It has been an interesting year for us Europeans. After a horde of Americans wrote in protest surrounding three J-RPGs that Nintendo of America announced would never come out of Japan, the decision was made to release them in European territories first to test the water. The first out the gate was the wonderful Xenoblade Chronicles, a fresh take on an open world that never outstayed its welcome. It did so well that Americans can now play it. The Last Story also did relatively well in Europe. Now it is time to look at the dark horse of the three – Pandora’s Tower; a game that is unlike anything you have seen in the past. Does this game make it a hat-trick for Operation Rainfall’s protestors making a good judgement, or is this tower too tall a climb?
At the beginning, all you get is a barebones plot of a girl in a festival getting cursed. Aeon – the typical protagonist and Elena – the not so typical damsel in distress, venture off to the Scar of the world where thirteen towers reside. They are all monitored by an observatory tower that acts as the hub. As you conquer each tower, more and more of the story is revealed to you, including the backstory leading up to the curse, and “flashbacks” from a time eons ago. While it doesn’t feel convoluted in any way, the sense of pacing is dependent on interactivity with Elena through conversations and gift giving. While the story is strange overall with the leading female being forced to eat raw meat to retain her human form, it is deep down the same old tale of Knight must save Princess from a curse. Each of the five separate endings use the choices made throughout the game along with Aeon’s connection with Elena to determine their fate, which does prolong the life of the game; but when the entire adventure can take over ten hours to complete, it doesn’t seem worth the time to do it all over again. Characterisation is utterly generic, though Elena does have one or two moments to shine where she chastises the rather soulless Aeon for his sloppy lifestyle.
The setup feels a little like one of Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda series with towers resembling the dungeons. The only difference though is that Pandora’s Tower feels remarkably linear in comparison as there is no open world to explore. Each time you venture out of the Observatory, you are given an option to select a tower to travel to. There is no exploration of the surrounding landscape to be done, giving the game a suitably confined feel. But don’t let that scare you too much, as each tower has its own theme that should be familiar to fans of the Legend of Zelda franchise. After a few towers have been conquered multiple towers open up to you at once to free up the variety, but this is also the point where tedium sets in. Each of the towers is a slightly remixed version of a previous tower. The fire towers have flaming foundries, water towers have the watermill feature, grass towers have plant blockades, etc. What at first seems endearing fast becomes a rehash of ideas that is sadly tiresome.
When you go up each tower, you are on a constant time limit as Elena is slowly transmuting into a hideous beast. Upon defeating some foes, you will obtain Flesh of varying qualities that helps to hold back the curse. It is an interesting mechanic that forces you to rush a little bit when traversing the towers. Thankfully you don’t need to worry about completing the entire thing in one go as you can come back to the observatory and then return to the tower as you found it. You can also find documents on your travels to help raise funds, while loot is everywhere. Once you complete a tower, you can even go back to find new passages open to you and gather more loot, but nothing can escape the fact that these are the same towers each time, so once you have completed the tower it stays that way.
Combat is where Pandora’s Tower shines brightly though as you have a few options to slay the monsters on your rise to the top. While Aeon starts out with a sword, this expands to feature Twin-Blades and a Scythe that all can be upgraded back at the observatory at the cost of resources picked up along the way. You can also use the chain to drag, throw, swing and tear at foes, adding a fair bit of versatility to the combat. Using the Remote/Nunchuck combination is easy, immersive and oddly fitting for the action. Using the Classic Controller only becomes a minor issue when you are required to aim, but this is a hurdle that is easily overcome. The problem is that the rewards are often not worth the hassle as what little cash you find on your quest will be used in other places. You get little opportunity to upgrade your defence, so more tricky enemies can take a lot of your health. At least the rather primitive item creation/upgrading feature assists players in an efficient way rather than hindering the experience even more.
But the real highlights are when you reach the tower’s apex and take arms against the Masters. Each one is a massively engaging experience that never feels the same, despite all being ultimately slain in the same way. You will fight against hulking monstrosities and agile beasts, and you will have to contend against creatures that use devious tactics such as rebuilding their defences by walking into sunlight or summoning relics to act as a shield. These battles become less about the fighting and more about learning how to open up their defences for you to attack their weak point. If someone was to create a guide on how to create the perfect boss battle in terms of thrill, design and satisfaction, Pandora’s Tower should be the source material.
When viewed from a distance, Pandora’s Tower is a cluttered looking game. Textures appear a little on the blurry side, making it difficult to make sense of the detail. This is probably due to the technical limitations of the Wii, and it is a huge shame to see potential go to waste. What it lacks in polish though, it more than makes up for in scale and diversity. Thematically it begins to feel slightly familiar when the progression follows the same pattern, but there’s nothing quite like the feeling of coming back to Elena with the necessary flesh required for stalling the transformation, just in the nick of time. Voice acting is generally above average, though Elena’s constant miming when conversing with her is mildly distracting. Music is generally underwhelming as when exploring the towers as the same tracks are used constantly, making it tempting to put it on mute.
Early promotional material portrayed Pandora’s Tower as an epic in a confined space and in a way there are moments where this actually is reflected in the final version. Battles against the gargantuan Masters of the towers are some of the most thrilling encounters to be had and the scale of scaling these towers initially matches this level of ecstasy. However, the buzz of the first few hours dwindles greatly at around the halfway mark when the game rather ironically opens out from its linear formula. Towers and puzzles suddenly become familiar, despite changes in the combat. While attempts have been made to humanise the characters, in the end they come across as forced stereotypes. Not a resounding success, but Pandora’s Tower does succeed in enough to warrant a look for a more action orientated J-RPG.