Since 1998, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik have used their webcomic Penny Arcade as a springboard for commentary on the gaming lifestyle and industry. Comic avatars Tycho Brahe and Johnathan 'Gabe' Gabriel celebrate and satirize fandom; now they're jumping the fence to become playable characters. In concert with Hothead Games, Holkins and Krahulik pack their first game with vulgar humor and irreverence, but players outside PA's fan base might question whether hip-thrusting, urinating robots are funny enough to be worth frequent backtracking through four gameplay areas.
When a giant robot crushes the home of a normal citizen, the irritated victim aligns with Gabe and Tycho against hobos, mimes, and dark magic. The story is replete with quips, webcomic references, and non-sequitur gags, many of which seek to obscure the fact that Penny Arcade Adventures: On The Rain-Slick Precipice Of Darkness, Episode One is a series of simple fetch quests strung together by slight exploration.
In action-oriented role-playing games, addictive combat can overcome plot and script shortcomings. Episode One's battle system is inventive, but shallow, as you flick between three party characters and a trio of special attacks while choosing tactics and targets. It's really just a waiting game: All actions "recharge" after a few seconds (for basic attacks) or half a minute (for special moves), so combat is a matter of blocking incoming attacks while preferred techniques recharge. The interface is more daunting than most combat encounters.
Beyond the game: The PC game's point-and-click controls aren't as well-suited to the action as the analog-stick movement and more detailed action icons on the Xbox Live version. (A further Xbox benefit: one achievement has the dubious honor of prodding players to destroy an enemy with a quietly grooming cat.)
Worth playing for: Slick production values, including moody music, animations that admirably replicate the webcomic, and 2D cutscenes that suggest the influence of artists like John Kricfalusi and Mike Mignola.
Frustration sets in when: An inverted difficulty curve makes the first hour more challenging than the last. In spite of an inflated hit-point total, the final boss is a dullard that requires only patience.
Final judgment: A streamlined but only fitfully entertaining role-playing game that requires deeper gameplay and story to justify doubling the standard XBLA price.