This article originally appeared in Dev.Mag Issue 24, released in August 2008.
In most games, the opening cutscene generally consists of hints of a dark secret, a terrible evil that must be vanquished lest it destroy the world. This first episode of the Penny Arcade Adventures series of episodic games is no different. Suggestions of dark plots and nefarious deeds in the shadows of New Arcadia make you question whether this game actually has anything to do with the popular gaming humour webcomic at all. Then your character’s house gets crushed by a giant robotic fruit juicer, and the game’s tone is set firmly to what you’d expect.
Precipice (to shorten the full title somewhat) was developed by indie developer Hothead games, in strong collaboration with the creators of Penny Arcade. Using the Torque engine, they were able to give the game a distinct comic-book feel, making liberal use of cell-shading to give it as close a resemblance to the webcomic’s art style as possible. They succeed quite admirably. Even the player character, whose appearance is fully customizable, looks as if s/he’s stepped straight out of the comic.
As for the writing, let me state it outright: the game is typically Penny Arcade in tone. While their roles are adapted to suit the game’s story, almost all of the characters are straight from the virtual pages of the webcomic, and PA references and in-jokes abound as you trek through the streets of New Arcadia (“Wang’s Chinese Restaurant”, anyone?). That’s not to say that it’s completely inaccessible to those who aren’t familiar with Penny Arcade, but fans will definitely get the most from it in terms of the humour. Personally, I was in hysterics throughout, but be warned – if you aren’t into more absurd humour or internet/gaming-culture, it’s wholly possible that you won’t find the game (or the comic) funny at all.
Gameplay wise, Precipice of Darkness is an adventure game/RPG hybrid in the same vein as the cult favourite Anachronox. The game is essentially composed of two distinct play modes – exploration and combat. In exploration mode, you point and click around the game’s four main locations, speaking to characters, filling your combat inventory by smashing crates and other possible containers of goods, and solving fun (but not particularly difficult) puzzles. But don’t despair, action fans! A huge chunk of the game is spent in turn-based combat with the many, many different enemies standing in your way, and it’s handled in a very interesting way.
The combat mechanic is where the RPG element of the game kicks in, but it ‘s a little different from the RPGs you may have played in the past. Firstly, combat is completely separated from the exploration element – characters begin each battle in perfect condition, so there’s no need to heal characters or dispel status effects between battles. Secondly, it has a rather novel take on traditional turn-based combat. Each character has three fixed actions that they can perform while in a battle – use of inventory items collected during exploration, a standard attack, and a special attack. To use these actions, you must allow the characters to gain “initiative” for them, much like the Active Battle Time system in Final Fantasy. Unlike FF, however, your attack options charge sequentially. Your Inventory initiative needs to top up before your Basic Attack initiative starts charging, and your Basic Attack needs to be full before your Special Attack can charge. Using any of a character’s attack options, regardless of level, brings the total accumulated initiative for that character back to zero. Special Attacks require you to complete a small character-specific minigame to determine the total damage dealt, which becomes progressively tougher the stronger the character gets. This adds quite a bit of strategy to the battles: do you heal a character who’s close to death and lose all your initiative, or do you wait a little longer and attempt to deal a devastating final blow to your enemy with a perfectly-executed special attack (which could net you a spectacular shower of gore and an Overkill bonus: a permanent increase to your weapon damage)? In addition, if multiple characters have a special attack charged, you can initiate a “team up” attack which deals massive damage while circumventing the Special Attack minigame entirely. Add in the backup from three support characters (who can occasionally be summoned into combat to hit enemies with their special support attacks), and the ability to block enemy attacks by hitting the spacebar at the right time (sometimes resulting in a free counterattack from the defending character), and you have a rather fast-paced and dynamic combat system that manages to stay entertaining and challenging all through the game.
There’s very little to criticize about Precipice, but it isn’t perfect. The game is phenomenally stable, except for crashes I encountered while attempting to use a certain support character during the final boss battle. I also found it a bit too short, which should be expected given its episodic nature, but still left me feeling a little unfulfilled in terms of play time. Nonetheless, the game was highly entertaining throughout and never felt stretched out or padded, so its relative brevity can be forgiven. However, I would like to make mention of the excellent musical score, which had me happily humming a lot of the combat music to myself the week after I completed the game.
For those who enjoy Penny Arcade and Adventure/RPG games, Precipice comes highly recommended. For those who aren’t, it still comes highly recommended, but I suggest that you play the demo to determine if it resonates with you first. Me? I loved it. Bring on Episode 2!