Developer: Zeboyd Games
When you crave an old-school RPG experience that blends fresh new gameplay ideas with irreverent humour and impressive depth, there's only one developer to call. Zeboyd Games take inspiration from the classic RPGs of yesteryear, poking fun at genre conventions and clichés with hilarious abandon, while imitating the painstakingly detailed sprite art that made them so enduring. But instead of copying their gameplay, Robert Boyd and co. deconstructs them system by system, work out what made them tick, then rebuilds them better than they were before. They have the technology.
Having crafted Breath Of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves The World, Zeboyd were handed the Penny Arcade Adventures by Krahulik and Holkins, and utterly smashed it. The fusion of Tycho's acerbic writing with Boyd's attention to detail produced the strongest series entry in Rain-Slick Episode 3, so after several months of intensive development, they're back with the final chapter in the Penny Arcade saga.
It's brilliant. Obviously.
Rain-Slick 4 takes place directly after the events of the previous instalment, rounded up in a short recap that introduces an infernal new setting. Tycho, Gabe and some other surprising characters are split up in the netherworld, a nightmarish reality populated by ravening vegetarians and classic Penny Arcade-inspired beasties. After enjoying a pixel-perfect pastiche of 16-Bit Final Fantasy introductions (right down to the crystal), you're catapulted into another finely-crafted RPG adventure over the course of a dozen hours.
Exploring exquisitely-detailed expansive maps in cardinal directions feels pleasingly authentic, but much like its predecessor, Rain-Slick 4 makes some nifty tweaks to the classic Final Fantasy formula. Grindy random battles are eschewed for set pieces against differing selections of foes with discrete strengths and weakness, while items are regenerated after each engagement. Once battle is joined, you'll enter into a tactical turn-based brawl that hinges around economically balancing attacks, numerous skills, buffs and defence to counter foes that become stronger with each passing round. Combatants act in order of speed on an Active Time Battle bar (which pauses to let you take your time in selecting a move), thus allowing you to budget your valuable time effectively.
In many ways, Rain-Slick 4 is every inch a puzzle game, with each battle requiring different solutions to bring to an end as quickly as possible. Since enemies increase in power with each elapsed turn, the focus is on intelligently exploiting type weaknesses and clever combinations between character-specific skills. If you're a fan of Rain-Slick 3 or old-school dungeon crawling in general, you'll be in for a treat.
As will Pokemon fans. In a new twist, Tycho, Gabe and 'friends' (I use the term loosely) don't participate in battles directly, instead relying on a selection of beasties drawn from vintage Penny Arcade strips and niche JRPGs. Beyond providing plenty of opportunities for laugh-out-loud references, these independently-levelling critters boast their own situational skills and equipment, while their designated trainer confers extra bonuses and a unique skill. It's a uniquely versatile system that allows players to mix and match party members to suit the situation at hand. I personally can't help but feel that the monster battling takes a little attention away from the characters we've come to love over the course of all three games, but the ingenious adaptable mechanics and underlying humour is more than strong enough to make up for it.
Beyond the battle system, Zeboyd have lavished progression and the game world itself with plenty of attention. You've now got an enormous openworld map to explore, replete with plenty of optional dungeons to delve into to improve your party, acquire new equipment or even the occasional extra monster to add to the roster. Expect a satisfying 10-12 hours here, minimum, and a pleasing (if not entirely genuine) feeling of non-linearity and agency. Though some overtly samey and repetitive battles can start to feel like padding, especially during an occasional overlong slog bereft of humorous dialogue or asides, a truly emphatic ending more than makes up for it.
As always, the presentation is breathtaking. Zeboyd's sprite work is the stuff of indie legend, both authentically simple yet packed with eyecatching detail. Character sprites are always expressive and packed with personality, while backgrounds are crammed with subtle animations and benefit from a vibrant colour palette. Special mention must also be made of the soundtrack, which always perfectly fits the situation at hand. Whether you're rocking out in the middle of a tough battle, enjoying a reverential piano introduction or getting psyched to a rousing strings & synth anthem that could have been lifted from a top-tier JRPG, HyperDuck SoundWorks have utterly excelled themselves. Crank up the volume and browse over to SoundCloud if you don't want to take my word for it.
Once again, Holkins and Boyd conspire to deliver a gamut of belly laughs. Whether you're browsing pithy item descriptions, spotting visual gags or chuckling at the banter, the two writers riff on everything from Penny Arcade canon to priceless old-school JRPG references; using their differing perspectives and experience to full advantage. My personal highlight would be a shameless homage to Pokemon's Team Rocket, whose dialogue and fully-voiced theme tune had me grinning ear to ear.
Rain-Slick 4 is a thoroughly sidesplitting affair, with my only complaint stemming from the party being split up for the majority of the storyline. Gabe and Tycho's angsty relationship with each other, not to mention the supporting cast, is the cornerstone of Penny Arcade humour, yet is absent from much of the game. Thankfully you'll probably be too busy chortling to notice.
- Intelligent Active Time battling with versatile monster mechanics
- Infectious, pithy humour and references galore
- Detailed sprite art, truly exceptional soundtrack from HyperDuck SoundWorks
- Surprisingly meaty and expansive, plenty of optional content and overworld to explore
- Monster battling sidelines main characters
- Characters apart for much of the game, comedy lacks group dynamic
- Can occasionally feel slightly padded (though much of it is optional. And awesome.)
The Short Version: Zeboyd Games have delivered another outstanding masterclass in both RPG design and old-school JRPG homage. Penny Arcade's On The Rain-Slick Precipice Of Darkness 4 is a worthy and hilarious climax to the franchise, and a must-buy for genre fans with a sense of humour.