It’s an ironic shame that On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 4 concludes the story of paranormal detectives Tycho and Gabriel just as it’s about to cross from being a comic homage to 16-bit Final Fantasy games of yore to a full-fledged classic on its own merits. The series has improved with each iteration, especially after Zeboyd Games took over with Episode 3, and this final adventure is the longest (over 15 hours), thanks to the at-long-last inclusion of a world map filled with optional mini-dungeons and secrets. Unfortunately, much of the content follows in the footsteps of the ultra-linear Final Fantasy XIII (it’s even broken up into distinct chapters), and it’s not until the last two hours that Zeboyd begins to stretch its wings—literally, with the inclusion of an airship that allows you to finally backtrack and actually explore. (For instance, the titular character from Cthulhu Saves the World can be convinced to join your party, if you best him in battle.)
Although you’ll spend a lot of time attempting to optimally outfit your monsters with weapons and accessories that complement their unique skills (active and passive), the game feels more like a gauntlet of puzzling encounters than a full RPG, like Karateka and Gyromancer. The early battles in each chapter—and most of the boss encounters—force you to come up with new strategies, but once you’ve adapted, it’s quite repetitious, particularly during the last several chapters. And while combat is occasionally shaken up by special restrictions, like the rules from Final Fantasy Tactics A2, the pacing is not; some dungeons seem more like joke-delivery systems than mazes.
That’s a shame, given the serious underpinnings of Precipice 4, which begins after the world has been destroyed (think Final Fantasy VI’s World of Ruin). The Veteran and Insane difficulties are no joke either: Even regular battles require the sort of strategy required of, say, an infamously hard Shin Megami Tensei game. A bar at the top of the screen tracks each combatant’s progress from a WAIT queue to a CMD line before ending with the ACT; by hitting enemies between those last two points, you can interrupt and slow their attacks. Fights become a matter of precision timing, shifting the emphasis from your standard damage-dealing sword/axe/hatchet monsters to classes that wear boots to manipulate their speed. Rods might let you cast a spell more quickly, but Tomes will deal more damage, and while you may laugh at funnily named (and drawn) enemies like the Hat-Bat (a hat that’s wearing a bat) or the Squidiphant, they’ll kill an unprepared player.
Again, however, the game holds back on its potential by splitting the narrative (and monsters) between dim-witted, big-fisted Gabe and Tycho’s rightfully bitter ex-wife, Moira. Although items are shared between parties, thanks to a “thoroughly implausible” Duplicator, you can’t really mix and match monsters and trainers until the last 15% of the game. There’s also a lot of needless obfuscation: The descriptions of items are packed so full of jokes that it’s sometimes hard to figure out exactly what special effects they have; passive abilities are hidden in the middle of combat, so you’ll have to remember that one dagger is endowed with ice while another interrupts enemies.
Of course, none of this would be disappointing if the game weren’t so good most of the time. The Underhell atmosphere has some brilliant set pieces, from a carnivorous train that wants to make you its passengers forever, to a menagerie of angry hybrids in the middle of the Yggradasil Zoo, and of course the Underunderhell. It’s no Earthbound, but that’s the precipice the game is tentatively tiptoeing around, and the fun itself is far from tongue in cheek.