Thursday, May 22, 2008

Review: Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Episode 1

Completed the game. The first time through, it represented about 10 hours of gameplay for me, perhaps 6-7 for someone who actually plays video games often.

On a value-for-money basis, this is really good, especially when you include the enormous amount of value Penny Arcade has provided over the years; I bought this game without even downloading the trailer first, just because PA has earned that money either way. Then, after I completed my second playthrough, I realized that the value was pretty damn good. I may play it again; I will at least go back to my savegame and try to find all the hidden concept art. The game stands on its own merits, and I would have enjoyed playing it even if I didn't know much about Penny Arcade. It's a lot of fun.


I have some criticisms, which I'll start with, but spoiler alert: they're all nitpicks. I'll try not to include any actual game spoilers here.

1) camera is somewhat frustrating at times. I always had the sense that there was some cool stuff offscreen that I could get to if only I could see it. It isn't that big a deal though; very rarely did I have any trouble seeing or navigating to the things the game needed me to see and navigate to.
2) pathfinding AI was basically nonexistent. You really only see this when you are trying to smash something to grab the combat bonus item inside, which you do by clicking on it so the player runs there. My guy couldn't figure out how to get there if there was something more complicated than a lamppost in the way, and not even that if the lamppost was right next to him. Oh well, it amounted to only a few extra clicks. I never got stuck anywhere, either.
3) It was a bit hard to navigate in some places, though. This was particularly noticeable inside Anne-Claire's room, where, to reach her, you must either smash a box or find just the right detritus-free spot on the floor to click on.
4) I wish it was longer. I just wanted to play it more. I would have paid double for a game 50% longer, and still felt it was a good deal. Fortunately, it comes in episodes! I cannot wait for the next episode, and I will purchase it sight unseen again. Based on plot points, I think there will be 4 episodes in total.


Combat is challenging and fun, requiring skill and strategy simultaneously. I'm not going to go into the details of the mechanics since there are plenty of reviews covering those. Timing is important, but not always critical; you can get by most of the way without catlike reflexes. There are lots of options at any point, and it definitely makes a difference which options you use in a given situation. For example, in many places, if you choose the wrong character to attack a particular enemy, the combat will be much more dangerous and take much longer. This is because creatures have particular resistances to certain kinds of attacks. In some combats, for example, Gabe will shine, while in others he will be useless as an attacker, so you use his turn to activate healing and items instead. The same also applies to which items you choose to use; some monsters have abilities that essentially nullify a particular item; but choose a different one and you can vanquish them quickly. So, to win the game, you have to explore all the combat options.

You also have to master the art of managing three characters at once, because if you waste time trying to decide what to do, the enemies will eliminate your opportunity to do it. This isn't too hard after the first level's worth of battles, though. The only thing really requiring fine reflexes was the 'block' maneuver, performed by hitting the space bar at exactly the right time in an attack sequence. The time segment you have to block is different for every enemy attack, and most enemies have more than one, so you really have to watch the animations and practice. You'll be an expert at this by the time you get to the last quarter of the game or so. (The final boss would be really hard if you hadn't mastered the blocking skill by that point.)


The comparisons to ScummVM games are fairly accurate; the adventure portions of the game really feel like Day of the Tentacle, although not nearly as intricate. The puzzles are my favorite kind: the kind that aren't really that difficult to solve. I've always loved adventure games, but I've always been terrible at solving puzzles. I've lately realized why I love them: adventure games reward you for exploring, and I love games in which exploration is a big factor. I like poking around in all the odd corners of a game, and clicking on everything I see to find the hidden jokes and secrets. Besides the hidden "concept art" which supposedly unlocks a bonus comic, there are also items in the game which can give you combat bonuses but aren't necessary to complete the game, and even some hidden combats. At the risk of spoiling, I'll just say: if you get to the endgame with only T. Kemper and Anne-Claire as supplemental characters, you've missed something cool. :-)

Game Technology and Greenhouse

The game is out for 4 platforms simultaneously: PC, Mac, Linux, and Xbox. This is pretty cool; nobody releases major games for Linux, never mind for all of those platforms at once. As a software developer I appreciate the enormous difficulty they faced in accomplishing that; they obviously had to make some smart technology choices to succeed. I ran into technical problems using the Linux version (pulseaudio sound was flaky); I eventually worked around them (shut down all music players, and run with "aoss" instead). When I first encountered this problem, though, I just wanted to play. The multiplatform release came in handy here, and really demonstrated what I think will become the Greenhouse ethos.

I'm using a Macbook Pro, and I have Leopard on this machine as well as Ubuntu Hardy. So, I just downloaded another copy of the game, this time the Mac .dmg file. I already had my license key for the Linux version. After installing it on Leopard, I entered my Linux key, which Just Worked, and started the game up, and was playing immediately. Greenhouse let me download multiple copies of the game for free and use my key in all of them with no hassles whatsoever. Couple that with the simplicity of the initial purchase: You enter your credit card number, your license key displays in your browser immediately (and is emailed to you immediately), and the game starts downloading immediately. They accomplished that (apparently) most difficult of feats for online software retailers: they made the game easier to buy than to pirate.

Humor and Characters

It's a Penny Arcade game, so it really wouldn't be fair to review the game without talking about the humor in it. You can't talk about humor without killing it though, so I'll keep this section short. Here's the bottom line: if you like Penny Arcade, the game will be really funny. During the run-up to the game, the guys put up a massive .wav file to test the bandwidth, asking everyone to download it--smart QA strategy. What was even smarter, though, was that the file was, in the style of their podcast, Gabe and Tycho talking about the making of the game. One of the topics they discuss was that Tycho had to write descriptive text for every damn thing you can click on, even the crabs littering the boardwalk. Well, the time was well-spent. Click on everything you see; you'll be laughing a lot.

The characters have great interactions with each other, and the dialog adds to the game, it doesn't detract. It makes a difference when game dialog is written by someone who writes for a living every day. Jerry Holkins' wit shines through in every conversation tree.


4/5 asterisks: ****_

As one forum denizen on Giant in the Playground said, "You can hit evil hobos with a rake so hard they literally explode. What could not be awesome about that?"

(Tycho just posted on the p-a site, saying "Thank you for letting me be your dungeon master." God I'm jealous.)


pianiststephen said...

ive only played the demo and i thought it was GREAT. i can't download the whole thing cuz my parents wont let me get Xbox live and im trying to convince them that i can buy it on the computer. but anyways, its a hilarious game and your right about the exploration, it is hard sometimes to get things you want, but it is all part of the panel concept, so its all good. 4/5 (at least on the demo)

Anonymous said...

you mean the final boss was saposta be eraser?