And yet somehow, it all works. Don’t ask me how; on the creative scale, he’s building whole worlds and I’m just playing with a bucket and spade building sand castles.
In terms of gameplay, Zeboyd has done a lot right. It’s a lot of little things. Things like your characters fully heal after every fight and items have limited number of uses per battle but fully regenerate afterwards. Where historically games would make you trek back to town if your party was getting ragged or you didn’t have enough potions, this cuts out a lot of the tedious legwork. It’s essentially saying “yes, we know you have the option to go and do that so let’s just assume you did”. There’s no grind, either, which sounds an absurd sentence to ever commit to an RPG title, but it’s true. There are no random battles, they’re all predetermined, with every fight gradually tougher than the last. You’ll enter every fight thinking “Oh God, these guys look tough” when in fact it feels like it’s all very, very carefully calculated to be exactly the right difficulty. It would be quite easy to dismiss this as being more ‘modern game hand-holding’, but enough of the fights are a good challenge without the solution ever being that of ‘go back to the last bit and kill 50 more dudes so that you’re stronger’. A bit of strategy and finesse is required.
And speaking of strategy. Every character has one base class but can learn two more from a selection of fourteen, and these can be swapped around at will between battles because they manifest themselves as badges. By wearing two of the badges your intrepid heroes can become a Tube Samurai or a Cordwainer or a Slacker or a Dinosorcerer or a Crabomancer (among others) in addition to their standard class. Most of them are just as silly as they sound; the Cordwainer (a wonderful old term for a shoemaker) primarily deals damage through an ability called ‘Sole Calibur’ and the Gardenar (sic) can create a garden of dangerous bees that will damage all enemies every turn. By mixing and matching badges you can enhance characters strengths or compensate for their weaknesses and play out battles however you like.
Overall, I’d still find it hard to recommend to someone who hasn’t read the webcomic. There’s a quite a lot, damn near all of it if we’re honest, that would just go over their head. It’s too heavy on in-jokes from a comic that’s been running consistently three times a week for over thirteen years. On the other hand, if you’ve ever read Penny Arcade you won’t want to miss this. Zeboyd has worked hard to make it accessible even to those who haven’t played the first two and it’s priced staggeringly cheap for a game of this calibre.
Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness is £3 on Steam or 400MS points on Xbox Live Arcade.