Steamroll: Penny Arcade's Precipice of Darkness 3

A Farce Taken Seriously

A picture of a dead mime in-gameAside from a quattro of free-to-play online games released last week, there was only one game released on Steam for the gamer on a budget: Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3. Hothead Games buried this series four years ago, but now Zeboyd Games has resurrected it to continue its dreadful tale. It’s not the same beast it was, though.

The gameplay has shifted back an entire generation in the RPG genre. The real-time combat and action commands of the first 2 games have been replaced with turn-based combat and a job system that could trace its lineage to the early days of the Final Fantasy franchise. Fortunately for us, the old-school RPG combat is handled by Zeboyd Games, who have eschewed the old “grind-’em-down” RPG mentality in favor of trying to outright kill you every battle. There is no stockpiling 99 potions, no exiting the dungeon to rest, just an increasingly-difficult string of encounters that all want to reduce you to paste in their own special way.

You start each battle with full health and a full stock of items, while your magic points slowly build over the course of the battle. You can’t just tread water until you can unleash the big spells, though, because the enemies’ power increases each turn as well. You only have a limited time to take them down before they start one-shotting you. The result? A crescendo of combat as you hamper the enemies, buff yourselves, and try to unleash your big guns before your heals can’t handle their damage anymore. These battles are much more interesting than slime encounters designed to whittle away at your MP.

A trio of minibosses.It doesn’t hurt that Zeboyd have inserted a startling variety of enemies and encounters, many of which only appear once or twice total. Swarms of enemies alternate with mini-bosses, with an occasional mini-boss trio or special encounter that changes the rules slightly. (Example: “You start this battle with 6 MP, but can’t generate any more.”) There are no random encounters; all of the monsters are displayed on the map, and they never respawn after defeat. If you really feel the urge to grind levels, you can head over to the Coliseum, but I didn’t find it necessary to complete the game. In fact, I trounced the final boss rather easily thanks to job combos.

In most games that use a job system, you need to spend time memorizing one job’s skills before you can use them with another job. Zeboyd took out that whole grinding aspect by just letting you assign two jobs simultaneously to each character. The experience a job earns carries between characters; even unequipped jobs gain enough experience they don’t fall behind. (By the end of the game, the jobs I always used were Level 40. The jobs I never used were Level 37.) This makes it extremely easy to try new job combos on different characters and see what works. That’s great for an RPG you can finish in less than 10 hours, especially since many of the jobs feel underpowered.

The game decided to go insane with its job descriptions, and some of them have strange mechanics to match. The Hobo class revolves around disease attacks, the Diva class steals stats from other party members to boost their own, and the Apocalyptist class casts spells that are delayed for several turns, which you can then use to pile on additional effects until it resembles the Biblical plagues compressed into a few seconds. Neat ideas, but too unusual for me to use when there are jobs that are easy to understand and combo well. And boy, do they combo well. You can stretch this game to the breaking point with the right combos. Strength with strength, defense with health, magic with magic. Once I nailed it, I was slaughtering enemies right and left, and I had no reason to experiment with the stranger jobs. It might have helped if it was easier to view what each job gave you. The only way to see what a job does is to equip it on a character, which makes it tough to compare the 8 jobs you have equipped with the 5 jobs you don’t.

I had a few other nitpicks about the gameplay: it took me a while to figure out which types of enemies were weak to certain elements (although I appreciated the weak/resistant notices that popped up when I hit them), a few areas drag out too long, and there’s not enough variation in equipment to make choosing your next piece of gear a tough choice. My interest in the combat waxed and waned throughout the course of the game, but I never got bored enough to quit it halfway through the story.

Tycho elucidates on monsters appearing in your pants.That’s why you’re buying it, isn’t it? The combat’s fine and dandy, but you’re here for the Penny Arcade craziness. And craziness it has in spades: a steampunk setting seeping with Cthulhu mythos and sprinkled on top with numerous creatures spawned from the comics. The guest appearances by the Fruit… “Lover” and the Merch elicited some minor chuckles, but it was Tycho’s crass, erudite writing that kept a grin on my face. Tycho displays a peculiar eloquence in describing video games, stupid ideas, and Things That Should Not Be, and it translates to the game well. Absurd situations are amplified by absurd writing, occasionally broken up by blunt descriptions of Gabe doing something with his fists.

There’s no need to play the first two games in the series to understand the story here; all you need to know is that two gods are dead or banished, two gods remain, and it’s about time to send that third god a-packin’. But not too quickly, though: side treks are in order, from stealing a “key” in a hobo-ridden slum to genre-hopping while dealing with an interdimensional security system. These exist solely as callbacks or jokes, and most of them got old fast. They drag on for too long, turning pleased amusement into a growing irritation at not finishing it yet. The most annoying one split the party into two groups and made you go through the same dungeon twice: once in the past, once in the present. It could have been interesting, if the past had more than just cosmetic tweaks.

Only one side trek really made an impression. It was the final one, and it’s so deep in the plot, I won’t reveal the details for fear of spoiling something. It was the only one that didn’t have anything funny about it. It takes the world you’ve been laughing at for the past eight hours and smashes you in the face with it. Before, it was funny because the characters took these absurd situations seriously, but what would someone do if they really thought the end of the world was coming? It peeled away the mental defense mechanism of humor for a moment and allowed a glimpse into the eye of horror. It returned to jokes about cults following a corporate structure afterwards, but it had done its job.

I no longer know what tone the next episode will have. How much of it will be funny and absurd? How much of it will sober up and emphasize that these characters are now facing an imminent apocalypse? I don’t know, and I want to find out. That last hour of plot was a great surprise in a game I originally pegged as just a darkly absurd jaunt through Cthulhu steampunk. I just wish it had arrived sooner. The game is definitely worth the $5 price, maybe even $7, but I think I would’ve been happier with less of it. If they trimmed the fat off many of the areas and encounters, I would’ve enjoyed six hours of gameplay more than nine.

Download Size: 225 MB
Completed in: 9 hours
What I’d Pay: $7
Price on Steam: $5

That’s it for the Steamroll this week; tune in next time for another look at what nifty indie games might be worth a few dollars!