24 May 2008

On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Greatness?

Recently, Penny Arcade released a game that you may have heard of: On the rain-slick Precipice of Darkness. I've played through the game and found it, surprisingly, to my liking; to the extent that i'm now affecting certain.... airs.

Okay, dorkiness aside, i'm a semi-fan of the comic strip -finding most of the panels interesting though not funny in the classical 'har-har' sense. Translating their method of storytelling (i.e. the flow of their comics), the dark humour and art style from a limited 2D space to an expansive 3D world (with 2D storytelling segments and conversation trees) was always going to be difficult to accomplish. I can say with some confidence that they might have come pretty close to perfecting this.


The game is set in a 1920s fantasy world; a city named New Arcadia. The development of technology appears to be parallel to our own history however there is much magic and steamworkings interwoven into the otherwise ordinary social and scientific structure. Story-wise, the game is typical Penny Arcade fare and stalwarts of the site will find many gleaming examples of their particular craft. I wasn't disappointed with the plot or pacing of the game and found that it wrapped up nicely in the way that any good episode does: with a climactic event followed by foreshadowing of bigger things to come.
Graphically, the game isn't going to burn any computers but the art style is nice to look at. I found that the cell shading on the 3D world really worked well with the cartoon aesthetic and gave a clean, crisp look to the game. However, sadly, character's representation in the game engine paled in comparison with the beautifully drawn comic style during cutscenes and conversation panels. Speaking of characters, you are able to make your own (within limits) and this portrayal is simultaneously recreated in the 2D comic strips during play - which is a nice touch - though there are fewer options for creating a female character.

The interface is mainly point and click, although conversation choices can utilise the numeric keys also. Searching the environment by hovering the mouse over items, features and facets of the world changes the icon to indicate the relative interactivity of the area underneath which will range from an observation, quip, interaction, destruction or a hidden unlockable (artwork, music etc). Moving from area to area is relatively easy and can be done through reaching the exit of the current area you are in or, more conveniently, by clicking on the 'private eye' icon of Startling Developments (Gabe and Tycho's company) in the top right corner of the screen which allows you access to their office; a collection of odds and sods which also serve as access to information on characters, enemies, areas (direct travel to those areas), your current objectives and inventory items. It's a useful hub and helps to streamline the back-tracking to the various areas that you will undoubtedly have to do.

Battle takes place in the same spot in the world where an enemy is encountered - unlike many RPGs which whisk you away to a separate battleground. The space key acts as a real-time blocking mechanism during battles to reduce and dodge/counter enemy attacks. This is (as far as i'm aware) unique in RPGs to date as there is no on-screen prompt as to when a block will be effective during an attack and the player instead has to manage their defence from cues during a foe's attack.
Blocking is essentially what the combat mechanic revolves around as even a partially blocked attack will have modifiers removed from the reduced damage that the team takes: for example, some attacks will reduce (for a short period) the attack or defence rating of the character which greatly hinders the party's effectiveness and these effects can be avoided by a successful or partial block. My only gripe is that somehow i failed to notice the point where defence is explained during the tutorial stage of the game and was losing many battles (which you can quite easily flee) once the difficulty ramped up. Perhaps it was my fault but having accomplished everything else the tutorial gave me perhaps it could have been made clearer. Luckily, i remembered that a preview of the game had mentioned using space to block in real-time so i tried and found that it worked. :)

Two other interesting mechanics during combat stand out, the first being the timing of item usage, attack and special attack. Basically your timer for each action stacks - with item usage taking the least time, the attack taking more and the special attack taking the most. It means that you have to wait longer to perform the two higher actions but you can use items pretty quickly. The downside to this is, if your party is in trouble and you were saving up to make a special attack, you waste the special, and normal attacks to make use of a life saving item.
The second mechanic is that modifiers do not stack. You can only have one modifier at a time (with the exception of stun which does stack to an existing modifier) which leads to you being able to counter any ill effects on your party members with any random power-up (for example increased defence). On the downside, if you don't time your effects on an enemy, there is a good chance that they will be dispelled by a power-up that the enemy will cast on itself. Luckily, this tends not to be much of a problem once you learn the types of actions of each enemy.
Overall the combat can get a little repetitive but has a good tactical feel and this gives this portion of the game a longer lasting appeal. To be fair, most RPGs battle mechanics become wearing after a short time - with the Final Fantasy 'hit one button repeatedly to use different actions' sector a prime example - but i felt that this wasn't the case here.

On the rain-slick Precipice of Darkness comes close to perfection in its genre but there are still improvements to be made in the future installments of the series. Hopefully the development team will listen to any gripes about perceived clunkiness in the game by the fans though Penny Arcade are well known for their attention to detail and i doubt that they would allow any reasonable complaint to be ignored by the development team - whether there would be action taken from that complaint or not. Price-wise, the game is pretty cheap (especially outside the US) and commendably also quite lengthy: i managed to get between 7 and 8 hours out of it.
I would recommend this game to any point and click/RPG fan.