Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3
June 30, 2012 11 Comments
I never have been huge into Penny Arcade, or comic strips in general for that matter. I did read it for years, but after a certain point it was done more out of habit. I suppose it’s the same reason I always check what Garfield is up to every Sunday, even though I don’t think I’ve ever found a single joke in it to be funny. I’m not sure anyone over the age of six ever has. I heard a guy somewhere in the South once laughed at one of the endless “he’s a fat cat, get it?” gags, probably something involving lasagna, but that might be an urban legend. At least Penny Arcade is topical to me, even if it’s really just observational humor with a couple generic stock characters conveying it. It works, because we notice these things too. And after going through their recent archives in preparation for this review, I learned that it’s still funny. I mean come on, who could have watched E3 and not laugh at this?
Having said that, I really didn’t enjoy the first two Penny Arcade games. And it had nothing to do with developer Hothead Games, who went on to do Deathspank and The Swarm, a couple of my favorite PSN titles. I have a theory on this, and it goes like so: maybe these characters don’t actually lend themselves well to being in a video game. Penny Arcade belongs outside the confines of the industry, looking into it and saying “you ever notice how fucked up all this is?” When you place these characters in a position to drive a complex narrative, it seems like the entire point of their existence has been missed.
I pretty much feel the same way about the latest Penny Arcade game. Even with a new developer, the insanely talented guys at Zeboyd Games, something about it just doesn’t work. One of the biggest problems is how married this sequel is to the original two games, the second of which didn’t exactly set the sales charts on fire. It seemed weird to me that they would do another sequel. I figured the people had spoken with their wallets and there wasn’t a lot of interest in continuing this particular story any further. Granted, you don’t need to have played the previous two games to play this. In fact, they advertise that fact in the game’s blurb on the marketplace. Again, if we’re going to do that, maybe they should have just started all over with a fresh storyline and new characters.
I actually thought the storyline for On the Oil-Slick Recipe of Blackness Electric Bologna 3 was as dull as a butter knife at times, while downright fucking surreal at others. The dialog can be sharp and at times very funny, but most of the time I was just like “please stop talking so I can fight something.” The jokes are hit and miss (emphasis on miss), with the funniest bits not coming until you’re about 75% done with the game. The best laughs I got were typically from the enemy names, although some of them were pretty damn good.
The actual plot of Tycho being some kind of janitor to the universe was confusing and clumsily handled, and I would be hard-pressed to think of a way the ending (the real one, not the bullshit one) could have let me down more. Maybe if it had advocated the benefits of eating baby seal meat while getting puppies drunk on helium. I’m still not sure that would be as disturbing as the tone the game took at the end. It would be like ending a wacky situational comedy by having the lead character suffer a nervous breakdown after watching someone smother a chicken to death. Only it wasn’t a chicken. IT WAS A BABY!
(Brian, who actually has watched M*A*S*H*, just told me that the show was supposed to be half-serious, half-comedy. Yea, fuck that. It had a laugh track. It was a comedy.)
I’m not just hating for the sake of hating here, by the way. If all the stuff you read in the previous 672 words sounded bad, let me reassure you that On the Slick-Dick of District 9 is one seriously amazing RPG. You can tell Zeboyd spent many of their formative years growing up playing the classics of the genre (which typically included at least one of the following three words: Fantasy, Chrono, or Mana), but knew what could make them better. So when they were all grown-up, mentally warped, and insane enough to give game production a try themselves, they actually fixed what was wrong with RPGs. As opposed to most RPG developers who include every antiquated, conventional mechanic, just because that’s how an RPG is supposed to be. Gone from this game are random encounters, items to juggle, and boring fights that you could win by training a woodpecker to beat on the A button while you go outside for a smoke.
In their place is a simple-yet-deep system involving “pins” that change your character class on the fly. Each of the four main characters has one default class, but you can equip up to two others, each of which levels up independently as you play the game. I loved this set-up and was still mixing-and-matching the different pins right up until the last boss. It never got old, and that is so rare in a role-playing game. Whenever things threatened to get repetitive, the game will toss out special conditions to change things up, if only for just a fight. It’s nice that a developer finally recognized the potential for their game to stagnate and put fail safes in to prevent that.
Every mechanic of this game just works. The combat is fast paced, varied, smart, but complex enough that you have freedom to experiment. It’s a rare turn-based RPG that feels like more than scrolling through menus. You truly feel like you are in charge. Sure, a few stereotypes rear their ugly heads. The accessory system is more or less the same shit every RPG has, but at least it complements the fighting system well. Thankfully, you don’t have to stockpile items. Every item used is replenished between fights, and there’s only six types anyway. It sure beats dealing with a U-Haul full of potions, mid-potions, high-potions, elixirs, herbs, tents, and bombs. Instead, you pay to upgrade each item in a shop, or buy the ability to use it more times in every battle. Having dealt with decades of what RPGs have taught us, that you’re allowed to carry enough health potions that you could practically replace your own blood with the shit, I liked this system. It kept things clean.
Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3 is not perfect. The dialog can just drone on and on. When the dialog works, it’s entertaining. When it doesn’t, that’s usually when it just won’t fucking shut up. But, as a game? It’s incredible. Again, I think most of the problems with it can be tied to the source material. Penny Arcade is funny. Penny Arcade as a semi-comedic, semi-dramatic video game is not. These are characters that make jokes about iPads and E3. I don’t want to see them dealing with doomsday scenarios and deep introspective soul-searching. I want to see them taking the piss out of the gaming industry. Rain-Slick 3 doesn’t do that. I figure there’s two ways to go around it. One is to do a straight gaming parody, like Airplane! did for disaster movies. The other idea is a bit more radical: leave the Penny Arcade characters out of it. Make Penny Arcade the gaming brand for parody, like National Lampoon or Monty Python do for film. Oh don’t worry Mike & Jerry. You guys can still have the ego-inflation you need by inserting yourself into the games, but as cameos. Hey, some people go very far doing that! You know that old dude with the sunglasses and the mustache that’s in every single Marvel Comics movie? Stan something. Yea, him. Get this: it turns out THAT GUY actually wrote the original comics those films are based on. I know, right? Crazy shit!
Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-oh fuck it.
400 Microsoft Points thank everyone for an incredible first year. I love you guys.