This game’s acronym is longer than most titles.
This is the third episode of the Penny Arcade Adventures series after a year-long hiatus and a change of developer. Zeboyd Games have taken up the reins (creators of the excellent Cthulhu Saves the World) and switched the game away from modern 3D look and carried on with their retro-but-charming early Final Fantasy style.
For the uninitiated these RPGs have you traverse a kind of overworld (a city in this case) where you can speak to some NPCs and buy new items/gear etc. You then go into dungeons (buildings here… and some dungeons) and fight enemies. Thankfully random battles are (almost) nowhere to be found and you can decide which enemies to take on. You never quite know what you’ll face in a particular battle though as each group is represented by the strongest enemy, and there’s such a variety in this relatively short RPG, you hardly ever spend more than 10-20 minutes fighting the same types. Enemies are just as imaginative as the rest of the game, pitting you against Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’, wizards, zombies and much more. Some of the best moments come from your characters’ comments on foes you’re about to rumble with.
Combat is turn-based with a few extra mechanics like the ability to interrupt the enemies’ turns. You see the progress of each character and timed ability across the top of the screen, when their icon gets to the right they will act. This leads to some interesting strategic playing as you go through, as many enemies cannot be defeated without heavy use of interrupt abilities. Each character can equip a number (don’t want to spoil anything for you) of classes and each class has an almost ridiculous list of abilities which are available to you to use at any time once they are unlocked through levelling. Forget the typical made/rogue/warrior archetypes you’re used to. Here you can choose to be a defence-oriented Crabomancer combined with a shapeshifting Dinomancer and maybe top it off with being a bit of Scholar. Some of the classes definitely seem to be more powerful than others but that’s part of the fun. One of the classes is called ‘Slacker’ and true to its namesake, most of the abilities don’t really get anything done. On the other hand the gardening class seems insanely powerful, able to set up buffs that stack each turn and then start attacking with another class once it’s going.
Everything about PAAOTRSPOD Episode 3 (ridiculous) has been refined down. The game won’t take you long, I got through in around ten hours and there are no side quests to be seen (although there is at least one alternate ending). Levelling is incredibly fast, and each class will level every other battle or so, even the ones you don’t currently have equipped. Your characters get powerful quickly, and you never feel like you’re spending too long in one place. One particularly inventive sequence in a bank shows how skilled Zeboyd are at presenting the best the RPG genre has to offer while cutting out the chaff that plagues the genre. If you’re anything like me and get sick of the grinding and pointless travelling in JRPGs this is definitely worth a look.
The presentation is outstanding. The graphics are simple but it’s easy to see the care and attention that has been lavished on each character and backdrop. The music can get repetitive but is in itself well-done and fitting to the tone of the game. The game uses changes in both the visual style and audio cues in order to explore different aspects of reference to the genre and it really works. Anyone familiar with Zeboyd’s earlier games will find a lot of the same self-aware humour and intertextuality that makes them stand out.
While the game’s mechanics and purity are probably the game’s major strength, the writing is as excellent as you would expect. There’s the typical Penny Arcade humour running through the title’s veins but beneath this is a genuinely interesting story that hits some strong emotional and even philosophical notes. Your party includes a head in a jar, you travel through a dimensional rift in a back alley, and you can completely ignore dire warnings from main characters should you choose. It helps if you’ve played the first two episodes (unfortunately neither of which are anywhere near as accomplished as this) but a quick read up on Wikipedia will probably serve well enough to get you up to date. Thankfully the writing (and the game in general) never slips into the trap of parodying the bad sections of RPGs by imitating them. There are mentions of some of the jankier aspects but they’re exactly that, mentions, and then the game carries on. The pace is fairly astounding for a game of this type; it’s easy to get carried away and find yourself ploughing through the whole game in one or two settings.
The game isn’t without its flaws. At times the combat can get a little repetitive, particularly when you’ve been fighting some of the later enemies for quite a while and then you die just before they do, so you have have to start the whole thing again. Some the monsters have fairly enormous HP pools, while this might not come as a surprise to veterans of JRPGs, it often drags out fights a little longer than it needs to. The item system never really feels important, you find the odd chest but most of your upgrades will come from the shop. This takes away some of the fun of exploration when you’re never really rewarded for it. There’s also a lack of interactivity with many of the environments. Sometimes hitting ‘z’ on a painting or object will give you a little bit of dialogue but this is very hit and miss, often interesting statues and little details will be simply parts of the background and this feels like a missed opportunity. My final gripe is that due to the wide range of monster types, you don’t really get a feel for which spells will work well until you try them. It isn’t as obvious as something like Pokemon with clear intuitive relationships between base types and often ground spells will apparently be super effective with no real reason behind it. This means you often spend the first few turns running through the vast number of attacks just trying to work out what will do some damage. Or you find a strategy that works in most situations and just go through the motions in every fight. I ended up with one strategy for single monsters, one for groups, and one for bosses. This pushed me away from experimentation as the gulf between effective and weak abilities is so huge. There are difficulty levels that could mediate this. I was playing on ‘normal’ and there’s one easier and two more difficult. I imagine on the more difficult settings you would really have to work to figure out how to beat some of the enemies and combinations. Thankfully if you die you don’t go very far back so except for some time wasted in the actual fight, death isn’t too much of a worry.
Overall this title is a success. It’s a fantastic RPG-lite that focuses on the fun rather than simply conforming to conventions. If you’re a Penny Arcade fan, or you liked Zeboyd’s earlier games, or you’ve just always felt that you like the idea behind Final Fantasy-esque RPGs but didn’t want to put up with the tedium that’s often attached, go buy the game. It’s incredibly cheap and it really hits the right notes.
+ Fantastically streamlined mechanics
+ Great writing
+ Good length for a story
– Can be repetitive
– A lack of interactivity
– The looped music will make everyone in your house hate you
The game is available on Steam, Xbox (indie games) and will be coming to mobile devices soon.