Has episodic gaming ever gone more awry than the case of Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness? When Episode One and Two were released in May and October of 2008, they received a modest amount of critical praise. Episode One went on to secure rather excellent sales, attributable to an ever expanding Penny Arcade fanbase. It almost seemed as though Penny Arcade were ushering in an age where commenters and enthusiasts could become developers, or at least work with developers to produce consistent and well regarded content. Alas then, when Episode Two only just approached one third of it’s predecessors sales, developer Hothead Games decided to part with the Penny Arcade team and work on their arguably gratuitous but instantly forgettable DeathSpank series instead. In the following years, it was generally accepted that darkness had engulfed the project and it was to be no more. It’s a story rivaled only by Half-Life: Episode 3′s infamous non-existence.
For those unfamiliar with Penny Arcade, here’s a brief history; Active since 1998, Penny Arcade primarily consists of Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, an artist and writer combo who essentially proved that the web-comic business is a viable one, having produced an empire over the course of twelve years that now involves industry coverage, a documentary series under a Penny Arcade Television banner, two annual fan conventions and, formed under although not so closely associated with the Penny Arcade brand, a highly successful children’s charity. Even for such a formidable enterprise it was still fairly unheard of for this duo to broach the idea of producing their own video-games.
On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness proved to be a strange offering. A Role Playing Game with timing based combat, adventure game elements with seek and find puzzles and an art design that worked so hard to emulate the disparate style of the comics, with lovingly drawn caricatures contrasting suggestively crude humor and wit. The combat proved easily the weakest element of the game, proving that for episodic games to work, they must make the most of the time between releases and work to improve or at least shake up the balance. Serviceable action proved appropriate for Episode One, but after another healthy dose with little noticeable evolution, it eventually proved relatively fatiguing. The art style also suffered slightly; as Hothead a 2D world into a 3D engine with minor success. The world of Penny Arcade feels most realized during frequent interstitial cut-scenes with minimum animation that relies on the jokes at hand and their immediate visual effects.
The star of Rain-Slick was the writing, embracing a wonderfully Lovecraft-ian tone with a tale of a supernatural war between destructive Gods as a backdrop in a universe that seems to exist in a perpetually steampunk state. Taking a cue from adventure games, almost every item in the game world has brief descriptions to read and a simple test of your appreciation of Holkins’ eloquent writing style would be to gauge how much the title of the game alone caused you to grin. Followers of Penny Arcade had no need to fear that the comic’s tendency to indulge in the crass would be absent, although most of the mainstays and tropes from the strips continuity were re-contextualized to fit the game world so as not to excise any newcomers from the fray. Altogether, the plot and it’s unfolding are a shining example of ambition in video-games, as well as shining wit; regardless of anything else Rain-Slick does or doesn’t do, it’s a bitingly funny experience.
Four years later, Holkins and Krahulik have teamed with another developer, Zeboyd Games, to finish off their project. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode Three boasts a new art and gameplay style, reminiscent of the 8-bit JRPG (Japanese Role Playing Game) of days long gone. With any luck, it will be a welcome change and good use of the episodic gaming format. Providing the writing remains as sharp as it’s predecessors, although fans of this series should have little to worry about.
Penny Arcade’s Episode One and Two are available for download from Xbox Live Arcade, Mac OS X, Linux, Microsoft Windows and Playstation Network.
Episode Three will be available on Steam and Microsoft Windows from the 25th June, 2012 with Mac, Xbox Indie Games, iOS and Android releases later in the year.