Oh the things you never expect. When I finished playing Penny Arcade Adventures: Episode Three, I stated that I hoped that this game improved upon Episode Three the same way Episode Two improved on Episode One. While it is definitely fair to say that Episode Four was an improvement, I simply did not expect one of this magnitude. There are several things regarding this game that I did not expect.
It certainly does not do anything revolutionary nor does it look particularly innovative, but when you actually play it, you realize just how meticulously crafted this game is. Yes it may appear to be another parody of 16-bit era JRPGs, but it is so much more in terms of execution. Not only does it have the signature humor of Zeboyd’s games, but it also has a story that is actually compelling on its own merits. When you add an outstanding soundtrack by Hyperduck Soundworks, the same people behind the soundtrack of Dust: An Elysian Tale, and some of the most addicting and precise battle mechanics in any turn based RPG; you end up with a game that might as well have been made to silence anyone who said these types of games are only made to pander to nostalgia.
While Episodes Two and Three did have their moments, I found the storylines to both of those games to be rather unimpressive, while Episode One was just a bore. There are certainly a lot of aspects to those storylines that made them fall short, but one major aspect that they all shared was constricting linearity and a lack of a believable world. There was very little to see or do in the first three installments and this really made the games feel rather uninspired. All three games took place in the same town and offered very little options to the player. While it is definitely possible to have a decent storyline without a large world, the play styles of the previous games, especially Episode Three, did not lend themselves to a type of storyline that takes place in one town.
One of the aspects that people like the most about RPGs is the feeling of a believable and well developed world. The previous games lacked this due to not just the constricting linearity, but also because the setting of New Arcadia just was not that interesting and there was nothing to get connected to. To add to the flaws of the previous installments, the pacing of the story was abysmal in both the individual installments themselves, and with what happens to them when leading up to the fourth game. The first two games had almost nothing happening in them that contributed to the story arc of the overall series and had plots that felt completely random. Due to very little happening in the first two games, every major plot device that was supposed to build up to Episode Four was shoehorned into Episode Three and they all occurred in the most chaotic and confusing manner possible. In short, Episodes One and Two had very little connections to Episode Four and Episode Three exists only for the purpose of building up to Episode Four.
Thankfully you do not need to have any experience with the previous three games in order to fully understand what happens in Episode Four. In fact, Episode Four feels more like its own game than an installment of a series. I would even go as far as to say that it felt like Episodes One through Three were more comparable to installments made after a successful game to expand upon very loosely related plot points. For example, think of how convoluted the Kingdom Hearts storyline has become. The series has released more side installments and prequels than actual new games that advance the overall story arc, or so I have been told at least. Now think of that, except in reverse where the first three games feel like they were made solely for the point of building up to this one game in a story standpoint. This easily emphasizes the contrast with just how much better the storyline of Episode Four is. Despite the game not being much longer than the first three, it felt like a lot more has happened.
The intro to Episode Four starts out by explaining all the plot elements of Episode Three in two minutes, better than Episode Three did over the course of an entire game. As a result, it is not even necessary to play Episode Three to understand Episode Four from a plot perspective because Episode Four explains it better. In Episode Three, the major plot events seemed to occur at a rapid fire rate with very little explanation as to what any of these things even meant. Episode Four manages to explain these things in a simple manner that one would understand whether they played the previous game or are starting with Episode Four.
The game takes place after the events of Episode Three where, to put it bluntly, the apocalypse has occurred and the remaining population of the world has gone to hell. The game takes place in the “underhell” which is basically the lower region of hell, which still has small colonies of civilization formed. However, it is stated that these civilizations will not be able to sustain themselves for long and will eventually collapse. The cast members from Episode Three are split off from each other at the start of the game and a lot of the game is spent switching between the perspectives of each character.
