Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode One represents a significant role-change for Penny Arcade. Writer Jerry Holkins and artist Mike Krahulik have built a tidy little empire largely through commentary about video games and the peripheral culture. Now they're on the other side of the fence, working with developer Hothead Games to create what is probably best described as an episodic adventure RPG. This first installment lays some very promising groundwork with a setting and style that betray the creators' nerdier passions, some exceptionally funny and ribald writing, and gameplay that is brisk and engaging.
Despite its relative popularity, Penny Arcade is still pretty niche, and it would've been easy to “give the fans what they want” and just copy-and-paste the characters and settings from the strip into some safe, established game template. Instead, On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness conjures up an alternate reality for the Penny Arcade staples to flourish in. The game takes place in the city of New Arcadia circa 1922, where steam-powered technology exists alongside diabolical supernatural forces. Playing as a character of your own creation, you'll head off on an adventure alongside Tycho Brahe and Jonathan Gabriel of the Startling Developments Detective Agency shortly after a gigantic, fruit-sodomizing robot crushes your house.
Holkins' affection for steampunk aesthetics and the Cthulhu mythos come through loud and clear in Episode One, as do a comical disregard for hobos and mimes. My appreciation of Penny Arcade has always stemmed from the writing, and it's in top form here, alternating between high-falutin', convincingly nonsensical jargon, and unbridled vulgarity. The game is action-packed with highly entertaining writing, from the snappy dialogue to the seemingly endless item descriptions, all of it really pulling you into this world they've created. There are plenty of touches both big and small to appease fans, from the significant role of the Fruit Fucker to a sandwich-board advertising a performance by the Kansas City Hot-Steppers. That said, nothing about this odd union feels particularly forced, and you don't have to be a fan to enjoy story threads about an insane urinologist (that's the science of urine, folks!) and the certification process of “hobeef.”
On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode One has the volume of dialogue trees and item collection you might expect from a straight adventure game, but there's nearly as much combat in here as there are jokes about pee. Whenever you encounter an enemy--be it animate trash, a barbershop quartet, or some evil goddamned mimes--the game cuts away to a battle mode like it was a Japanese RPG. The combat is a mix of real-time and turn-based conventions, giving you control of all three characters at once, but limiting how often you can use them with action meters that fill up over time. Depending on how long you let a character's meter charge, you can use items, perform a basic attack, or activate a special attack, which prompts a quick minigame to determine how much damage you deal. If two or more characters have their special attack ready, you can perform a team-up attack.
You'll want to keep your eye on the battlefield during all this, for messages about enemy weaknesses, as well as to block incoming attacks. There are other variables, such as support characters you can tag in and the random-meter-filling “roll for initiative” that kicks off every fight, but the core combat is inherently active enough to keep you constantly engaged. Engaged, but not particularly challenged, since the game gives you an overabundance of helpful items, and there are no discernible penalties for losing a fight, other than having to fight again.
There are a few other things about the game's execution that nagged at me every so slightly. I don't think Mike Krahulik's art style translates to 3D very well, which makes it good that the game peppers plenty of 2D stills and animation throughout. The presentation relies on some comic-book flourishes that feel a little out of place, given that little else in the game evokes much of a comic-book feel. It's also a curiously quiet game--the only voice is that of a narrator who takes off after the first few minutes, music is used sparingly, and even the footfalls of your characters are oddly muffled.
But none of these issues put much of a dent in my overall enjoyment of On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode One. It took me a good five hours to play through, and it wraps up enough story threads to be satisfying, while leaving enough open to keep me eager for Episode Two. If the humor and the combat can retain this level of quality, this could be the start of something great.