Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 4
Five years ago Penny Arcade teamed up with the Canadian indie developer Hothead Games to create an episodic RPG series loosely based on their comic strip. Three years ago the teams parted ways, leaving fans, player-created characters and the future of the series in limbo. Though Jerry Holkins vowed to finish the story for fans in an online-only novella, it seemed hopes for a third and forth game were all but lost: enter Zeboyd Games. One year ago Zeboyd released Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3, simplifying the name (barely) and reimagining the series with their signature retro stylings. Two months ago, the Rain-Slick journey was finally complete.
Players familiar with Zeboyd’s previous catalog (Breath of Death VII, Cthulhu Saves the World, Rain-Slick 3) should have no trouble adapting to the direct nature of Rain-Slick 4. Enemies are visible on screen; combat and travel can be sped up by depressing the shift key; items and health automaically regenerate after every fight. Pretty much all of the mechanics in place are designed to keep the player moving forward, unobstructed.
“Rain-Slick 4 lacks the satisfying progression loop needed for a great RPG”Like the iterations of Rain-Slick from Hothead Games, a large portion of Rain-Slick 4‘s appeal comes from the zany enemy design (and accompanying descriptions), bizzare locales and any number of other irreverant details. All of that is still fun, and on the rare occasion, laugh out loud funny, but both of Zeboyd’s attempts lack the satisfying progression loop needed for a great RPG.
Story exposition, dungeon, combat, boss, town, world map, repeat. That is Rain-Slick 4 broken down to its most basic formula, and in its defense, that loop has been the basis for pretty much every electronic RPG to date. The issue here is combat is the only element of the formula that’s been given much thought, and even then it still isn’t much fun after several hours.
Rain-Slick 4 employs the same Grandia-inspired combat system as last year’s entry. All combat participants, including your team of Pokemon-like monsters and the enemies, appear on a timer. Based on each character’s individual stats their portrait speeds along the timer. Once they hit a certain point you issue a command and then they proceed to Act, which is when they actually perform the action assigned. The beauty of the Grandia combat engine was always the rhythm that emerges from canceling enemy actions and having your own actions canceled. Rain-Slick 4‘s attempt to ape this system is only partially successful.
“Combat is nothing more than holding down the shift key and sticking to your rehearsed routine”One of the staples of Zeboyd’s work so far are enemies that continue to power up as fights play out. This mechanic encourages players to use their best skills and items early and often to finish fights quickly before their adversaries become too powerful. The idea makes perfect sense given their straightforward, no nonsense RPGs, but it works in direct conflict with the simple elegance of Grandia‘s combat engine. In Rain-Slick 4 characters are stationary, so there is none of the spacial concerns that enrich Game Arts’ work. Additionally, enemies do not have interupt actions to use on your party, so you get none of the interesting tug of war that develops. Rain-Slick 4‘s combat is an inevitable march towards someone’s death: either yours or your enemies’. Once you’ve learned which skills are your bread and butter fighting is really nothing more than holding down the shift key to fast-forward attack animations and sticking to your rehearsed routine.
For the most part Rain-Slick 4 is more of the same. The class system of Rain-Slick 3 has been replaced with a not-so-subtle parody of Pokemon, complete with a Team Rocket-like group of bumbling rivals. Some of the monsters you recruit along the way highlight the strengths of the series as a whole, allowing you to command anthropomorphized vending machines or an actual ‘Dust Bunny’. But practically speaking, the monster-based combat is mostly a reskinning of Rain-Slick 3‘s job system, which allowed you to assign certain ‘jobs’ to your characters, granting them profession specific skills. In Rain-Slick 4 your characters are now ‘trainers’, and you assign them to your monsters.
Outside of combat there’s very little meat to the experience. All of the dungeons are linear and progress-gated by mandatory combat; towns only have a handful of NPCs with dialog that consists solely of throwaway humor; you aren’t free to explore the overworld (a series first) until the penultimate chapter. There are lots of clever details and it’s obvious Zeboyd went to a lot of trouble to create a large, whimsical world to explore. The problem is it all feels a bit like 16-bit window dressing: a charming retro aesthetic hiding a largely joyless experience.
Rain-Slick 4 is a satisfying, though not quite enjoyable conclusion to the On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness series. Zeboyd’s understanding of classic role-playing tropes is on full display, as well as their penchant for eccentric creature and world design, but it’s all overshadowed by a game that is not terribly fun. The straightforward progression is perfectly suited for a diet RPG, but the underdeveloped systems and mindless combat bring the breakneck pacing to an exasperating crawl.