Regular readers will recall my review of the first installment of Penny Arcade Adventures was mixed; although the game was generally funny, the user interface was godawful and some bass-ackwards achievement implementation made finishing the game a tedious chore.
Penny Arcade Episode 2 fixes pretty much all of those problems, leaving the competent and genuinely entertaining core of the game to shine through.
First up, Penny Arcade is about murdering things. Last time around it was mimes and hoboes; in Episode 2 you'll get to go at it with crazy people and the obscenely wealthy. You wander from place to place and proceed to get your murder on with pretty much everyone you come across; in between all the good-times-killin' you can go searching for funny in the nearby scenery, and have hilarious dialogues with those few NPCs you come across who are non-murderable.
Being, theoretically, an RPG, levelling up is an important part of the mixture. If you've played Episode 1 you can import your level 15 character from that game, or if you're a newbie you can start afresh with a two-level penalty. Episode 2 takes you through to level 30, and replaces your boring old Episode 1 weapons with a new set of slaughtering tools, which are again fully upgradeable.
Surprisingly, the story actually begins to gather some steam in this episode. Two of the major villains are tied quite personally to your party members. This simple bit of character development does a lot to make things more immediate and relevant, and gives you a good reason to want to come back for the next round of goon-murdering.
Penny Arcade's real-time combat system is its biggest (read: only) innovation, and it's also its biggest problem. Once combat begins, it continues non-stop; while you're searching item menus for healing goodies, the bad guys are stabbing you. Minimising damage, and for that matter not getting killed by even the wimpiest of villains, requires blocking, which is done via button presses timed to your enemies' attacks. Your attacks also activate reaction-based minigames for maximising your kidney-punching. All that reactioneering makes combat stressful, attention-demanding, and occasionally frustrating. It's probably for the best, though, as without this gimmick it would be painfully dull.
The battling is better in Episode 2 than it was before, though. You now get an on-screen indication of when you'll need to block. Your attack minigames are more entertaining as well. There's adjustable difficulty settings; "normal" difficulty seemed to me a little more forgiving than last time around, as I was able to make it from start to finish without seeing any of my characters knocked out.
Episode 2 is a lot more colourful than last time around. And I mean that as a metaphor for "foul-mouthed". The language in Episode 1 may have been reasonably restrained, but the dialogue here goes off the hook, starting with your basic healing item, which "fucks pain up the ass", and continuing uphill. This is a great thing as it makes the proceedings feel a lot more like genuine Penny Arcade but if you're of a sensitive disposition you should probably avert your eyes for the entire length of the game.
For XBox 360 owners, the gamerpoint system is much better. Last time around the achievements asked you to play the game against the grain and do things contrary to the way they were intended. That's all out the door this time, and instead the achievements encourage you to build skill and finesse, with focus on things such as timing perfect blocks. It's fairly easy to pick up all 12 in a single playthrough. This is a great example of using achievements to enrich the core gaming experience.
The weakest point of this episode is the final boss battle; in the grand tradition of other really bad boss battles over time, developer Hothead has opted for a final fight which features unique and poorly-explained game mechanics. This was the only point in the game where I had to go looking for hints, and it was exactly the point where I least wanted the game flow to be broken. Once again, developers, unique mechanics on the last level is a stupid idea.
All told, Episode 2 is a vast improvement over Episode 1. If you tried the first offering and were undecided, Episode 2 offers a great reason to come back for a second taste. However, there's nothing here that makes the series more accessible than it was before, so if you're not a Penny Arcade fan or you really hated the Episode 1 then this is still not the game the for you.