One of the benefits of episodic games, you'd assume, would be the ability to tweak and improve the game with each new release. Thankfully, it's an option that Hothead Games has taken with this second outing for Gabe and Tycho, the foul-mouthed stars of web-comic Penny Arcade.
When the first episode was released it had a lot to live up to, not least its steep cost - 1600 MS Points for those downloading it on the 360, the highest price on Live Arcade. That it didn't justify the hiked price was hardly surprising, but there was certainly potential tucked away inside its rather awkward mash-up between JRPG combat and classic point-and-click adventure games. For the second episode, the price issue has been addressed, now clocking in at a less startling 1200 Points.
But that's not the only change for the better. Clearly, the folks at Hothead defied games industry wisdom, listened to their customers and critics and made changes accordingly. Not wild, wanton, sweeping changes but still the sort of tweaks we'd hoped to see.
Combat was something of a thorny issue first time around, and since much of the game involves fighting bizarre foes, this was quite a problem. Namely, the strange reliance on a blocking mechanism that forced the player to memorise the attack patterns of every enemy, and hit the block button in time with a split-second flash on the enemy health-bars. The system remains, but rather than a brief white flash the health bar now sprouts the word "BLOCK!" in obvious letters. This actually helps more than you'd think. While the system still feels somewhat clumsy - still allowing over 200 points of damage even when you block - it's a lot less annoying than before.
There are also new special attacks, with more satisfying mini-games to boost their effectiveness, as well as a fresh trio of support characters to call upon in battle. Not all the grumbles have been fixed though. The inventory is still a fiddly little thing, only really useful for hurried health boosts. All the support items you doggedly collect by smashing cans, boxes and other scenery items (there's still no shop) are simply too much of a hassle to use during a fight. That the game doesn't seem to mind should tell you how useful these elements really are.
For those who still struggle, the addition of flexible difficulty should also help. You can change the difficulty on the fly, from the Detective Agency menu hub, while an assortment of new buffs allows you to get stronger and more powerful much quicker than before. There are three costumes, for example, which increase your defence or attack stats. You can also increase your hit-points by consistently blocking in between your attacks. And, let's not forget, you can import your existing character from Episode One, which should give you a head start.
In fact, it's pretty much essential that you've played the first chapter because without it, very little will make sense. This clearly isn't going to be a series you can casually dip in and out of, since story elements are carried over from the previous adventure with little or no explanation, while there are items collected here which won't come into play until Episode Three.
The story is another high point, and far more satisfying than the rather slender narrative that opened the series. You get more locations to explore earlier in the game, and there are multiple puzzles and fetch-quests active at the same time, to keep you moving between them. The trouble is, as with so many adventure games, once you work out which items you need then progress becomes a case of simply following the correct sequence.
Characer A needs Item B, but you can only get Item B by doing something for Character C and to reach Character C you need to explore Location D. That sort of thing. It's standard fare, for the most part, but the creative freedom offered by the Penny Arcade connection helps disguise the sometimes predictable construction. It's a lurid tale of fighting monkey robots, upper-class snobbery, giant spiders and stuffed animal testicles.
As before, it's also very well written, with most examinations producing a decent gag or archly witty description. You don't just learn that a vital fuse is broken but that "the old fuse has the sear of great barbecue, but the reek of it is pure toxin". It sometimes feels forced, but it's mostly a pleasure to sit through the dialogue scenes.
Overall, the second episode of Penny Arcade is a marked improvement, but it's still not a game to rush home and try. For all the changes, the core combat gameplay still has a wonky balance, providing very little challenge once you've mastered the timing needed to block the various enemies. The adventure elements are similarly skewed, with only a few puzzles that will slow you down, and even then it's generally because the solution is a little too esoteric.
It's a funny game, it's a better game than its predecessor and there are certainly worse ways to spend four or five hours. Episode Two nudges the series up from Just Okay to Actually Pretty Good. Let's hope that the third instalment continues the trend.