Penny Arcade Adventures: Episode Three may be a jarring experience to those that have played the first two. This is the case with Episode Three because the development of these games shifted developers, from Hothead Games to Zeboyd. While Zeyboyd is a smaller development team and clearly does not have as high a budget as Hothead, they are still well known for their work on Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu saves the world. Being a huge fan of those games, I naturally had some high expectations for this game and I was hoping that this game would exceed the quality of both the previous Penny Arcade Adventures installments and Zeyboyd’s previous titles.
Instead, Penny Arcade Adventures: Episode Three is a game that it is good in its own right and is definitely superior to the first Penny Arcade Adventures and Breath of Death, but does not hold a candle to Episode Two or Cthulhu Saves the World. It is hard to really say the game is a step back from Episode Two given that the games are quite a bit different, but in general, it does feel like a step down from the incredible experience that Cthulhu Saves the World offered. In addition, it feels like the game also suffers from simply not having the same budget as the first two Penny Arcade titles. When you add that Episode Three still retains some of the flaws of the earlier entries, you end up with a good game in its own right, but one that felt rather underwhelming.
Despite the major changes that have occurred between Episode Two and Three, the writing style has not changed and the humor is just as great as ever. Zeboyd has successfully managed to stay true to the style of humor used in the previous Penny Arcade Adventures games while still managing to inject some of their own traditional humor into it. Some of these occur through the items and names of enemies having funny descriptions, as well as some clever references to older games. I would probably go as far to say that adding a touch of Zeboyd’s signature humor actually improved the overall experience and made it funnier. Despite this, however, Episode Three still retains one personal gripe I have had with both of the previous games; they take themselves more seriously than they should. In fact, Episode Three is actually even worse about this issue.
While the plots of the first two games are relatively mundane and unexciting, an issue that is far more prevalent with the first title, they at least did follow a coherent narrative. Episode Three, on the other hand, tries too hard to make itself look more exciting that it seems more like a mish-mash of random scenes than an actual plot. By the time I was done with Episode Three, I had no idea what to make of any of the things that just happened. I have not seen an RPG story this utterly insane, disjointed, and poorly told since I played Astonishia Story, and even that game had the excuse of poor localization.
I will try my best to sum up Episode Three’s mind screw of a plot as best as I can. After the events of the first game, the incredibly subtly titled “Necrowombicom” is stolen by Dr. Blood, a character who was an ally in the previous game but Is now an enemy for some reason, and you need to get it back. You are also told that you need to defeat yet another god, which is something that Gabe and Tycho have done twice in the events of the previous two games, for a reason that has something to do with Tycho’s ancestry that I could not quite discern.
Several events in the game just occur at random with no foreshadowing and no explanation given afterwards. There is a moment in the game where it looks like Tycho is about to betray you towards the end of the game before the battle against the ancient god you are supposed to kill, who is not the final boss for some odd reason. Yet after the fight, he is suddenly back to normal and nothing is explained. Also random characters that should be allies have a strange habit of turning on you with no reason given. Do not even get me started on that absolute mind screw of an ending this game has. This just proves why the Penny Arcade games should not try having a serious plot, they end up executing it so poorly that it is either boring or incredibly convoluted. In short, play this game for the humor, not the story.
For players of the first two Penny Arcade Adventures games, the sheer downgrade in graphical quality is something that could potentially be a turn off. In the first two games, I have praised the game for having very good graphics by indie game standards, and not conforming to the Stereotype of using generic, retro, 16 bit style graphics in what is likely an attempt to appeal to nostalgia or save money. Episode Three, on the other hand, uses generic, retro, 16 bit style graphics in what is likely an attempt to appeal to nostalgia and save money. I suppose I should give Zeboyd more credit seeing as how they likely do not have access to the same budget as Hothead, and I do not necessarily think that retro graphics are an inherently bad thing. The graphics in Episode Three are at least a step up from Cthulhu Saves the world by having battles displayed in a 2D Final Fantasy styled system instead of the Dragon Quest system where you cannot see your characters during battle.
The graphics in Penny Arcade Adventures: Episode Three are slightly above RPG Maker standards. Attack animations are ones that you can barely see for more than a second and the enemy models are still images with about two frames of animation. The cutscenes are at least of similar quality to the previous games in that they are basically just text boxes with character portraits. I did not say they were great but there was not that much to them in the original games despite having more detailed character art. As with the story, Episode Three is not about graphics, nor are most indie games in general. So I will not hold the graphical downgrade against the game too much. I will admit that Episode Three does still do its job well enough for you to understand what the game is trying to tell you, and retro style graphics may appeal to some in an artistic sense. Just do not expect too much from this game in terms of technological prowess.
The music, on the other hand, is a serious improvement from the first two games. While the songs themselves may sound a bit more chiptune-esque when compared to the first two games, the game offers a much greater variety of songs and does away with the frequent silence of the first two games. The main battle theme in Episode Three is incredibly catchy and is one that makes random battles a lot more enjoyable. The boss battle theme is catchy as well and manages to be threatening without sounding overly bombastic. The Final boss theme and the song for the battle before that attempt to emulate the orchestral style of a lot of other JRPGs. The result may vary depending on some people. While they do not sound as threatening as if they were of higher sound quality, the chiptune aspect does succeed at making them sound more unique. The rest of the music is effective at conveying the mood but you will probably not remember the songs themselves.In terms of sound effects, there really is not much other than stock RPG sound effects, a lot of which seem to be used at random. The sound effect for several attack skills is the same as healing spells for instance. There is also no voice acting in this game, unlike the previous two, but that is to be expected with this game.
