The Penny Arcade Adventures couldn't be in safer hands. Hothead sadly had to withdraw from the field after their first two competent yet arguably overpriced games hit the downloadable marketplaces, but Zeboyd's Robert Boyd stepped into the breach in a collaboration for the ages. Armed with his impeccable eye for attractive 2D spritework and retro-inspired mechanics, the Indie developer behind Cthulhu Saves The World set to creating another epic quest for Gabe and Tycho's Startling Developments detective agency; taking our heroes into new territories and plumbing new depths. With 100% extra haikus this time around. Bargain.
The combination of Jerry Holkins' writing with Boyd's anarchic style inescapably leads to hilarious consequences. Gabe and Tycho's irreverent journey through the city of New Arcadia to recover the legendary Necrowombicon (for starters) is both witty and referential; revelling in in razor-sharp dialogue, multifaceted observational humour, self-aware parody and funny enemy/item descriptions - the latter being the traditional feeding ground for humorous games. You'll need to be an avid Penny Arcade reader with a degree from Miskatonic University to make the most of the setting, and some experience with the first two Hothead-developed games will come in useful, but new players will still be able to laugh at most of the jokes.
And yet, even if you take humour out of the equation, Episode 3 still manages to surpass both of its predecessors.
See, while Robert Boyd's earlier work (notably Breath Of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves The World) is sometimes lumped into the murky sub-genre of parody games, he's not actually in the parody business. Instead, through detailed sprite design and turn-based combat, Zeboyd actively attempts to iterate and improve on classic 8-Bit RPG systems, making games that are mechanically superior homages to their forebears. Episode 3 refines this idea yet further, resulting in a game that feels fresher and more relevant than its retro style initially suggests.
The first hour amounts to a slow tutorial that introduces both characters and the basic setup, which will be broadly familiar to most old-school RPG fans. You'll explore New Arcadia via a Super Mario Land-inspired overworld map that gradually unlocks a selection of linear pathways; punctuated with nodes that either glean some story scenes, allow access to a shop or throws your party into a 2D dungeon. While walking around these mazes, you'll enter combat by touching enemies or ignore them entirely. Characters attack in order of speed and initiative, unable to act until their preset turn on an action queue. There's no active battle system, no real-time combat; you're free to size up the situation at your own pace and issue orders when you're ready. It's traditional, conventional RPG fare. At first.
Over the proceeding seven to eight hours, however, the combat becomes increasingly more challenging and rewarding. Enemies increase in power with every elapsed turn, putting the focus on using your characters' unique skills as efficiently as possible. Certain attacks can interrupt enemy attacks, pushing them back in the turn queue and buying you more time. Defence is a powerful and relevant tool that can make the difference between losing a healer and winning a battle, not just a waste of a turn. A multi-class job system allows each character to pack a huge range of different active skills, spells, buffs and healing abilities, many of which will be familiar to longtime Penny Arcade fans (the Cardboard Tube Samurai and Dinosorceror vocations is a particular highlight). Thanks to regenerating health between battles, you'll approach each engagement as a standalone puzzle, with each enemy and formation requiring different tactics and clever use of interrupts to succeed. Episode 3 may resemble the likes of Final Fantasy in terms of art style, but its gameplay replaces grind with cerebral strategy.
Streamlining (an increasingly dirty word that's often spat out in the same way one might say or "quick time event" or "sex offender" by hardcore RPG fans) has been implemented in a thoughtful and entirely useful way, cutting out any remaining grind and busywork with merry abandon. Along with the aforementioned regenerating health, you'll only be able to equip characters with a single weapon and item. Consumables, such as potions, now actively regenerate after each battle; their capacity upgraded along the way. Your inventory won't overflow with useless tat. You won't have to traipse back to town every ten minutes. You can save at any time. Sure, Episode 3's 8-10 hour length could have been substantially increased if it relied on conventional timewasting contrivances, but it's much more enjoyable as a lean and sharp experience.
This could probably go without saying, but Episode 3 looks the business. Boyd has once again delivered a detailed, personality-laden retro masterwork that's sharp enough to impress but pixelated enough to provide a heavy dose of nostalgia. The familiar Penny Arcade characters look distinct and authentic despite the change in style, and in many ways, I feel that the aesthetic compliments the noir atmosphere and beloved gaming comic just as well as the two original games.
It's difficult to fault Episode 3, especially considering its delicious £2.99 price point, but a few controversial omissions will doubtlessly raise some eyebrows. Firstly, the player-defined lead character from the first two games is entirely absent, replaced by a couple of new characters who compliment Gabe and Tycho's antagonistic relationship throughout the campaign. I personally feel that Episode 3 is better for focusing on the core characters (Hothead never managed to integrate the mute player character into the action or storyline in a particularly meaningful way), though diehard Rainslick fans may come away slightly disappointed.
More divisive, however, will be Episode 3's linear and puzzle-esque structure. There's a fair amount of exploring to do when dungeon crawling, but enemies don't respawn and you'll rarely have any reason to return to completed levels, let alone replay the game. For some players, the joy of the original 8-Bit golden age RPGs was grinding; optionally raising your characters to obscene levels and facing off against the final boss with hidden gear gleaned from item farming and exploration. A double-edged joy that's completely absent here. You'll frequently wish that there was more to see and do, which is admittedly a testament to the quality of what's on offer rather than a gripe.
For most players, though, Episode 3's eight to nine hours of enjoyable gameplay will more than justify the negligible expense... and the humour is worth the price of admission by itself.
- Exciting, fresh take on turn-based gameplay
- Witty, referential and hilarious
- Exquisite retro-inspired visuals
- It costs £2.99
- Linear structure and streamlining may deter hardcore RPG fans, hurts replayability
- Previous experience with Penny Arcade comes highly recommended
- Player-defined lead character is MIA
The Short Version: Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Episode Three is an exceptional RPG with rewarding turn-based combat, deep mechanics, acerbic humour and a very long title.
For £2.99, it's also an essential purchase for RPG fans, especially those who crave some turn-based action.