Have you been feeling a distinct lack of Final Fantasy IV in your life lately?
Do you really miss the early 1990s? Were 32-bit games just two times too many bits for you? Have you grown weary of the third dimension?
If so, congratulations: you are exactly the niche that On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode 3 has been designed for, and you will quite probably love this game.
While this game is part three in a series, its the first by studio Zeboyd Games (Cthulhu Saves the World) and marks a significant departure from the style of the first two entries. All three are based on the comic art and humor aesthetic of webcomic empire Penny Arcade, but where the first two borrow the look and style of their three-panel progenitor, episode three of Rain-Slick Precipice goes somewhere entirely different.
Is everything old really new again? This game feels that way, or at least wants us to feel that way. Every aspect of it is deliberately retro: the graphics, music, art, combat, dialogue, world map, and every other aspect you can think of are designed to bring you twenty years back in time. From everything I saw, it's remarkably faithful to that vision.
WHY: Because it does exactly what it says it will: wraps Penny Arcade humor around a retro nostalgia-fest
Developer: Zeboyd Games
Platforms: PC, Mac, Xbox
Release date: June 25 (PC/Mac); Xbox to follow shortly after
Type of game: Old-school 16-bit inflected turn-based JRPG, wrapped in modern internet humor
What I played: About 10 hours' worth of the story (not to completion), on PC
My Two Favorite Things
- The cleverness in monster design. Their names, skills, and descriptions are generally excellent.
- A moment in one fight when a monster cast "Kill Tycho." Worked exactly as you'd think, and made me giggle aloud.
My Two Least-Favorite Things
- Lack of workarounds. During some sections of the game, there's no real way to go level up elsewhere if you're running into a wall with one fight, and that can bring everything to a screeching halt.
- The parts of the script where "verbose" gets mistaken for "clever."
Made-to-Order Back-of-Box Quotes
- "The part where there's an 8-bit RPG inside a 16-bit RPG is kind of Inceptiony." - Kate Cox, Kotaku.com
- "I only threatened to light it on fire once. Okay, maybe twice." -Kate Cox, Kotaku.com
The game opens up with a summary of The Story So Far, for those who haven't played the first two games or who simply don't remember them very well. The summary, and a cursory inspection of all the items in Our Heroes' office, will bring any player up to speed pretty quickly. But the details don't necessarily matter. The point is this: it is an occult, Lovecraftian world and our dastardly duo—along with some others—need to travail through many obstacles in order to retrieve the mystical object that has been stolen.
Rain-Slick Precipice has two main areas of interest, and neither is the story. The first is its combat system, which is quick and easy to learn but takes time to master. In one sense, it's straightforward: on a character's turn, that character chooses an action. A short period of time later, that action is taken. Both the heroes' party (up to four characters) and the enemies work on the same timeline. The system takes a little while to come into its own, but gets interesting once characters start being able to buff their own speed, interrupt and otherwise slow down enemies, and plan strategies out in advance.
Character classes are also fairly fluid. Each character does have an immutable base class—Gabe's, for example, is Brute. But each also has two other sub-class spots that can be swapped at will once the player has encountered the right items in the game. All secondary and tertiary classes level whether or not any character currently has them equipped, and players can swap them around via the menu at any time other than while in the middle of combat.
So while Gabe's primary class is Brute, allowing him to do a great deal of fist-related damage, his other two roles are up for grabs. I eventually settled on Crabomancer, a tank-like role focused on defense and taunting, and Tube Samurai, a stance-based job allowing heavy focus on one area (speed, strength, defense) at a time. Thus, I ended up making Gabe essentially into my party's tank.
My particular favorite role is the Apocalypt. The Apocalypt can cast a prophecy of what will happen in the future—essentially, a very slow-acting spell on a long delay. The trick is, any number of prophecies can come to pass at once. So if the Apocalypt is speedy enough, the spell, when it lands, can do, say, both fire and ice damage with poison on top. Learning how to work the system, and discovering which classes work best together, and what should be equipped by whom, is the heart of the game.
Meanwhile, the preponderance of the humor to be found within the indefatigable escapade lies in the stringing-together of multisyllabic words into a veritable panoply of insufficiently punctuated babble.
That is to say: when Penny Arcade sets a game in the early 1920s, in a deliberately Lovecraftian environment and playing with the Cthulu mythos, sometimes things get a bit long-winded. Occasionally the deliberately obscure speech is amusing; more often, though, I found it tiresome. The humor is at its cleverest not when Tycho is running his mouth, but rather, in the monster descriptions and their skills. A horde of hat-wearing spiders could cast "Hat-Based Economy" to heal, which gave me a good laugh. "Baton Rogue," a mutated sort of police officer, was a particular favorite enemy of mine. And while I really loathe the damn animate typewriters (they cause me no end of trouble in fights), I love that the skill they use ruthlessly to destroy my party is "Infinite Monkeys."
In general, On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Episode 3 is a really solid example of early 1990s console RPG design. The problems with early 1990s game design, though, also come along with. And those problems, I am not proud to admit, have been driving me absolutely crazy for twenty years.
There came a point in Chapter 6 where I had been fruitlessly fighting the same battle for quite a while. It wasn't a boss fight; it was a map monster. I had adjusted my tactics with every failure. I had carefully swapped out party members' secondary and tertiary classes, to build good combinations. And yet that fight and I were at a stalemate. The ninth or tenth time, I almost had it, before my last two standing party members were suddenly one-shotted.
Right about then is when I very suddenly got up from the PC, slammed my headphones angrily onto the desk, and shouted, "I hate this game and want to light it on fire."
After pacing around the living room for a few minutes in a vain attempt to calm down (and kicking a few throw pillows), I went back to working on chapter 6. Another hour's worth of intense swearing and complete failure to progress followed.
The next day I came back to it, and managed, on that day's fourth try, to finish that fight once and for all. After another 90 minutes of play, I ran into another fight that, seven tries in, had more or less sapped my will to live. Or at least to review games for a living.
The review version of the game did not include the ability to change the difficulty on a game in progress. Nor, in fact, could I change any other options without first quitting my game in progress and reverting to the main menu. Volume, key mapping, windowed mode, and all the rest were locked in from launch. I asked Zeboyd about these settings, and they told me that the launch version of the game would in fact allow players to change the difficulty setting on a game already in progress, without starting over from scratch. So people who aren't me, if they find themselves boxed in to one of those "hung jury" sort of perpetual stalemates, can at least knock the difficulty down for a minute before trying again.
So yes. I did threaten to set the game on fire. But the fault there is not the game's; it is mine. The pacing is a little off, and the placement of unnecessarily challenging obstacles breaks up progress that might otherwise be pleasant. The thing is, that kind of stuff is why I hated JRPGs in the 1990s, too. It's not really any wrongdoing or poor design on Zeboyd's part, and it has nothing to do with the content of Rain-Slick Precipice itself.
The game is a faithful re-creation of a long-gone era in video games that many, many players look back on with a fond nostalgia. If you enjoy (or don't mind) the Penny Arcade sense of humor, and you're aching to reclaim that SNES feel, this five-dollar game is a pretty good way to do it.