"Let me hug your throat." A statement uttered early on by a friendly looking mental patient who just wants to be friends — until he attempts to bludgeon you with his fists. Thus sums up the humor and experience that is Penny Arcade Adventures On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode 2, or PAAOtRPoD:E2 for short … if one would consider that short. For those uninitiated, Penny Arcade Adventures is a downloadable episodic RPG-adventure series that takes titular smart-asses Gabe and Tycho from the ever-popular Penny Arcade comic and thrusts them into a universe full of deadly bums, vomiting phonographs, and … ahem …. randy robots with an affection for fruit. Considering the comic is a skewed look at the ins and outs of video gaming, the two comic titans fit into this bizarre 1920s sci-fi universe unexpectedly well, as do a number of their strange supporting characters that fans know and love from the comic.
While Gabe and Tycho are clearly the stars of this adventure, you mainly get to play as a third character armed with a powerful and deadly rake. The game begins by letting you create the look of this character, or import your avatar from Episode 1. The advantage of importing your previous avatar is that you get to carry over all of the items and experience points that you had left over in the original episode, as well as keep his or her look. You can also modify your previous character’s appearance if you wish, which is a thankfully-included option. You directly control this character during the adventure, while Gabe and Tycho follow along behind you as support. The game’s story, characters, and conversations tie into the events of Episode 1 directly, but the game is fully playable without having played the prequel if one strangely chooses to do so. The gameplay is a mix of an adventure game and a JRPG, featuring fetch quests, conversation branches, and turn-based battles. Normally, that combination leads to a more niche title; one that is mostly enjoyed by those who love JRPGs (a group that does not include me). However, PAA puts enough of a twist on these conventions that it makes them feel not only fresh, but also fun and accessible to an entire new audience.
The battles play out like typical turn-based fare. Each character has a regular attack, a special attack, and the ability to use items, with each of these having their own meter. The item meter builds up almost instantly, followed closely by the attack meter, and then (more slowly) by the special attack meter. The player can either choose the option they have currently available, or wait for the better attacks to build up and do more damage. Each character’s meters build up independently of one another, so the player is able to constantly switch from one character to another, triggering attacks as abilities are ready for use. The player can also choose to let multiple characters build up special attacks at the same time to unleash a mega-powered combo attack that has 2 or 3 of your characters laying the smackdown on an enemy at the same time with super effective results. On top of all this, your characters can level up using experience points gained in battle, and new upgrades can be bought for your weapons to add exciting new attack abilities, making all of their attacks and defenses more powerful. You can also use the new-to-Episode 2 Overkill attacks to build up your stats by unleashing your special attack on a nearly dead foe, reducing them to scattered bloody pieces. While all of this may seem complex in writing, it is actually very simple in executio, and the game eases the player into these battles immediately with a helpful tutorial that explains all of the above simply and effectively.
When you aren’t exchanging shotgun blasts with upper-class philanthropists, the game has you exploring a number of colorful environments, 4 of which are new to Episode 2. Each location has plenty of places to explore, and doing so will reward the player with items, secret battles, and concept art. The quests you take on in these areas vary wildly, as you will hunt down flowers to impress a secretary, gather signatures for a urine-based science experiment, and try to free a whacked-out scientist from an insane asylum. The flow of each area feels vastly different from the previous ones, and each has a signature look to help it stand out from the rest. It is also helpful that each location has a special "hook" that switches up the gameplay a bit, which you will come to discover as you go through the game.
The visuals in the game, while nothing ground-breaking, capture the look of the comic very effectively. The game features fully animated cutscenes, an impressive feat considering that it places your created character seamlessly into each of these animations alongside Gabe and Tycho. The conversations that take place with the bizarre and lovable weirdos you encounter also feature beautifully drawn character art, making them feel like extensions of the Penny Arcade comic. As the player scrolls through text and selects from a simple dialog tree, they advance the plot and find out more information from the game’s fascinating cast of oddball characters. The game’s in-game graphics are good, especially for a budget downloadable title, and are identical in most respects to the graphics in Episode 1. The 3D character models and backgrounds clearly capture the art stylings of the comic, but do feel a bit repetitive in places. This is especially true of the game’s enemies, as each enemy type only has 1 or 2 character models associated with it. Couldn’t we at least get a color-swap, fellas? Another problem is with the giant comic book-like text bubbles that pop-up in-game and in-battle. While the hilarious commentary usually contained in these bubbles add some humor to the game, the fact that the bubbles take up such a large portion of the screen and sometimes block enemies/items makes me wish they were a bit more compact.
