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Penny Arcade Adventures Episode One

Lock up your fruit

Deep breath: Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode One - inhale - is the four-hour first chapter of the webcomic's top-down episodic 1920s gothic adventure game tie-in. You may now breathe normally.

If you spend your life mocking games, as Penny Arcade's heroes and creators notionally do, making one of your own might be seen as a little bold. And if the vehicle of your mockery lures in a readership of around two million gamers a day, as Penny Arcade does, the quality of the game you make is kind of a big deal.

So Jerry Holkins (Tycho) and Mike Krahulik (Gabe) are professional stone-throwers building, if not a glass house, then at the very least a sort of peanut brittle pagoda. In fact, shortly after I wrote that very sentence, Penny Arcade and co-creators Hothead Games launched their very own digital publishing outfit and chose to call it 'Greenhouse'. Analogies are validating in real-time here at PC Gamer.

In Episode One, your character cavorts around with Depression-era versions of the Penny Arcade pair shadowing you like dogs - or shadows. There are puzzles to solve, mercifully never involving combining items or scouring for clickable hotspots. Words to be said, using simple dialogue screens illustrated with Gabe's excellent character art. And many, many homeless people to kill, via the not-quite turn-based combat.

Twelve-word review: the puzzles are fine, the dialogue is great and the combat tedious. The division of your playing time between those three exploits is roughly 40%-20%-40%, so the mathematics don't churn out an overwhelmingly favourable figure. But cold calculations can't account for the nerdy glee of embarking on a pseudo-Lovecraftian adventure with that guy who likes dice and that guy who likes Pac-Man.

The webcomic is funny, three times a week, and has been since the beginning of time. It has also developed artistically from basic sketchings to a sumptuous and elegantly expressive strip. Moreover, it contains many swears.

These three powerful boons have survived the change to game-form mostly unmarred, since the artist and author of the strip are also the artist and author of the game. (Respectively, as seems only wise.) The reason for the word 'mostly' is Episode One's 3D character models. Most of the game is played in 3D, roaming stylised environs with the comic's heroes at your side, but the posse are pretty grotesque.

The game gets away with it, though, through a Machiavellian alignment of steep camera
angles, oppressive gloom and voluminous hairstyles. It can't entirely conceal Gabe's plastic-toy face, Tycho's improbably bowed legs or Annarchy's doll-like rigidity, but it does prevent them becoming too problematic. The backdrops and 2D art used in conversations and cutscenes are splendid. Even the ingenious rendering of your own character is striking.

Zoom

You play a bespoke third wheel to Gabe and Tycho's occult-investigating partnership, and the game does a remarkable job of arranging your Frankensteinian choice of features into expressions of surprise, delight and horror.
Rightly pleased with this system, developers Hothead have gone a little too far with it: every character's expression changes after every line of dialogue - which is to say, 50 times a minute.

This is sort of fun in the case of your own oddball bonce, but it frequently violates Tycho's laconic cool or Gabe's belligerent indifference. Picture them both truly aghast when you ask if they're assholes - it's somehow all shades of wrong. Aside from this, Jonathan Gabriel and Tycho Brahe are entertaining companions. It's not clear why you, a stranger who runs into them on the street, are in charge of the gang, but there's a spoddish fanboy thrill to seeing a character of your own design interact with them.

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