Like many of you, I’ve been following the Penny-Arcade games from the start. We’re talking about two guys who eat and breathe games collaborating with developers to produce something based on their own characters. It is a match made in heaven, right? Well Penny-Arcade presents: On the Rain-slick Precipice of Darkness Episode 1 & 2, while being very good, lacked whatever it takes to be truly great. I’ve been playing Zeboyd games since Breath of Death 4, and those have been great. The only thing that made me happier than learning that they would be working together was beating episode 3 and learning there would be a fourth.
Like all Zeboyd games, yes, these are heavily retro visuals. However, whereas a staple of retro–at least back when it was called cutting edge–has always been palette-swapping and other ways to make a small enemy variety seem like a large one, Precipice 4 takes advantage of the effectively unlimited memory of modern systems by absolutely heaping you with enemy variety. I swear there were standard enemies that only showed up once. And these weren’t just your standard skeletons and goblins. At one point you encounter a literal menagerie of animal mash-ups, like the Panduck and the Kangarion. Let’s not forget the roughly 80% of the enemy roster that is made up of puns.
The environments are no less varied. If you played the last game, you’ll know that the crew ended up in a place that, if it was not hell itself, was certainly very hell-like. Well, it turns out it was Underhell, and unlike its conventional counterpart, Underhell has got a highly varied ecosystem. Jungles, frozen caves, mechanized towers, and the obligatory lakes of lava await you.
Just about everything has gotten some level of makeover, looking just a bit better, deeper, and more detailed than the previous entry in the series in a difficult to put your finger on way. Those seeking next gen visuals should look elsewhere, but for well executed, imaginative, and attractive retro artwork, look no further.
Like Episode 3, this game is a classic console RPG with the most annoying elements stripped away. Rather than having to stock up on herbs, spend money on inns, and waste time patching up your crew after every battle, the game does all of that for you. You are instantly healed after every victory–or defeat, for that matter. You don’t purchase or find items, instead getting “quantity upgroids”, which allow you to use one additional item of that type per fight. The standard revive/heal item is a Potion. There are also molotovs to attack with, Buffz ™ to boost your stats, and the Switch powerup, but more on that later. In place of a magic point system that requires you to top off your mana pool periodically, you start with one magic point and build your total one point per turn. It is up to you to decide if you’re going to spam low level spells or mix in some non-magic actions in order to build to the higher level ones.
One major difference between Episode 3 and Episode 4 is the decidedly Pokemon inspired battle party. (The Pokemon roots run so deep that you’ll eventually run into the local setting’s Team Rocket equivalent.) You see, with the exception of one character, you don’t do battle directly. Instead, you have a “monstrorb” which first generates, then captures monsters to do battle for you. Each monster has its own set of spells and abilities, as well as its own stats. On top of that, the creature inherits a set of abilities and stat variations from its trainer. In essence, this is quite similar to the class badges that were used in Episode 3, only instead of a character wearing one or more of many badges, the trainer uses one or more of many monsters. The monsters have all of the variety you would expect from the game, starting with simple ones like the fan favorite Deep Crow and growing to include the utterly bizarre like a sentient vending machine or Twisp and Catsby (which I have been getting backward all of these years, it seems.) In addition to their trainers, the creatures have an equipment slot and an accessory slot. The equipment usable by a given creature varies from beast to beast, and can expand as they gain levels. Other bonuses brought by leveling up include new spells and passive abilities like poison touch. An ability that I made excellent use of was the “murder” passive ability. One quirk of this game is that a status effect like poison or bleed cannot kill an enemy, instead taking them down to 1 health. Murder automatically finishes off such weakened enemies.
Doing well in the game centers on developing a strong synergy between your group. Early on things are easy because you only have a handful of creatures and trainers. This manageable stable is prolonged by the fact that for much of the game you are playing as two parallel parties with their own sets of creatures. If you are thorough, though, you’ll have a huge lineup of creatures, and not every one is well suited for every battle. You can either keep them all relatively upgraded and customize for each fight (or even during fights, using the aforementioned Switch item, which swaps out a party member), or you can sell all spare items and stick with a core group.
Whatever you do, play intelligently. Unlike other RPGs, this game will not let you grind to level up and earn additional money. There are a set number of encounters, and if you manage to waste money, you simply won’t have the equipment to withstand some of the fiendishly difficult bosses. It is crucially important that you scour the complex and detailed maps for every fight and every chest you can find, in order to maximize your experience and resources. That goes for the overworld map, too, which has more than a few out of the way caves. There is even a “reach the previously unreachable areas” treasure hunt right before the endgame. Fortunately, if you’ve been a lousy treasure hunter, there exists the ability to change the difficulty on a per battle basis to get you past That One Boss.
While there is no voice over for the dialog and such—I still sorely miss the narrator from the first two, for more than one reason—the music actually surprised me. There are actual instruments! The battle music includes rockin’ guitars, and core characters have their own themes to herald their heroism. Keep your ears peeled and you’ll even be treated to vocals during one particular group’s battles. Most sound effects are very simple digital sounds like the games of old, but what few actual sound effects exist are placed impeccably to deliver the maximum comedic or dramatic impact.
If you haven’t played the other games, then here be spoilers, so skip this section. For the rest of you, when last we left our heroes, they had either failed to protect or succeeded in destroying the universe (depending on which character you were siding with). That leaves our heroes with no place to go but the one remaining plane of existence, Underhell and its much nicer sister continent, Overhell. With no place to go but the place usually earmarked for eternal punishment, the heroes embark on a quest to finish what they started, taking out the fourth and final god and finally closing up shop on reality. The humor is heavily Penny-arcade flavored, which I am a huge fan of, but if you don’t like Tycho’s word play the gags might wear on you. That said, regardless of how you feel about the presentation, I challenge you to reach the emotionally powerful ending and not feel like your emotions have been drawn and quartered. As I write this, I can still feel the ending of this game pressing down on my brain like a lead blanket. Oof.
Rain-slick Precipice of Darkness Episode 4 is an improved version of Episode 3, with better production value, deeper gameplay, and the same great story and personality. On top of that, or perhaps at the foundation of that, is a combat and progression system that is all of the best parts of classic console RPGs distilled and refined. An excellent game, all around.
9.5 / 10: Rain-slick Precipice of Darkness Episode 4 is a madcap roller coaster of a plot built upon what may be my absolute favorite take on the RPG formula.