PAX: Penny Arcade Adventures Bares Its Naked Inspiration «

 When television shows go on hiatus, they frequently return to the airwaves with a storyline that reflects the passage of time. The protagonists of Penny Arcade, on the other hand, make a point to mention the fact that the four years that have elapsed between 2008’s Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Episode 2 and the upcoming Episode 3 amounts, in-game, to all of a week. Comparing the two episodes, though, you’d be forgiven for thinking Episode 3 actually shattered the limitations of linear time and came out years before Episode 2 — about 15 years before, to be precise. Where the first two installments of Penny Arcade’s game series were contemporary-looking 3D adventures by Hothead Games, Episode 3 leaps backward three hardware generations to resemble a 16-bit RPG.

Specifically, Precipice 3 looks an awful lot like Final Fantasy VI (the Super NES RPG originally released in the U.S., as you well know, under the name Final Fantasy III). Is it a strange regression, technologically speaking? Sure. But just as Mega Man 9 dialed back its appearance a couple of hardware generations from its predecessor to get to the essence of what made classic Mega Man games so good, Penny Arcade specifically selected Zeboyd Games (Cthulhu Saves the World, Breath of Death VII) as the developer of Precipice 3 because they do fake-retro RPGs with style.

And ultimately, within Penny Arcade Adventures has always beaten the heart of a Super NES Final Fantasy game. Jerry Holkins, who writes both the comic and the bulk of the games, has said as much: Despite the first two episodes presenting themselves as graphical adventures, their combat systems were drawn directly from classic 16-bit RPGs. All Zeboyd has done is strip away the patina of modernity and revealed the stalwart design inspiration beneath the shiny polygonal shell.

This is not to say that Precipice 3 is simply a Final Fantasy VI clone. On the contrary, it bundles together elements and inspiration from several awesome classic RPGs (once again proving the old maxim that if you’re going to steal, steal from the best). Jump back a few years from Final Fantasy VI and you get the Job system from Final Fantasy V, a variant of which appears here. While the original FFV approach allowed players to level up individual roles separately and incorporate a limited number of learned skills from other jobs to as a supplement to a character’s current job, Precipice 3 instead allows players to have several jobs active at once. Each character enjoys a unique base class (for example, Gabe’s role is Brute, a physical-combat-focused class) and can also make use of approximately a dozen other roles available to everyone. However, these skills are unlocked at the very end of the PAX East floor demo, so their actual mechanics remain a mystery for the moment.

Precipice 3 also incorporates an unconventional magic/skill system reminiscent of Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, and Skies of Arcadia. Each character begins combat with no magic points and accumulates a single point per turn (or possibly more, with the proper accessories equipped). That means skills that cost a single point can be cast freely each round, while more expensive abilities — including both of the healing spells available in the demo — have to be used more sparingly.

Finally, the combat system itself is heavily inspired by that of Grandia: Character actions are depicted on a timeline at the top of the screen but don’t advance in real time. Rather, you manually advance actions to the next turn and input commands. A character’s speed determines the frequency of his, her, or its turns, and special abilities take longer to execute (meaning that, as an on-screen tutorial prompt explains, you’ll probably want to defend when a boss’ action takes unusually long to arrive, since they’re probably about to unleash a super-attack). Battles in the demo are fairly standard affairs, though there are no random encounters, and the demo boss’ super-attack was enough to kill all but Gabe (who had acquired a weapon that boosted his hit points) in a single hit. Naturally, the nature of the enemies ranges between bizarre and groan-worthy punning (e.g. a boss mime named Optimus Mime), and the game dialogue is as witty as you’d expect.

Oh, and the world map is simply a point-by-point pathway straight from Super Mario Bros. 3 rather than an actual world to roam freely. So in that sense, at least, it’s a completely modern-day RPG.


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