The game’s sound is equally effective as the visuals, but nothing extraordinary. The music is sparse but solid, and made up or orchestral pieces that fit the game well. The only problem is that most of the music is carried over from Episode 1. The same can be said of the sound effects, as many of them are adapted from the previous episode but continue to fit the game perfectly. The creator’s decided not to give voices to Gabe and Tycho, a wise choice based on how previous attempts to add voices to formerly mute characters have been received by fans. (I distinctly remember the absolute horror and disgust that came over my face the first time I heard Sonic talk about his love of chilidogs.) There are a few voices in the game that are mainly used as ambient noise, and those work well and add a bit to the overall experience. What is unfortunate is that none of the conversations in the game are spoken aloud aside from a narrator that occasionally chimes in. While this is understandable considering that this is a downloadable title, it would have been marvelous if some of the supporting characters and enemies spoke more often.
Episode 2 comes out a scant 5 months after Episode 1, but the developers over at Hothead Games put their time to good use by making some small but welcome improvements to the gameplay to help distinguish from one game to the other. First off, they have added new in-battle mini-games for the character’s special attacks, which is thankful considering how many times the player has to play these mini-games while fighting. The developer’s have also added an indicator to help make blocking enemy attacks a bit easier, as well as some new supporting character attacks (think "Summon" attacks from the Final Fantasy series) which help add some much-needed variety to battle. There’s also a new "Insane" difficulty mode available upon finishing game to help make the wait for Episode 3 a bit less painful, and give you more bang for the buck. Insane mode removes the blocking indicator and makes the battles considerably more challenging, but has 6 bonus pickups hidden around the game that offer some relief and are unavailable in other modes.
PAA Episode 2 is thankfully a bit longer than its predecessor, bumping the 6 or so hour runtime of Episode 1 to around 8 hours in Episode 2. This playtime assumes that you explore the areas well and fully level your characters, as not doing so will shave off an hour, give or take. What they did not improve in the past 5 months, however, is the character customization, which is still sadly limited to only a few options for each available body part. While this is understandable, keeping in mind that the game implements all of these customization changes into all of the cutscenes and conversations, a few new options would have been welcome. Another problem with the game is that there is no "recap" for those who missed Episode 1. While the developers obviously want you to play the original first, a 30 second "catch-up" video, or even a text blurb summarizing the previous title, would have been welcome for new players or those of us who played through Episode 1 months ago. While I won’t spoil anything, I also have to note that the end boss in Episode 2 a bit of a disappointment. The colossus that you tackled in the closing moments of Episode 1 tested all of your PAA skills and was a challenging endeavor that felt like a solid end to the experience. The Episode 2 end boss, while hilarious and clever, feels almost like a cop-out gameplay-wise.
No review of any of the Penny Arcade Adventures would be complete without mentioning the humor. While I wasn’t a fan of the Penny Arcade comic before jumping into Episode 1, the clever dialog and hilariously off-the-wall situations instantly converted me into a reader upon finishing the game. Thankfully, the humor in Episode 2 is equally clever and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. However, this type of absurd and vulgar humor isn’t for everyone. If you are unsure as to whether the game will tickle your funny bone or make you recoil in disgust, you might want to check out the demo on Xbox Live, or at this website for PC gamers, as it includes a good sampling of what the humor and gameplay of the full game is like.
Overall, Penny Arcade Adventures Episode 2 is an easy game to recommend to certain audiences. If you are a Penny Arcade fan or loved Episode 1, you will love Episode 2 just as much as it is a superior game to its predecessor. If you like RPGs and are looking for one that takes place in a more interesting setting than the standard "fantasy world from times of yore," PAA might just be what you are looking for. However, if you have never read the Penny Arcade comic or are not too into RPGs, I would still recommend trying the demo, as you might find yourself getting pulled into the universe with the fast and fun turn-based battle system and the uproarious dialogue. In any event, Penny Arcade has crossed over from the comic world into the gaming world very well, and I recommend spending some time with the boys to see if you enjoy what they have to offer. An additional added bonus is that you repeatedly get to kill things with a rake, which is an offer that I doubt anyone, Penny Arcade fan or not, will be able to resist.