PAX 07: Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Impressions

Unsurprisingly afforded multiple sessions and ample exhibit space at PAX 07, Hothead Games showed what appeared to be a fairly representative portion of its upcoming episodic title, culled from the world of the gamer-centric Penny Arcade web comic. Known as Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, the game is a triple-team effort between the Canadian studio, famed adventure game designer Ron Gilbert, and the comic's infamous iconoclasts--Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik.

The demonstration Hothead gave at the expo revealed a game that, for better or worse, seems to emulate both a dying genre--the adventure game--and a long-stagnant one--the Eastern RPG. But for the most part, the demo ensures Rain-Slick will succeed in entertaining Penny Arcade fans, which is probably all the comic's creators wanted to achieve. Part jest and part homage, the game fleshes out a foul-mouthed 3D point-and-click adventure with prominent role-playing influences, placing you as a third-wheel to the founders' surrogate caricatures. In this alternate Lovecraftian universe, Gabe takes the role of a rough-and-tumble pugilist, while Tycho favors words and automatic weaponry.

In the style of Western and online role-playing games, you'll get to create a Penny Arcadian avatar for yourself at the game's onset with a fairly robust character creation tool. Your choices for looks are constrained within the game's '20s steampunk vogue, so pinstripes, outlandish facial hair, and spectacles abound. And the 3D character you create will appear in all of the game's 2D cut scenes, presented in a dynamic comic-strip fashion.

In these plot-revealing sequences, the view jumps from panel to panel in a digital version of Krahulik's strip, with limited animations--Fruitfucker Prime crushing your character's house in the opening sequence, for instance--within each panel. These clips were just one aspect of the demo's slick presentation and interface, both of which were actually the most prominent features in what I saw of the game.

To demo the actual gameplay, Hothead skipped ahead to a portion of the game where your character and the PA crew are following the trail of the Slum Lord, a shady character toting a Santa Claus-like sack filled with hobos rather than toys. In essence, Rain-Slick takes nearly all the standard trappings of a Japanese RPG and gives them an obscenity-ridden Penny Arcade fantasy world twist. Cleverly named attacks like "Plank You very Much"--a two-by-four to the face--and geysers of blood make the battles more about being entertained than enjoying the gameplay.

Because underneath all the scurrilous shenanigans is a turn-based battle system that leads to the same outcomes we've been seeing since Dragon Warrior: gaining experience, leveling up, and learning new attacks. It's fitting, given Krahulik's and Holkins' penchant for games of this ilk. And to be fair, the fighting system does throw in some aspects of more active battle systems. Timed spacebar presses can block enemy assaults, and special attacks require special inputs, such as a DDR-like series of directional key presses for Tycho's enemy-clearing gas-can bomb. The game thankfully doesn't honor the Eastern RPG formula in some of the genre's less forgivable yet widespread conventions, as battles aren't random, with enemies viewable onscreen and seemingly avoidable.

Dialogue trees, along with the pronounced scene-driven narrative, lent the demoed portion of the game its retro PC adventure feel. As with the combat, the text-based conversations are largely focused on making you laugh, and they will, serving as a showcase for Holkins' piquant wordsmithery.

If you're a fan of Penny Arcade, it's very likely Rain-Slick will entertain you. You will be entertained. Probably. From the portion of the game I saw, Rain-Slick looks like exactly the game Holkins and Krahulik wanted Hothead to make. It's by no means an industry-changing creation, but something that will surely please their fans. Judging from what can only be described as a legion in attendance at PAX this year, it was probably a good move.

The first episode of Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness will be available for download on PC, Mac, and Linux later this year, with an Xbox Live Arcade version coming in early 2008.