Unlike in most other RPGs where you are trying to prevent the end of the world, you are actually trying to do the opposite in Episode Four. Seeing as how he cannot prevent the end of the world, Tycho Brahe instead tries to make sure he could create a more peaceful world by essentially using his niece, Anne Claire, as a sacrifice so that her pure being will be implemented into the new universe. The only problem preventing Tycho from carrying out his plan is that one of the four gods is still alive and the new world cannot be created unless that last god is killed.
One thing to talk about is the way that Episode Four handles the signature humor of the series. Episode Four follows Episode Three’s tradition of using clever ways of poking fun at RPG tropes and even implementing them into the story as a way of getting a laugh out of the player. In addition to the usual amusing enemy and weapon descriptions, there are random chests that you sometimes seem to find that contain nothing in them that the game’s text displays confusion over when it occurs. There was also a moment where an earthquake apparently causes an error which sets the game’s default language to Japanese and then the following plot dialogue is then done in a humorous parody of poor JRPG translations as a result of the auto-translate feature. The game does a good job at seamlessly injecting the humor into the plot without the main plot itself suffering. While the overall plot is darker and more serious than that of Breath of Death or Cthulhu Saves the World, the humor is still just as funny as always.
Like with Episode Three, the graphics of Episode Four are done in the style of a 16-bit JRPG and resemble SNES JRPGs such as Final Fantasy IV-VI. In my review of Episode Three, I criticized this decision by pointing out how commonplace it is for indie RPGs to use this style and that it is jarring after coming from the first two games which had amazing graphics by indie standards. However, I did mention that it was a bit unfair to criticize Zeboyd for such a thing seeing as how they are a lower budget company, and that a retro aesthetic can still get the game’s feeling across. In Episode Four, this criticism still stands as there really was not much changed aside from the addition of an actual world map instead of a bunch of dots on a line.
However, I will give Episode Four credit in that the world of the underhell is expressed just a bit better than in Episode Three despite the graphics not actually being of higher quality. The game does a really nice job of providing the atmosphere of a desolate world very well, similar to the world of Ruin from Final Fantasy VI. I also thought that the look of some dungeons were just brilliant. The final Dungeon especially comes to mind with its frightening look of the inside of a god where you can see several mouths with sharp teeth that pop out of the ground and the red hue looks really creepy. The battleground was especially great as well with the image of a war zone with injured, wounded, and bloody corpses sprawled across the battlefield in addition to all the guns and military equipment. Thankfully, the game does not go overboard with these things and it does not try too hard to freak you out. It instead knows the right moderation for these things and sticks with it. Overall, Episode Four may not look better than Episode Three, but there is much more to appreciate.
While the soundtrack for Episode Three was a notable improvement over the first two games and was generally good overall, it does not even compare to the stupendously superb job that Hyperduck did on this game’s soundtrack. When I first started this game up and heard the title theme, I literally said to myself, “I love this game already.” Every song in this game successfully manages to evoke some emotion and, despite the fact that some could sound similar, they all have their own distinct feel and express their own appropriate emotions. What I like most about the soundtrack is that it feels like there was a distinct effort put into every track, and each one happens to have a specific touch that makes it stand out more. There is not a single track in Episode Four that was not amazing.
Saying that the gameplay of Episode Four was an improvement over Episode Three would be an understatement. While Episode Three certainly had an interesting concept with its idea of having only a finite number of enemies and having every battle being fixed, its execution was rather faulty considering the lack of proper balance which made battles late in the game near impossible on higher difficulties, yet pitifully easy on lower settings. As a result, battles stopped being interesting about halfway through the game due to the game being incredibly repetitive on normal yet near impossible on veteran. Episode Four, on the other hand, not only manages to keep a consistent balance on the veteran setting, but it even goes so far to make every single random battle feel unique and interesting. This is something that no other RPG I have played has accomplished, especially not any turn based ones.
In order to get through the enemies on the veteran setting, you will need to take advantage of every unique strategy and come up with several creative solutions in taking them down. A lot of times, normal random battles can feel as intense as most boss fights are in any other turn based RPG, possibly even more so seeing as how some games do not require any other strategy other than damage or healing. I am not even just referring to the average RPG here; some of the greatest JRPGs ever made have not accomplished this. Final Fantasy IV, VI, and VII, for example, had no strategy in boss battles outside of damage and healing. Chrono Trigger was basically the same deal. Even with some more recent games, the battle systems themselves are more complex and engaging, but even then you generally follow the same formula.
