Review: Penny Arcade Adventures (On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness)

After stopping by a few stores and calling a few more, it seemed clear to me that I wasn’t going to pick up a copy of Wii Fit. (And that means I won’t be buying it any time soon… sigh.) I was able to find solace by downloading the demo for Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness. Then, after playing for a bit and digging it, I decided to buy the whole game. Sure, it won’t help me drop those unsightly pounds, but it’s a fun romp that has some really smart game play, along with plenty of trademark Penny Arcade touches.

I played the game for a little over 3 hours, and it seems as though I’m more than halfway done. I downloaded the Mac version, so this is from that perspective. I’m pretty sure the PC and Linux versions are nearly identical, and I’ll touch on the Xbox 360 version later.

How best to describe PAA: OtRSPoD? Take a classic Sierra point and click adventure game. Combine it with Chrono Trigger‘s combat system, where you can see the monsters in advance, you wait for your actions to charge up to use in real time, and can combine your attacks with other members of your party. Throw in some Super Mario RPG, where pressing buttons at the right time is a crucial combat skill. Add a dash of World of Warcraft (but instead of killing boars, kill Hobos. Lots of Hobos. Who do drop Hobo meat.) And, as mentioned, the whole thing is infused with Penny Arcade’s style.

The story takes place in the fictional town of New Arcadia in the 1920’s. The whole setting is clearly Lovecraftian, with Penny Arcade’s characters populating it. You design your character (from a pretty limited range of options) and start in on the story, narrated by a mysterious voice (who calls attention to the fact that he’s a mysterious voice.) Your first task is simple: rake your lawn. Then a giant robot (a version of the Fruit Fucker- did I mention the game doesn’t shy away from profanity?) steps on your house and destroys it. You set out from there to follow it, rake in hand (which I believe remains your weapon for the entire game.)

After a few battles with smaller fruit fuckers, you meet up with Tycho and Gabe, who work for the Startling Developments Detective Agency. You set off with them on your quest to follow the massive robot, and the story progresses from there.

In addition to doing the standard “find items in one place, return them to somebody in another place” that forms the backbone of adventure games, there is a lot of combat. Every fight starts with a classic “roll for initiative!” and then your options charge up with time. Using items charges the quickest, followed by your basic attack, followed by any special attacks. Special attacks are either a combo attack with someone else (both of you have to have your combo charged up) or a signature attack, which requires doing a little button pressing mini-game. For example, Tycho’s tommy-gun double attack requires you to press different arrow keys to match what flashes onscreen (or of course instead of arrow keys you can use WASD.) Additionally, finishing enemies with one of those special attacks gives you an “Overkill” bonus that increases your damage permanently, giving incentive to time your attacks right. On top of all those options, you gain helpers that only recharge during combat, so you have to use them sparingly. The fastest recharging of these is a cat who most of the time does the minimum damage to all enemies, but occasionally does maximum damage to all enemies.

It’s one of the things I really enjoyed about the game right there. You always have interesting choices of how to attack in the game, whether to wait for a certain attack to charge up, if you want to use a helper, and if you want to wait for a combo attack. Additionally, certain enemies are weak against certain attacks, which also changes how your characters spend their actions.

You spend a lot of time using a block mechanism where you need to press the spacebar at the right time. Depending on how well you time it, you can counterattack or defend blows. It’s a crucial skill to learn, something I learned quickly after leaving the first level and getting my ass kicked by improved Fruit Fuckers.

Another part that I really liked was the way items are used. Out of combat, you automatically heal to full, so you don’t have to use your items recovering between fights. You have to manage your time in using items (either to heal or increase your stats) versus dealing damage, instead of the tedium of using piles of potions to recover your HP between fights. Of course, the best item is “Weak Sauce” which reduces the enemy’s attack.

The main problem with combat? The point and click interface. It’s tough to keep on top of pointing and clicking during the frantic combat, especially since the bad guys move to attack just as in Final Fantasy/Chrono Trigger. Of course, you’re also trying to keep a hand on the spacebar to defend at the right time. Using items is even trickier, since you have to click the inventory button, click what you want to use, and click who you want to use it on (even items that affect your whole party.) The fights can be really challenging too: the first boss fight was so hard to start with that I thought it might be one of those fights you’re supposed to lose, but somehow pulled it out. (I used a lot of items.)

The quests outside of combat are generally straightforward. Kill X of this thing. Find a thing and then be told where to deliver it to. So on. Still, it was pretty refreshing to not get stuck at any time, and there clearly were multiple ways that I could advance (at least after the initial levels.)

The atmosphere is just awesome. Gabe and Tycho are obviously influenced by the same genres that I enjoy, and mash it up into their own little world. There are tons of signs and stores to look at that really make the atmosphere complete AND are funny. For some reason, I really enjoyed “Mediocre Pies.” Plus, any game that features lots of hobos automatically gets some points from me.

The game is primarily in a 3D mode for moving around the setting, with the camera following automatically. This can be mildly annoying because objects can be hidden at the edges of the screen that you will never see unless you decide specifically to walk to the very bottom. Dialogue (done entirely through word balloons) becomes a semi-animated cartoon strip, where you get to see the character you created rendered as if he were a Penny Arcade comic character. Overall, the graphics are entirely effective for the style of the game.

If you’re a fan of Penny Arcade, the dialogue in particular is similar to the style of humor in the comic. There were only a few moments that genuinely made me LOL, but most of it is up to the level of the middling Penny Arcade strips. If you dislike the comic, you probably will get tired of the dialogue, even if you like the rest of the game. For PA fans, though, you’ll enjoy it for sure.

There’s more to the game, but it’s all so ridiculously easy to learn that the best way to see if you’ll enjoy it or not is to try out the demo. One note: I downloaded the Mac demo, mainly because I was too lazy to load more points into my Xbox 360 account. After talking with joshxorfz, it sounds like the control scheme on the 360 is a lot better and makes combat more manageable. I had dreaded that the 360 would use the joysticks to guide a mouse around the screen, but it sounds like the 360 controls make a lot of sense. The other reason I just kept with the Mac version is you can keep your character and progress straight from the demo. Choose carefully, if you have an option. (Also, be sure to check your video settings if the game looks odd.)

Overall, while I was looking forward to the game anyway, it really surprised me with the number of details and thought put into the gameplay. The story and style appeal to me, and I expect it’ll appeal to a great many gamers, especially those who follow the comic and enjoy the same sort of games/genres that Tycho and Gabe do. The only fear I have about the game is that I’m almost done, and I’ll have to wait an excruciatingly long time for the next episode to come out.

The game and demo can be downloaded from the Greenhouse site, and costs $20. It can also be downloaded from Xbox Live for 1600 MS points.

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.


  1. For those who are curious, I downloaded the xbox 360 demo and then decided to just download it on my mac before testing it out thoroughly. I say this with a good deal of incredulity, but for once console controls have trumped PC controls. The point and click interface is terrible for combat and makes things frustratingly more difficult then they need to be.

    With that said, I really enjoy the game and agree with Dave’s review here and still look forward to having something I can play around with on my mac when I’m away from my gaming hovel (my basement).

  2. Awesome! I thought about downloading the demo last night but got distracted, now I’ll definitely give it a try.