Saturday, June 30, 2012

Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: 3

Not a book this time, but a game; one which by all rights shouldn’t even exist, but here it is anyway.  If you don’t know what Penny Arcade is, then I can’t even fathom why you’re on the Internet reading this, although you may or may not have heard of their foray into actual game design.  This was originally designed as a four-part episodic series, and the first two installments came out back in 2008, before developer Hothead Games decided to work on other projects and the series basically died the death.

I played those first two back when they first came out, and I found them to be entertainingly written and actually quite enjoyable.  The first was a little rough in spots but the second one was very good indeed, and so I had high hopes for the next games in the series.  But after four years it didn’t really seem like they would ever get made, so I can’t say I wasted a lot of psychic energy pining for it.
Anyhow, enter Zeboyd Games, indie developer of retro-RPGs Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World.  They have a knack for marrying pseudo classic plots and graphics with some much more modern game design and tactical gameplay, and when I heard that they’d signed on to finish up the series I thought it was an altogether grand idea.  Incidentally did I mention that Zeboyd also sells all their games dirt cheap?  They do.  That’s nice also.  So I grabbed this on Steam on day 1 and have now gotten through the whole thing, on normal difficulty, anyway.

This is unquestionably the best Zeboyd game made yet and if you liked either of their other two offerings or just are interested in this sort of gameplay, then you will not regret spending the $5 this game costs.  I can’t go quite so far as to say that this is the best Penny Arcade game ever made, though.  So let’s go through this.

If you played Episode I or Episode II, you probably remember that you had Gabe and Tycho as playable characters and also a third character who you could customize, so possibly an avatar of yourself or favorite rock star or whatever.  This one is more or less traditional JRPG style by giving you a more-or-less permanent four person party composed of Gabe, Tycho, Jim (their roommate, currently deceased) and Moira (whose connection to events is explained as soon as she appears, but I’ll let you find that out for yourself.)  Each of the main characters has a base class, which grants class abilities.  (In case you’re wondering, the base classes are, respectively: Brute, Scholar, Necromaster, and Gumshoe.)

Unlike Zeboyd’s previous titles, you don’t get to choose your level up bonuses, rather you proceed through the traditional method of gaining set abilities at set levels.  You also, relatively quickly, gain the ability to equip “class pins” which grant each character up to two more classes.  If you want, you can swap these among the party, and in fact it’s a good idea to experiment with this a little bit.  In traditional Zeboyd fashion, the pins are given to you in two batches, so you don’t have to go through a bunch of tedious fetch-questing and rock-turning to find them.  The classes level up independently and offer different passive bonuses and abilities; they level up alongside your base class and conveniently level up even if you don’t have them equipped, albeit at a slightly lower speed.  Some of them are pretty useless, or at least, not as useful as others.

Anyway.  Like in the previous Zeboyd titles, the party regains maximum HP after every battle.  The magic system is altered so that each character starts out with no magic points and gains 1 MP per round, which means that you’re able to use your best skills and abilities more often.  Items are also reset at the beginning of each round; instead of collecting a bunch of (say) potions, once you get a potion you can use it a certain number of times per battle, with the ability to level up the effectiveness and number of uses of the item.  You can save anywhere, not just at save points.  There’s also no – or at least not many – random encounters.  The enemies you face are right there on the world map and they don’t respawn when you leave.  And there is a huge number of varied enemies for such a short game, including tough fights against sub-bosses, minibosses, and a number of rather impressive bosses (including, of course, the optional secret boss.)

With all those gameplay elements smoothed out, what is the point, you ask.  Well, that point is to whip your ass with tactical fighting and not wasting your time with level grinding and similar BS.  It may look like a traditional RPG but it’s really more of question of how to get through these fights within the combat system.  On tougher fights you’ll have to creatively use the timing system to disrupt the enemy’s attack, and as the fight continues the enemy will increase in its stats and speed, eventually overwhelming you.  If you’ve got the wrong class pins equipped or don’t use your abilities wisely, then you have to recognize that you have a reasonable chance of getting killed by any given encounter, even if it’s not a boss fight.  Since they don’t make you grind and they restore you to health every time, they have the freedom to treat every fight like a knock-down fight, and they do.  I like that.

Now if I have some criticisms of the gameplay, and I do, it would be that the stripped-down nature of the fighting does narrow your options somewhat.  Since long fights are much to your disadvantage, you basically need to inflict as many life-draining statuses on tough bosses as you can, of which only three are available (Hobo, Bleed, and Poison), and since those are only available with one class each, I believe you’re basically insane not to equip those classes before tough boss fights.  You’re also risking it not to equip Cordwainer (which can increase the entire party’s speed) and by that point you’ve only got two classes left to choose from.  In short it’s tactically interesting but not necessarily tactically deep, primarily with hard fights.  You have way more options with “ordinary” encounters.  My other issue is that the game is really short.  I know, most Zeboyd games are short, but Cthulhu Saves the World also had some collectibles, an alternate campaign mode, and other goodies that are sorely lacking here.  In fact there is an obvious bonus area that a character tells you isn’t finished yet.  Maybe they’ll release some DLC later.  If they charge for it, that will be a little disheartening.

With that said, let me also say that I found the story to be a little disappointing.  There was a text story outlining the supposed plot of the third game written at some point during the period it appeared that the series would never be finished, and the game follows it pretty slavishly.  There are a lot of funny parts to the game, but they tend to be the parts that weren’t in the story, and revolve around typical Penny Arcade style absurdist humor (e.g., the identity of a caller who leaves a ten-minute silent message before being cut off by more silence).  As I’ve found myself saying a lot lately, the issue is tone.  The base story tries to be a Neo-Lovecraftian pastiche, which basically worked coherently in the first two games but doesn’t really mesh well with all the other stuff they’re doing here.  A good 20-30% of the game actually takes place in parodies of other genres which are fun areas, but don’t have anything to do with the main plot and don’t thematically fit with the rest of the plot.  And while I’m pretty sure that I understood what Tycho was up to and what basically happened at the end, it was pretty poorly explained and could have used more visuals, less text walls.

I hope writing the fourth one from ground up as a game will cure my complaints for the last one, which I’m still anticipating.  But I’m pretty sure people aren’t playing this for the plot, and if you just ignore it and enjoy the tactical fighting then it’s absolutely worth the cost. 

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