Now I want to make it clear that I do not think any less of the previously mentioned games for that aspect. In fact, before playing this game, I did not think it would be possible to structure a game this well. I was seriously impressed by all the ways that they managed to set these things up. Throughout the 30 hours I put into this game, very few battles did not feel unique and, way up until the end of the game, I still needed to use a lot of different ideas to effectively take down enemies. Of the sixteen or so party members you got throughout this game, I needed to look over their abilities and take advantage of nearly every single one of them at some point. For comparison, most RPGs I have played that have such a party system are ones where I get used to one specific party for most of the game that I proceed to use for the rest of the game. In Episode Four, you will only be able to use the same party for so long until you need to makes some alterations to your set up, and you will need to do this rather often. These things could include simply choosing what monsters to use, what your current equipment is, or the level your items are upgraded to.
The formation of enemies is not even the only thing that keeps the battles fresh though. For a lot of battles, there are special conditions that may occur for each battle that can be either beneficial or negative. Some of these may be things such as increasing the effectiveness of certain elements, or effecting the regeneration of MP. The main point of these is that it screws with the rules of normal combat and forces you to adjust to these changes in order to proceed. Some of the boss battles are especially notable in the creative techniques you will need to use to take them down. Some involve messing with the turn order so that the boss doesn’t get its turn, some involve trying to save MP up in order to take off huge chunks of damage from the very strong but very expensive abilities, some involve needing to use certain items, some need you to take advantage of certain elemental weaknesses, etc.
The amount of meticulous planning that went into each and every random battle in this game is mind boggling. I have no idea how something could have been tested so thoroughly that every single random encounter feels like an accomplishment. The unfortunate thing about this though is that the genius of this system will fly over the heads of most players. Most will choose to either play on normal, or possibly even easy, and fail to see just how well crafted this game is. The game itself does, thankfully, still let you switch between difficulty settings, and there were still a few times where I switched to the normal setting for a few particularly tough boss battles. However, what separates this from Episode Three is that these boss battles were still no pushovers on normal, unlike in Episode Three where they were. It is also important to remember that you cannot simply grind your way to victory seeing as how enemies do not respawn. However, it is still highly recommended that you play this game on the veteran status. Here you can see just how tricky it is to take down each foe and you will notice just how satisfying it feels to beat them.
As for what the battle mechanics themselves entail, you control monsters in battle instead of the main characters themselves due to the demons of hell being too powerful for mere mortals to handle, except for Tycho of course. In addition to their own moves, each monster can also have a specific trainer character equipped which gives them access to abilities of that trainer. Also in addition to the abilities of the trainer, the monster’s stat boosts are affected depending on the trainer that is equipped.
Like with Episode Three, you do not have an MP stat in Episode Four. Instead, you start out with 0 MP and gain one each turn. Also like Episode Three, MP you have at the end of battle does not carry over into the next one, so you do not need to worry about being conservative with MP. While this was one of the better features of Episode Three’s combat system, it ultimately feels more fleshed out seeing as how the game simply has better balance. Also they removed the abusive “energite” item which automatically gave you MP when used. The closest thing you have is a spell that will add an extra MP at the cost of your turn, or a piece of equipment that starts you out with one MP.
Also the turn order aspect has been improved in Episode Four as well. Unlike Episode Three, there are not nearly as many points where turn order becomes difficult to discern due to the way they are displayed in the upper right hand corner and the icons moving along the line faster. Granted it still works the same way in Episode Four, but it generally feels like it is easier to predict and take advantage of. The only complaint I have is that there is only one boss in the game where having knowledge of this mechanic is necessary and it is an optional, end game boss.
