Episode Two vs. Episode 1.5
As far as sequels go in video games, it has become commonplace to label them unworthy of the publicity they arouse based on the lack of advancement. Put simply, if a game is too similar to it's predecessor, many will cite how they feel an 'upgrade' of the first game would have been more suitable. Some deluxe edition made to iron out kinks or simply generate a higher income for the developers. So with Penny Arcade Adventures, should we deem the game a sequel proper, or a fleshed out upgrade?
It's something of a mixed bag.
Something made evident in Episode One was that although the gameplay mechanics and RPG elements were strong enough to hold the game together, the real star was the sense of humour (akin to the comic-strip upon which the games are based) and the absurd story to accompany it. In a sense, that was also Episode One's biggest weakness in terms of potential sales: it's niche audience was and is very much a niche and as such widespread acclaim and purchases are instantly limited. However, Episode One was recognised as a game tailor made for that limited audience and Episode Two is no different, from the crazed plot to the tweaks made in gameplay. It's evident that the designers listened to feedback and have been working hard to ensure this saga stays appealing to those buying.
The general outline of the game is that your custom made character is rebuilding his home when Tycho and Gabe, hot on the heels of another adventure, literally come crashing into your home. From then on, it's a mad cycle of revenge, old friendships and timed attack based fighting up until an absurdly thrilling climax. The jokes are retain the wit and cruidty of the comic strip and a significant amount of work seems to have been put into the execution of the frequent cut-scenes which are timed perfectly to pull off the most lucritively silly scenarios in a fashion that, providing you are a member of the aforementioned niche audience, should leave you chuckling away.
The animation is slick and although the graphics are of an identical calibre to Episode One, the experience feels less overwhelming and more like a return to an old pair of slippers, albeit a pair you don't wear often enough. Although a few portions of the script will not be understood unless you have played the prior Episode, they're usually exercised tactfully enough for anyone to laugh at the execution of the joke itself.
The most gripping let-down of the story element is the sudden influx of newly introduced characters whom you never really get a chance to know. In Episode One, you came to appreciate each secondary persona as you spent time talking to them in order to figure out how to complete their missions, but here there are a lot of characters introduced solely to play their part in the story. One scene, set in a science conference, for instance, introduces plenty of new and potentially interesting characters who are never fleshed out beyond the role they play in the objective. As the story pans out, you begin to understand the necessity of the characters themselves, but might find yourself wishing you'd learnt more about them.
The gameplay itself is nearly identical to the first game, bar a few subtle changes. Blocks now seem easier to time and the inclusion of the word 'Block' on the enemies HP bar at the appropriate time can save a great deal of frustration. It's somewhat odd to consider how much that one split second can matter in a battle, but it truly does give the game a whole new sensation of life.
Another new element is the difficulty settings, which were completely absent from Episode One. You're given the opportunity to choose a difficulty setting for the battles, which may come as a relief to those who skipped Episode One. Also, once you've completed the game once, you're given the opportunity to play again, this time on the Insane Difficulty level.
The game is littered with additional content to tinker with, whether it be artwork, characters or just little bits and bobs you'll miss the first time around. Although many will simply view them as a nice little extra, hardcore fans could have a lot of fun trying to complete the game with a 100% rating of completion on insane difficulty.
The only real problem with the gameplay is the final battle which comes across as a little too easy. Granted, I played it on the standard Normal setting but after a game that was easy to pick up, yet challenging when I got into it, the final boss felt like a bit of a cop-out. It certainly doesn't kill the experience, although it certainly left me wanting a little bit more. I suppose that's their trick in the tail to ensure I come running back for Episode Three, but in all fairness, I was sold on Episode Three after 10 minutes with this game.
So as we close, the question remains: is this really an Episode Two, or is at a 1.5?
Based on the story, it's certainly a 2, however on the gameplay front, it's a 1.5. So what's the discerning factor to set it straight?
Well, there isn't one really. This is an Episode Two, a second part rather than a sequel in it's own right. That's the beauty of episodic gaming: To find your element and stick with it throughout, making minor patches and imporvements along the way, rather than trying to reach a revolutionary breakthrough in game design and whilst Penny Arcade has stuck with their element so far, they seem to have perfected the art of merging their own style of gameplay with their own brand of humour.