Thursday, September 16, 2010

Something Newish: Penny Arcade Adventures - Episode One

I recently played through Hothead Games' Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode One,  a game based on the very popular webcomic on topics near to gamers' hearts everywhere.  I sampled the game on XBox Live Arcade when it was released back in 2008, but only picked up a full copy recently, as part of the recent Great Adventure Bundle 2010 charity fundraiser package.

Unfortunately, the Penny Arcade Adventures series did not do well commercially and was canceled following the release of the second episode.  So the planned four-episode saga will likely never be completed, and we are left to contemplate this first episode on its merits as a stand-alone game.  The story is self-contained, so that's not really an issue, but it's also fairly clear why the series didn't survive.

The obvious question is, what went wrong?  How could a popular and well-written webcomic fail to translate into adventure terms, where witty repartee finds its most comfortable place in the contemporary market?

Well... this Penny Arcade Adventures game is not so much an adventure as an RPG.  The player is allowed to create a custom character representing him or herself, with Tycho and Gabe joining the party following the prologue.  Most of the game time is spent in traditional role-playing battles, with potions and special attacks that take some time to charge up.  The implemention isn't bad -- there are few random encounters, as we can usually spot enemies from a distance.  Blocks and unique moves make good use of skill challenges -- we have to hit the spacebar with precise timing, or power up by hitting it rapidly -- which makes the action a little more involving.  And the enemies are colorful and well-animated, with some fine sound design.  But the models suffer from visibly low polygon counts -- they don't compare favorably to the 2-D portraits in the style of the webcomic that are used in dialogue sequences and cutscenes. 

The story adopts a 1920's setting, which gives it a nice period flavor, and an excuse for some good old-fashioned H.P. Lovecraft-ian purple prose concerning the robot invasion.  It's colorful, florid stuff that manages to poke fun at the archaic conventions of vintage pulp fiction, and lends some genuine drama to the darker proceedings, but still allows the lead characters to be themselves in the dialogue sequences.

The dialogue isn't voiced, so the experience is a little more like reading the webcomic than would perhaps be desirable in a game.  And while there are branching dialogue trees, there really aren't any choices or alternate pathways of note; each conversation is only nominally interactive, with a single useful conclusion to be reached.  The plotline allows some exploration, but the quests are never really mysterious or puzzling -- we just wander around until we find some person or object with which we can interact, looking in specific areas based on guidance received along the way.

I did appreciate the handy menu screen - it streamlines play nicely by recapping our quest progress to date, and the map allows us to warp quickly to any of the game's four areas.  We can also rewatch any of the intermission animations using the movie projector, and review dossiers on the characters.

What strikes me as odd about the game is that the humor is so random and uneven.  There are some funny concepts, but I was expecting some clever gaming-based in-jokes given the property's pedigree.  Some funny physical comedy ideas are described as text, with no animation to illustrate the action.  The dialogue has its moments, but the story is played straight and in-context; a creative choice, no doubt, but it means the game lacks the expected Penny Arcade feel.  The funniest stuff occurs in battles, where mini robots aggressively proposition our heroes, barbershop quartets attack in harmony, and evil mimes use well-animated attacks like "Pretend I Have a Grenade."  But these comic bits are dulled by repetition, and we soon start ignoring them in favor of wrapping up the current round of combat so we can get on with the story.

So we wander around the map, picking up items in one area so we can satisfy a character in another, though there really aren't any inventory puzzles as such -- the dialogue and Tycho's popup balloons always keep us on track.  We eventually face down the mime cult's creeky, wooden, Cthulhu-esque god-in-progress (where's the deus erga machina joke, guys?) in a climactic tussle of will:

And with that, one of the prologue's four gods is vanquished, and we can look forward to Episode Two, though not Three or Four as it ultimately turned out.  I don't plan to play the second episode any time soon, but if another bundle of this sort turns up someday I will probably take it on.  It's not really an adventure game, but the Penny Arcade Adventures experience is mildly addictive in the traditional RPG fashion, as we work to level up our characters and weapons, and pleasantly short, about five hours for a relatively thorough playthrough.  Once I started playing it, I wasn't easily able to set it aside, but I was also glad to be done with it.  Call it a lukewarm endorsement.

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