The dungeons are much more open and more exploration is encouraged in Episode Four, which is a step up from Episode Three where the dungeons were a series of split paths packed with random battles. Zeboyd thankfully knew to take a more moderate approach with the amount of enemies in this game. While there are some light puzzle elements in some dungeons, most dungeons are ones where you basically just try to explore the area and see if you can find any treasures that the game tries to slip past you. This approach may be simple, but it is also very effective and makes the dungeons in Episode Four fun to go through. It is also easy to appreciate the lack of random encounters as opposed to Episode Three where random encounters would have actually been a better choice.
Perhaps the simple biggest improvement that Episode Four had over not just Episode Three, but the first two games as well is that it simply has a much more interesting world to explore. The simple addition of an explorable overworld map and towns just makes this game much more fun and exciting. The simple fact that it includes optional dungeons that are there just to explore instead of needing to be there for the plot. The thing about half the dungeons and bosses in Episode Four, is that you could walk right past them if you wanted to; but you will not want to skip over them. The game is just too fun on its own to not try and get everything out of it. I found myself trying to explore every inch of the game’s world map as soon as I got the obligatory airship-equivalent. Despite the fact that some of these optional bosses were difficult enough to make me change the difficulty setting to normal, and that I could have simply choose to go straight to the final dungeon, I did not, and I went after every last bit of content this game has. The best part about that content is that none of it feels out of place or like it was put there to pad out the game, and nothing tells you to do these things. It simply relies on you wanting to do them, and that is all you will need.
It is almost ironic that I have criticized indie RPGs in the past for relying too much on a retro aesthetic to appeal to nostalgia, yet I am praising a game that looks just like those games and technically does not rely on too much innovation. Penny Arcade Adventures: Episode Four does not have any revolutionary gameplay innovations, nor does it have a lavishly expensive budget. It does not have hundreds of hours of content nor does it tell a mind blowing story. The simple thing that Penny Arcade Adventures does to deserve my highest praise, is that it does everything right. If you asked me to name a major flaw with the gameplay of this game, it would take me a while to think of one. Hell I find myself struggling to come up with anything negative to say to begin with. Sure I can talk about things it does not do and I can criticize it for not being any of the above things, but that is what makes this game great in the first place.
While large budget games may have a lot of aspects to flaunt, it should also be known that a high budget makes it all the more difficult to get every little thing right. Getting as much right as Penny Arcade Adventures: Episode Four did is hard even in a simplistic game, let alone a higher budget one. People say that indie gaming is often the savior of gaming because they try and create more innovative concepts than the big budget games that just need fancy graphics. That, however, is not true simply because indie games tend to also try certain tricks to get their games to sell and they cannot always afford to make their vision come true. So many indie games try to make some type of artistic statement or do something new and innovative, yet so few of them actually end up accomplishing such a thing and are remembered after they get their fifteen minutes of fame due to the gaming industry and media being obsessed with proving that games can be art. Penny Arcade Adventures: Episode Four tries to do very little yet accomplishes so much because it simply focuses on being a good game, and it succeeds in nearly every way.
Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode Four costs $5.00 on Steam, yet I would still feel safe recommending this game for $50.00. (Update: It actually costs $2.00 now and you can get it bundled with Episode Three for $3.00, so there is even less of a reason not to play this one) There are just not enough good things I can say about this game. It is a shame that it will be overlooked due to the fact that it does not look like much on the surface and technically not everyone will be able to see the subtle brilliance of this game. However, I can guarantee you will enjoy this game if you even remotely enjoy turn based RPGs, and that right there, is why I feel comfortable giving this game a perfect score.
This review was originally posted to GameFAQs on February 12th of 2014 and has since been updated with enhanced presentation. You can read my reviews one week before they are posted on Guardian Acorn if you pledge $1.00 or more to my Patreon account. New reviews are posted every Monday. You can also follow this blog if you would like to be kept up to date on my stuff, or you could follow me on any of my social media pages (listed at the bottom of the page) and could stop by The Guardian Acorn Discord chat if you would like to talk to me and my homies.