This game with an exceedingly long title is the first in a hopefully continuing series of games set in the Penny Arcade universe. It was released on multiple distribution services including the PSN network and Xbox Live in May 2008. Much ado was made about the $20 price tag due to the title's length. I didn't really consider this, as a game is really only worth what someone is willing to pay. Gameplay and fun doesn't even enter into it. How else can you explain the value of the Zelda games on the CD-i?
Episode I blends elements of classic 2D RPG's such as Super Mario RPG with the search and find gameplay of old-school adventure games. All this is topped off with the hilarious and often surreal humor of Penny Arcade present throughout.
The story begins with a nondescript character (mostly because you can design him or her in quite a variety of ways) raking leaves in their front yard. Suddenly a giant robot known as the Fruit Fucker Prime demolishes your house with one step. Just as the dust settles, you see the two protagonists of Penny Arcade, Tycho Erasmus Brahe and Jonathan Gabriel in steady pursuit. For some reason, they recruit you and your oddly lethal raking skills to join their quest to stop the giant robot. On the way you'll encounter hobos, mimes, and lots of other weird and amusing people.
Penny Arcade's graphics are pseudo 2D for battles and 3D for navigation, creating a nice visual mixture that goes well with the art style of Neo Arcadia set in the 1920's. The game has a look all its own. My favorite parts are the various facial expressions that the characters take in response to conversation, sometimes amongst each other. There are only a few different kinds of enemies, so they are colorful in presentation and personality. My favorite is the killer clowns that honk and flip you off as they die. Funny shit!
The music is similar to the graphics in its ability to create a mood. The battle music and its many variations all work rather well at keeping you energized throughout confrontations. The other pieces of music are suitably lower in tone, well suited for times of calm in the game, what few that there are. There are many ominous themes that evoke feelings of unease, like you know something strange is just about to happen in the next panel. Aside from urine obsessed doctors and other occurrences.
As this game is a turn based RPG, its gameplay takes its cues from many of the finer games in the genre. Player attacks, enemies attack, repeat until the end of the battle. All 3 characters also have special attacks that revolve around mini games, be it tap the correct D-pad direction in time or hit a button in the right time window for extra damage. I enjoyed these little games and it really served well to keep monotony from setting in during battles. That and the humorous looking enemies. The mechanics of the special attacks are a little odd, as the only way to activate them is to wait for the bar to fill up, and this only happens with time. No items, no limit bars, no nothing. Dirt simple. These specials can also be modified by saving two or three characters for a team special, which yields much greater damage.
Aside from the obvious, there is the dodging mechanic, which is activating by pressing the Right Trigger button at the right time. This differs naturally depending on which system you are playing the game on. All enemy damage can be lessened by slightly blocking for reduced damage, blocking completely for no damage or perfect timing leading to a counterattack. This mechanic is worth mastering, as healing is pretty limited in Penny Arcade Adventures. There are no spells for healing, only damage.
Aside from the RPG battle system, the rest of the game plays like a classic adventure game in which you must complete missions, which usually consists of finding person X or getting item Y for person X. It is very simple to be sure, but the humor present through really made me want to continue playing, just waiting for the next brilliant bit of dialogue.
The game's challenge is up to the player's skill at learning how to use the blocking system. Even though the healing items are limited, they can be acquired very easily, either though battle or smashing crates and reentering the area until you are maxed out. The difficulty ramps up for boss fights as the timing of their attacks can be difficult to figure out. Combined with stat lowering side effects, success often requires the player to keep a sharp eye on their character's life and stats. Hmm, just like an RPG...
Penny Arcade Adventures Episode I's replay is limiting. You can't really impose handicaps on the characters, as each only has one weapon and one type of special attack. Avoiding upgrading weapons or single characters would be reaching, and possibly too hard to complete. Don't ask me, as I don't believe in handicapped runs in most games. They seem to be more frustrating than fun.
In conclusion, Penny Arcade Episode I is a delightful and fun RPG and adventure game. I was only a bit familiar with the PA characters before playing this game, though it did encourage me to read the whole webcomic series. While it is true that Penny Arcade fans will get the biggest kick of this game, I think anyone looking for an homage to classic genres of the past is sure to enjoy this game.