Hothead's Ron Gilbert

On the Penny Arcade game and Deathspank.

The title of this article looks a bit odd. Ron Gilbert isn't best known for his connection with Hothead. He's famous for creating Maniac Mansion and the Monkey Island series. But "Ron Gilbert, You Know, He Did Maniac Mansion and the Monkey Island Series" would mess up the homepage, so here we are.

Besides, the title is accurate. Gilbert is currently creative director at Hothead Games. He's working on two projects, the first of which is being shown to us at GDC with Gilbert in attendance. It's called Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, and it's based around characters from the Penny Arcade Internet comic strip created by Mike Krauhulik and Jerry Holkins - a.k.a. Gabe and Tycho.

You either love or hate Penny Arcade. Or you mostly hate it but occasionally find yourself laughing at one of the better strips someone's sent you a link to. If you love it, you're going to love the game - at least that's what producer Joel DeYoung reckons.

"Through and through, this is going to be an authentic Penny Arcade experience," he says. "It's going to feel like playing the comic. So it's something we think fans are really going to love."

Strip club

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It's not exactly APB, but the character creation system does the job.

Penny Arcade Adventures combines RPG gameplay with classic adventure game elements. Set in an alternative 1920s USA, it sees Gabe and Tycho running their own detective agency. They specialise in investigating the occult and strange goings-on.

However, you don't play as either of the PA stars - you create your own character, using a simple range of options which allows you to pick things like hairstyle and clothing. "The cool thing about this is the character will appear in 3D in-game, but also in the 2D cut-scenes," DeYoung says.

He's not wrong. Having created a female character with brown curly hair, he shows how she interacts with Gabe and Tycho both in the levels and in the superb-looking cut-scenes. They do indeed look just like the comic; scenes are even broken up into frames which the camera skips between as if you were reading them on a page. There are simple animations - flashing lightning, falling raindrops and so on - which serve to enhance rather than overwhelm the comic book style.

The in-game visuals are less immediately impressive but they still have a unique and highly polished look. Character animations are basic but fluid and there are plenty of small details to enjoy. Penny Arcade Adventures isn't likely to disappoint fans of the comic strip's artwork.

Fighting talk

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The combat system is unlikely to win any points for originality, but seems to work well.

DeYoung shows off the combat system next. Our character is wandering down a dark alley with Gabe and Tycho, who are present throughout the game to offer hints and deliver one-liners. Our mission is to murder a load of tramps using a turn-based system. You and the enemy begin by rolling a D&D-style virtual dice to see who has the initiative, then it's a matter of pointing and clicking to attack.

Pulling off successful blocks gives you extra counter-attacks, and you can team up with other characters in your party to pull off combos. There are special attacks which involve playing a brief mini-game - you must press a sequence of buttons with just the right timing, and the better you do the more effective your attack will be. There are also summonable characters to be unlocked as you progress, such as Tycho's niece.

The combat moves at a healthy pace. In fact, it's not always easy to discern what's going on when you're just observing, though the amount of blood spurting out of the tramps would suggest victory. It's really rather gory, if in an Itchy and Scratchy way.

At the end of each combat round the screen displays how much experience you gained and, if you levelled up, any new attacks you've learned. You're also shown the items you picked up from enemies. These could be weapons for use in future battles, such as a tramp's hot toddy that doubles as a Molotov cocktail, or items needed to complete quests.

This is an adventure game, after all. And who knows more about adventure games than Ron Gilbert, You Know Who Did Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island?

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