Galaxy of Pen and Paper sees a return to the series by its original development team, Paradox North after briefly handing over the reins of the franchise to Paradox Interactive (who recently made the original free to play) while they made their Power Rangers tribute Tactical RPG ‘Chroma Squad’. You’ll learn that the developers liked Chroma Squad quite a lot throughout Galaxy of Pen and Paper, largely because the characters in the game keep talking about it.
There’s a moment in the original ‘Curse of Monkey Island’ game where one of the characters you interact with in a pub goes on an extended rant about ‘Loom’, the then upcoming artistic work from the sadly missed Lucasarts. Guybrush listens to the old man rant and then calmly claims that it’s the most shameless plug he’s ever heard. A cool fourth-wall breaking moment of sarcastic humour. Sadly Galaxy of Pen and Paper doesn’t pull this off, instead dropping comments about their previous game frequently enough that the player should be half expecting to see a ‘click here to go to the iStore and buy it now’ button to appear. It’s a worrying sign that the on-beat and off-cuff nature of the original ‘Knights of Pen and Paper’ title may be getting stale, and whilst there’s a lot of new things here, there are signs of fatigue in the Pen and Paper series.
Graphically the game now uses a mixture of 3D elements and sprite work of roughly SNES quality to present itself, which (following on from the 16-bit styling of the original and 32-bit nature of its sequel) feels a little disjointed. It’s visually pleasing, but something of a mess in terms of presenting a single artistic style. Things are cartoon-orientated and largely anime-inspired in terms of visual design, with inspiration being drawn from a wide range of sources from Star Trek, Blake’s 7 and Star Wars to Akira. Locations are not explored on a smaller scale than the original world map, but planets are linked through a sub menu that keeps all of the titles feeling of a similar size overall. Menus do suffer a little from being quite small on a phone screen, but work well on larger devices and tablets.
Audio is a significant step up, with sound effects well-judged and better timed to button pressed to give a sense of immediate feedback to the player. Sadly, while the soundtrack is never dull, it doesn’t manage to stand out on its own, making for a bland package that fades into the background. Drawing on so many famous inspirations it would have been nice to see takes or parodies on their scores, or a recurring theme that helped to bind the adventure.
The story begins where every good Science Fiction narrative does, on a desert planet working the junk yard shift. Two players are indentured servants to an arse of an alien who is going to work them to death before they ever work themselves to freedom, but a chance encounter with the law sees them set out on a new path as bounty hunters before discovery of an ancient and powerful space ship offers them the chance to move off-world and start to explore the galaxy. From here there’s a few plot threads that serve to keep the main narrative moving and a never-ending series of satire, tributes and parodies of major Sci-fi works. For the most part this works well, though it can be easy to lose sight of what you’re supposed to be doing in the face of so many options. Luckily the game’s set up to allow players to get back on track through the mission creation system. As usual this is wrapped inside a cute GM and his players story that serves as the framework.
Gameplay is largely unchanged from the original instalment of the series, though the resting system has been removed in its entirety and replaced with set locations that will restore your characters health instead. This is a little restricting for short bursts of play (which the game lends itself to) but is moderated by a recharging shield system that is reminiscent of post-Halo games. The characters you create now have the ability to learn a lot more skills, though they aren’t levelled in the same manner, making developing a build that works for you more important than simply tanking damage and relying on a few strong spells. At its core the same setup of opening a menu and selecting the next mission based on parameters you set as both the player party and GM, and it’s not as appealing as it once was, dealing out advancement more slowly and with less of a sense of glee. Gone is the ability to edit the room that the players inhabit for passive boosts, as is a lot of the random items around the screen to click and collect, making some areas feel very empty. This is made worse by some worlds being repeated areas with the same static background, which can make the game feel slightly cheap in terms of production values. Offsetting this is the new ship-battle system were you power actions with the roll of a die, which upgrades from d4 to d6 and up the chain to d20 as the game goes on to make you feel more powerful. Whilst you’re basically playing attack and then heal on a loop with these space battles, they do help to bring a whole new element to the game.
Overall, it feel a lot like Galaxy of Pen and Paper is possibly one step too far for the series, with the idea of playing a game within a game still novel, but not enough to carry the experience alone. The next entry into this series will have to evolve or risk stagnation, which is a shame as this title doesn’t do anything outright wrong, it just fails to innovate on what has come before in a meaningful manner. The title has no DLC and is a one-off premium purchase, which at least indicates that the developers have no intention of turning this entry freemium any time soon.