A Rain-Slick Premiere

Penny Arcade Adventures goes where no webcomic has gone before

Back in the halcyon days of 1998, artist Mike "Gabe" Krahulik and Jerry "Tycho" Holkins jumped into the nascent field of webcomics with Penny Arcade. Its humor, a kind of surrealistic Seinfeld for the Internet generation, asked what the deal was with these load times in a bitingly witty tone. The online strip quickly caught on with game-savvy readers in an age when Internet humor was still largely uncharted territory. Since then, Krahulik and Holkins have amassed something of a following, boasting over two million daily pageviews for their thrice-weekly comic updates and accompanying blog posts.

Consequently, Penny Arcade has become a phenomenon unto itself, spawning lines of merchandise, promotional artwork for nearly a dozen game releases, a collectible card game, a largely gamer-funded charity devoted to organizing toy drives for children's hospitals, and a yearly three-day gaming convention which has become the de facto successor to the invitation-only E3 convention—as well as enough imitators to make "two guys who like gaming" its own webcomic subgenre.

It comes as little surprise, then, to see the chickens finally come home to roost. After two years of development, Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode One, Krahulik and Holkins' collaboration with neophyte developer Hothead Games, has been released to throngs of fans hungry to see how well the PA team does on the other side.

Rain-Slick is essentially a continuation of the same formula that has brought Penny Arcade success. Gabe and Tycho have become the Kings Midas of gaming humor, and Rain-Slick is, if anything, a perfect microcosm of their own continuity. It's a bite-sized morsel that simultaneously coats everything it touches with both sarcastic send-ups and fanboyish praise.

Like DC's Elseworlds or Marvel's What If? comics, Rain-Slick adds a serving of Somewhere Else to established Penny Arcade elements. The comic's "vaguely now" timeline has been replaced with 1920s-era New Arcadia, a sardonically post-modern pastiche of every Lovecraftian overtone ever set to print. It's the kind of place in which any kind of nonsensical horror from beyond sanity can safely be assumed to exist, as long as it evokes at least a bemused snort from the audience. Cannibalistic feral hobos? Rain-Slick has them. Apocalyptic mime cult? Rain-Slick goes so far as to have a backstory for their world-devouring doom-god.

After some light tweaking in Rain-Slick's character creator, your avatar is thrust into this comic gravitas-laden landscape after your idyllic suburban life is stomped flat by a towering steampunk deus ex machina whose name cannot be said here. It's a railroading exposition, but like practically every element of Rain-Slick's humor, it's smirkingly self-aware.

What follows is a light-hearted romp through a dark-hearted theme. Joined by Gabe and Tycho's New Arcadian incarnations, players embark on a quest that quickly becomes larger in scope than a simple hunt for a juice maker with a penchant for property damage. Rain-Slick is a stylish RPG hybrid. Battles are active turn-based things given a hint of liveliness through quick-time events, and the world itself is a stylistic creation that lends itself to a Mario-esque suspension of disbelief, which its nonchalant disregard for the demands of normality. The best description of the phenomenon comes from Tycho's own flippant introspection: "We like evil tombs," he admits without remorse. "I don't know how else to say it."

The game, of course, is not without flaws. Most of these can be chalked up to the nature of the beast. In this day and age, one can only do so much with a file size constrained by download speeds (and, in the case of the Xbox Live version, Microsoft's own size caps). The game itself is a more of a hefty snack than a full meal. While bigger companies have offered less content at a higher price point, Rain-Slick's $20 price tag may prove itself an obstacle between it and frugal consumers. It's light on bells and whistles—frills like customization options, collectables, and useable items are by no means nonexistent, but the selection is a bit Spartan.

More than any of this, though, the stigma associated with the "Episodic Content" label might be the game's biggest sticking point. In theory, releasing smaller, interconnected games at a lower price should allow developers to maintain a constant output level without the stresses involved with releasing epic-scale titles interfering with the quality of their work. The results, however, have been a mixed bag. While some series have by and large been able to maintain constant output and quality levels, some high-profile titles (I'm looking at you, Half-Life 2) have been bogged down by the same problems that episodic releases are meant to avoid. Rain-Slick's collaborators seem confident that their end-user experience will lean toward the former. As this is the first game in years to actually incite a laugh from me, I'm hoping they're right.