The battle mechanics, despite being changed from the previous games, are still a strong point with this game and do still have some similarities to the original. Like the first two games, enemies do not re-spawn when you defeat them, which means you cannot level grind. Also like the first game, you can change the difficulty setting at any time you want throughout the game. Unlike the first two games, however, the game seems overly difficult on higher difficulties at certain points, and it felt like it was simply more convenient to set the difficulty back to normal. While I was playing the game, I managed to get about halfway through on the veteran difficulty status until it got to the point where I tried and failed over thirty times on one normal battle and could not beat it no matter what I did. On the normal difficulty, I was able to beat it on my first try. Now I know that it may sound obvious that a higher difficulty makes things more difficult, but it should not be this difficult. The problem is that the game did not keep a consistent balance and I felt myself constantly switching between the two settings until I eventually gave up and had the game set to normal the entire time.
There is a little bit more exploration involved in Episode Three, but it is still a bit too little. The game has added an overworld map, but the map is really just a bunch of dots with connected lines and it really does not add anything to the game. Also the dungeons themselves are very basic in terms of design. Enemies are visible in dungeons and they stay still in one fixed location until you walk up to them and instigate a battle. These enemies are always in the way only to block a path and the only dungeon activity is choosing which path to go, which will not matter seeing as how both paths will lead to the same spot and you could theoretically walk by some enemies without a fight. Of course you will feel the need to fight every battle seeing as how they are of limited quantities.
The problem with the game’s dungeons is that there is nothing to explore. The dungeons are so basic that they would last less than five minutes if it were not from the battles. I never thought that I would say that a game could have benefited random encounters, but apparently there is a first time for everything. Adding random battles would have at least added an element of mystery and tension to the dungeons. The perfect example of how to do this would have been the way it was handled in Zeboyd’s previous games, where you have a fixed number of random encounters. This meant that you still had random encounters, but that you can choose to force random encounters to instigate in order to grind them out until the dungeon itself is empty. This also made things more interesting in Cthulhu Saves the World seeing as how the dungeons were really wide open and had multiple different paths. Episode Three also lacks a sense of risk or conservation involved seeing as how HP and MP restore to max after every battle and you lose all your MP. This makes sense when you are dealing with enemies that are so hard that they might as well be bosses, but due to the sheer amount of enemies that are placed in dungeons, you will get tired of that eventually and turn the difficulty down. Thankfully, the battle mechanics themselves are at least interesting
The battles occur in a turn based fashion comparable to Final Fantasy X, where the order of everyone’s attacks occur based on their speed stat. Also like Final Fantasy X, the attack order is displayed in the upper right screen. Unlike Final Fantasy X, however, the character icons move from left to right, at a certain rate, depending on their speed stat. This makes things annoying because you cannot always predict when an enemy may be faster than one of your characters and will get their turn before you because the enemy’s icon may be further away from the attack point but have a higher speed stat. This becomes especially frustrating during boss battles where bosses tend to have ridiculously high speed stats in comparison to other enemies.
An element of battle that makes things interesting is the way you gain MP. Instead of having a fixed amount of MP at the start of battle, you start the battle with zero MP and gain 1 MP each turn. However, just about every skill you use in the game, other than a regular attack or defending, will cost at least one MP, so you will have to slowly find ways to build it up if you want to use certain attacks. Depending on the battle and the character, you will either always need to be conserving some MP, or you will be using it up nearly every turn. This brings me to another great aspect of Episode Three’s combat system.
The game’s job system provides an interesting amount of potential party setups while making most job classes easily accessible at the same time. First of all, each character will actually have three job classes equipped at once. One of these classes will be the character’s default class, which is fixed and cannot be changed, while the other two can be whichever ones you want. The only limitation to this is that you cannot have more than one of the same class in your party. This may sound incredibly restrictive, but keep in mind that your party of four characters will be made up of twelve job classes. What helps even more is that every job class levels up for every character at the same rate, regardless of whether they are using it, which means you do not need to worry about choosing the wrong class and having to grind another job class up to speed, which would not be possible to begin with. Both the weapon and item setups are also a huge part of the strategy involved in taking down certain battles seeing as how some can provide some very beneficial effects. There is also a system that involves upgrading the effectiveness and the amount of times you can use an item in battle. However, these were not used much throughout the game seeing as how money is limited and you will be spending it mostly on new weapons, but they are definitely useful towards the end of the game.
Penny Arcade Adventures: Episode Three had a lot of unique ideas going for it, but it seems as though it has at least one mistake for every positive it has. Considering that this game is a sequel to a game that, itself, was meant to improve and expand on the ideas of its predecessor, it can feel like the series has not really gone anywhere with an entry that alters the formula. Despite being a successor to both Penny Arcade Adventures: Episode Two and Cthulhu Saves the World, it feels like Episode Three has not expanded upon what made either of those games great and instead tried its own experimental approach. While Penny Arcade Adventures: Episode Three is inferior to Episode Two, it has at least proven to be a better experiment than Episode One did, so hopefully Episode Four will expand on Episode Three’s ideas in the same way Episode Two did with Episode One’s. Regardless, i can still recommend Episode Three due to it’s interesting humor and presentation.
This review was originally posted to GameFAQs February 3rd of 2014 and it has since been re-edited with enhanced presentation.
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