Monday, May 26, 2008

Review: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Episode One

Chances are, if you're reading this, you know what Penny Arcade is. If you don't, I just linked it. The first PA-themed game has been released, I've played it, and let me tell ya, playing Rain-Slick Precipice sure beats getting molested by a kitchen appliance... though I guess most things do, after further thought. So perhaps that's not the best comparison.

What we're dealing with here is an interesting modernized blast from the past, as far as gaming goes. The game is two parts story-driven point-and-click 3rd person RPG (which I haven't seen a single game of the type since LucasArts stopped making them, really), and one part timered combat RPG, a-la the Final Fantasy series.

Graphics -
RSPo'D uses 3D rendering for most of its content, but cel shaded much in the same fashion as Zelda: Wind Waker/Phantom Hourglass, Jet Set/Grind Radio, or Viewtiful Joe. Also interspersed throughout it are hand-drawn 2D cutscenes, and conversations with NPCs are usually parlayed out using 2D avatars as well. The point to the endeavor here is the distinctive PA-style art and humor, and that it translates flawlessly. Just goes to show you developers out there a game doesn't have to use enough polys to kneecap the strongest computer and you certainly don't have to drench every little light source in retina-searing amounts of bloom. As far as I can tell, this game uses no bloom whatsoever, and for that I applaud.

Sound -

Although I must admit I was a little disappointed that there was no voice acting (just word bubbles) for the three protagonists and most of the cast of the game, I can understand why they did it... your own avatar is customizable to be anything you want, of either gender, so that would have been prohibitively time consuming (not to mention byte consuming, and the primary delivery method for this game is download), and really, everybody already has in their mind what Gabe and Tycho sound like, so anything put forward in this area would have ground the gears of 99.9% of the listeners. What is there, though, is marvelous. The narrator is perfect, the musical score is grand and immersive, the sound effects are spot on, and the few instances of voice acting in the game even aside from the narration are well done.

Story -
Anyone familiar with the source material knows that the fellas at PA aren't the biggest fans of continuity... or even sanity. The plot of this game takes you through a rollicking series of turns and tumbles that give the impression that the writer had a great deal of sugar that day and only the barest grip on reality to begin with, but it works. After all, the comic thrives on suspension of disbelief and the comedy of the absurd development, thus also does the game. The game begins with you, the protagonist simply raking leaves, only to have your house flattened by the 100-foot tall manifestation of everyone's favorite serial fruit-molesting robot, which then stomps off down the street pursued by "two strange men," Gabe and Tycho. Your little custom gamer self then joins the two on their mission to... well... pretty much it's just a mission to "find out what the hell is going on." And maybe find a new place to live.

Gameplay -
As mentioned above, the game is primarily of the variety where you move yourself or your party around in a 3rd person view with scripted camera angles, clicking on stuff to see what it is, add it to your inventory, and advance the plot by using it in certain other places in the game. The interface, however, is simplified to the point of initial confusion.. that is, it took me a minute or so to realize that all you did to something was click it. No selection of "go, look, open, pull, push, take, hit," whatever... if there's something to be done with an object, clicking on it will get it done.

Combat is initiated when your party comes close to a hostile character. Once in combat, each character (and enemy) has a timer that slowly fills up until you direct them to perform an action, at which point the timer goes back to zero. How full the timer is determines what actions you are allowed to perform. The first action to become available (needing the smallest amount of time) is to use an object from the inventory. There are a variety of combat inventory items that variously heal your party members, damage your enemies, buff your characters, or debuff or stun/distract enemies. The second option to come available is a standard attack. The weaponry for these attacks is pretty fixed, though very upgradeable. Gabe attacks with his fists (which are fast but less damage), which can be upgraded with brass knuckles of meaner and meaner variety later. He also has high HP/Defense. Tycho is the other end of the spectrum, using a hard-hitting but slow-loading tommy gun, and is also able to soak less punishment than gabe. Your avatar falls immediately between the two, attacking with the rake you were using at the onset of the game, which seems to be balanced both for damage and speed between the other two, and likewise with your defense. The final option on the timer is the special attack, and to use a special attack you must wait for the timer to fill all the way. These are much more powerful than standard attacks, and invoke a sort of quick "mini game" task such as hitting specific keys in rapid succession or tapping the space bar enough before time runs out etc, and if you do so correctly the attack is devastating.

After combat, characters gain experience and loot (they all share one inventory), and perhaps level up, raising their stats and gaining new special attacks. There is also a nifty dynamic where if a character gets an "overkill," that is kills a target with a properly performed special attack, he gets a permanent 1 point boost to his damage. These boosts are cumulative, though the maximum number of boosts you can get is limited by how upgraded that character's weapon is. Since the game does not use random encounters, but rather "placed" encounters sort of like Chrono Trigger, your characters advance more or less at the appropriate pace without falling too far behind or becoming too powerful too soon... although it is possible to go to later portions of the game too early and get your butt kicked. Another nice thing is that after each combat sequence, your party is returned to full health, ready for the next fight. Saves on bandages.

Thus it goes. You cavort through the perpetual dusk of the town of New Arcadia, smashing malevolent steampunk fruit juicing appliances, bashing hostile bums, clonking evil clowns, maiming mimes, etc... all in the name of "getting to the bottom of all this." And what you find down there, may horrify you.

Verdict -
It seems to me that the game's allure is one that is reaching for a very specific, though fortunately for it, not small, audience. Penny-Arcade fans will love it. Their favorite characters are there, Gabe's artwork is translated flawlessly into the 3rd dimension and is omnipresent in the 2nd. Tycho's writing is clearly in evidence, from the wry, dark humor to the constant barrage of Lovecraftian overtones. In fact, they become more than overtones. But will, say, my father, who has probably never even heard of PA in his life, enjoy the game? I say, maybe. He'll probably say "eh, it's cute," and go back to playing starcraft, which has been an unhealthy obsession of his since I gave it to him back in the 90s, one for which I am constantly having to apologize to my stepmother ("He didn't USE to spend all day in front of the computer before you did this to him!").

Uh... where was I?

Oh yeah. The game. It's well done. It might be lost on those not familiar with the source. And, like all episode-type games, it's pretty short. You can probably play all the way through it in 4 or 5 hours and it kind of leaves you hanging. But there's 3 more coming, they say, and they're each 20 bucks, so hey. Right? Hey.

Grade: B+

And that's the word from Bandit camp.

1 comment:

DimentoGraven said...

Yeah I played the demo, and while I check the PA site daily, enjoy their reviews and comics, the demo was kind of like you described, "Cute but not really distracting enough to draw me away from my current games."