Developer: Hothead Games
Publisher: Hothead Games
Platform(s): PC, Xbox 360 Live Arcade, Mac OSX
This game has a ridiculously long title but that doesn't seem to put me off. Well, it's Precipice from here on in for convenience's sake.
Penny Arcade rocks - at least according to personally-held fact (that is, opinion). Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins have, since 1998, been consistently putting out damn funny material in the form of their Webcomic, Penny Arcade. It's essentially about two thirtysomething gaming freaks, Jonathan "Gabe" Gabriel and Tycho Brahe. The former is a Pac-Man-, Star Wars- and Patrick Swayze-obsessed man-child; the latter is tormented, deeply cynical and driven to alcoholism by his friend/nemesis/colleague. I could describe the strip in more detail, but it's pure humour is best experienced here, here and here.
I'm not normally judgmental, but if you can't get a single chuckle out of one of these three, you have no soul.
Krahulik and Holkins (via Gabe and Tycho, respectively) have spent a decade comically lampooning, criticizing and praising video games and the video game industry, all the while humorously rebutting the rhetoric of anti-video game violence activists such as Jack Thompson (who, only just today, was revealed to be one of the Broodax). Still, one has to wonder: can two men so adept at critiquing video games in general make an appealing and engaging game of their own? To ensure this, Krahulik and Holkins sat down with indie developer Hothead games and became intimately involved in the design, creation and execution of Penny Arcade's tribute to the video game world.
Early on in the game's design stage, Krahulik and Holkins realized that two guys sitting on a couch, playing video games and shooting the shit wouldn't be an appealing concept. Thus, they placed Gabe and Tycho in an original setting, a 1920s-era burg by the name of New Arcadia. Foul things are afoot, many of which truly Lovecraftian in nature, and Gabriel and Brahe operate out of Startling Developments detective agency (think a low-tech Ghostbusters/Hellblazer setup). Meanwhile, your character (personally designed and named by the player) has just very recently seen his house destroyed by Fruit Fucker Prime - a 20-odd-foot tall robot with a penchant for sodomizing fruit. Quite pissed, and in need of new quarters, you aid Gabe and Tycho in ridding New Arcadia of Prime's tinier fruit-fucking companions, an army of feral hobos and some severely pissed-off clowns.
Naturally, this sort of story would boggle the shit out of most people, but Precipice, like its Webcomic forebear, succeeds in allowing the player to revel in the pure absurdity of it all. Gameplay-wise, Krahulik and Holkins have paid tribute to RPGs of yore, with - gasp - a turn-based combat system straight out of the earlier Final Fantasy games. For those speed-oriented gamers reading this, have no fear: the combat implements a sort of FFVII Active-Time-Battle system that keeps potentially lazy players on their toes. Enemy attacks are funny in and of themselves, with the Fruit Fuckers shooting their, um, hot lead load.
As the Penny Arcade's creators worked hand-in-hand with Hothead, Precipice shares the same writing and visual aesthetic as the strip. Cel-shaded graphics effectively brings Krahulik's vivid, stylized artwork to life and Holkins truly indulges with the in-game conversations, creating dialogue trees that actually resulted in out-loud laughter on my part. Voice acting is absent, allowing fans of the strip to maintain their ideal voices for the characters (to me, Gabe sounds a little bit like Ron Stoppable from Kim Possible, and Tycho like myself - that is, if I were a drunken wreck). The overall atmosphere is incredibly Penny Arcade - beautifully rendered and unnecessarily verbose (although in a good way). You can walk around, pick up objects, open boxes, talk to NPCs, and read shop signs (Mediocre Pies: "They're just alright."). The game maintains the couple-like banter between Gabe and Tycho, and fans of the strip will be pleased to see Tycho's similarly intelligent niece "Annarchy" as a flamethrower-wielding support character. Sections of the game are tied together with beautifully animated 2D cinematics drawn by Krahulik himself, for the first time really putting the comic into motion.
Any issues apparent? Of course. While Precipice is just the first outing in an episodic series, I still feel that Hothead could have given us a little more for the first installment. There are a total of three explorable areas - there is a fourth, but it's just a room where the party goes to have Annarchy upgrade their weapons - and these areas are far from huge. However, I guess I have to stand back and appreciate the fact that Krahulik and Holkins work on other things, and that by focusing on their newly-growing gaming entourage they could easily alienate their preexisting comic fanbase. Precipice is very much like Valve's Portal - short and sweet. The ending cinematic is more than enough to ensure my purchase of the next episode. What can I say? I like my Fruit Fucker Prime. My only other real criticism is directed toward the final boss, who - while hilariously-designed and executed - is easy if a little tedious to fight. The second-to-last boss, on the flip-side, was ridiculously difficult, and I found myself relying on my support characters as Gabe's, Tycho's and my own attack values were reduced to literally 1.
On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness is probably the first true example of a critic (critics, in this case) using their knowledge of a particular medium in order to contribute further to it. Is the game for all? Oh, Hell no. There are still a great many people on the Internet who do not find Penny Arcade's style of humour appealing, so I doubt casual gamers will find total enjoyment. There are also a many who see turn-based combat as an outdated RPG model, but I find the timed system greatly speeds up simple fights. Everything else about the game is pretty much perfect, truth be told. One of the greatest games I've ever played? Probably not, but it was one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences I've had in a while. Bring on Episode Two.