Version tested: Xbox 360
Given that they've spent many years lampooning and criticising the games industry and its resident buffoons, it's a bold step for Penny Arcade creators Mike 'Gabe' Krahulik and Jerry 'Tycho' Holkins to put out a game of their own. Few commentators offer up something of their own to be criticised, and they deserve credit for at least putting their name to something that can be pulled apart with the same savagery they have often displayed. The game in question doesn't quite deserve to be torn to shreds by the ravenous review wolves, but it is a surprisingly clumsy effort that - were it released by anyone else - would probably be mocked mercilessly by Penny Arcade.
The story opens in the city of New Arcadia in 1922. You create your own character from a limited palette of facial features and clothes, and then set about raking your lawn. That's when a giant robot crushes your house, and you set off in pursuit, teaming up with Penny Arcade characters Gabe and Tycho, now reinvented as the dynamic duo behind the Startling Developments Detective Agency. Together you begin tracking the mechanical monstrosity currently leaving sizable footprints all over town. A tale of rancid hobo meat, urine study, sinister mime cults and potty mouth cursing swiftly unfurls before you.
Categorising the end result can be tricky. It's structured a bit like a point-and-click adventure, but plays mostly like an RPG. There are only three small areas in the game, and you manoeuvre your trio around them much as you'd expect. Changes in camera angles are rather cutely disguised as comic panels, so as you reach the limit of one view, you flip to the next panel. Dustbins and crates litter the scenery, and can be smashed open to reveal useful items such as health boosts and other status-changing trinkets. Curiously, for a game so clearly inspired by the RPG genre, there's no shop, so the only way to restock on health kits is to tromp around the same screens, smashing the respawning crates and hoping that the random contents will provide what you need.
Basic control is disappointingly clumsy, with characters lolloping along sluggishly, often getting snagged on scenery or stymied by invisible walls. Getting them to face a specific item or area of interest can also be a fiddle, which becomes a problem when certain essential quest items are tucked away in amongst other clickable screen elements. The game isn't exactly full of puzzles - there's a character who basically tells you where to go, and the game sometimes won't even let you proceed until you've spoken with them - but the few puzzles that are here tend to be tricky because it's easy to miss items, rather than because the puzzle itself is particularly fiendish.
There are numerous ongoing quests (or "cases") to follow but few really amount to anything other than long-winded ways of earning small status boosts. Collecting a set number of items, or defeating a set number of enemies, is the norm. Dialogue is plentiful, and often funny, but there are no real branching discussions - mostly you're choosing which funny thing you'd like to say to trigger the same plot-advancing responses. Basically, as both an adventure game and an RPG, it all feels a bit undercooked. This is particularly surprising given Ron "Monkey Island" Gilbert's involvement, but when you strip the game down to its framework it's a disappointingly flimsy construction.
You've probably noticed that I've got this far and haven't really commented on the combat yet. That's because combat is by far the most dominant gameplay element, and also the most problematic. The game uses a system that borrows elements from both Final Fantasy and Paper Mario. It's real-time, and each character has a timer which ticks around until they can attack again. Once it's full, you can either unleash a standard attack on an enemy, or wait for the special attack meter to fill up. Special attacks involve mashing or matching buttons to deliver extra damage, with more powerful variations earned as you level up. They can also be combined into team attacks if everyone has a full special meter. And of course you have the obligatory inventory options, from which you can select healing items, status items or special items which either damage or distract your foes. All of these rely on very small, fiddly icons and menus which will be all but unreadable to those playing on standard definition TVs. Fair warning.
Where the combat flounders is in its reliance on a very fussy blocking mechanism. Enemy attacks can be blocked by tapping a trigger button (or the space bar, for PC players) when their health bar flashes. Time it perfectly and you take no damage, and can unleash a counter attack. Time it well, and you block but still take some damage. Time it badly and you'll either get an ineffectual partial block or no block at all. Except this flash only lasts for a split second and comes at a different point in every attack animation. There's really no way to play without relying almost entirely in this system to keep you alive and purely from a gameplay point of view, it's deeply frustrating.
It means you have to keep your eyes in about nine places at once. Even though there are audio cues to let you know when attack meters are charged up, you still have to keep track of whose attack is actually ready. You then have to select that character and target their attack. Navigating inventory items or special attack options becomes a hasty fumble, compounded by tiny text, unidentified icons and slippery cursor movement. That you also have to be watching out for tiny flashes on the health bars of up to four enemies while juggling all these other elements lends combat an overwhelming and cluttered feel. You'll expend more mental energy trying to locate the info you need on the fly than actually planning any sort of coherent attack strategy.
This only gets worse once you enter the third area of the game, where enemies can take off half your health in one hit and are suddenly immune to your most powerful attacks. As for the idea of allowing characters to talk over the start of battles, obscuring huge chunks of the screen with enormous speech balloons...well, the less said the better. Literally. And yet once you memorise the attack animations for each enemy, the timing needed to block them and which attacks cause almost no damage versus those that cause enormous damage, combat suddenly becomes farcically simple. Rather than a dynamic battle system, what you actually end up with is a role-playing rhythm game that rewards rote repetition and pattern recognition over actual tactics and thought.
Penny Arcade's saving grace is its humour, which is plentiful and almost always effective. It relies on the tone of the strip rather than the details, so those unfamiliar with Gabe and Tycho needn't worry about being left out in the cold. There are plenty of nods and in-jokes for fans, but if you don't know why those little robots enjoy sodomising citrus fruit it won't affect your ability to follow the story. This brand of comedy is certainly an acquired taste, walking a fine line between verbose wit and scatological swears, but it does enough to join the hallowed ranks of funny games that are actually funny, and I say this as someone who is lukewarm on the web comic. The portentous narrator is especially entertaining, coming off like a cross between Tom Baker and Ringo Starr. It's just a shame the sporadic NPC characters parrot the same handful of comments in linear rotation, and Penny Arcade's old habit of italicising apparently random words is still rather annoying.
It's easy to admire what Hothead has tried to produce here. A fusion of classic Western adventuring and Japanese role-playing is an enticing prospect, and one that will hopefully be better developed in future Penny Arcade games. It's fun, in a limited sort of way, but the inconsistent difficulty results in a poorly balanced and awkwardly paced lightweight RPG that relies too heavily on jokes to mask repetitive combat and uninspired fetch-quests. Fans of the comic strip can feel free to add as many points to the score below as will make them happy, since they're the ones most likely to make the effort needed to get past the flaws, but for everyone else there's little here to justify the hefty price.
6 / 10
Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode One is out now on Xbox Live Arcade for 1600 Microsoft Points (GBP 13.60 / EUR 19.20) and is also available for PC from Greenhouse.