Who wants to play a game about feeding your vegetarian girlfriend meat until she gets rid of her tattoo? No, it is not some kind of radical new hipster rehabilitation camp, but rather Pandora’s Tower, Gamesquad and Xseed’s newest action-RPG for the Wii. While the majority of the industry has abandoned Nintendo’s plucky little console for its hipper, flashier younger brother, a few publishers still have last minute releases to bestow on your grandma’s favorite game machine.
GAME NAME: Pandora’s Tower
DEVELOPER(S): Gamesquad, Nintendo
PUBLISHER(S): Xseed, Nintendo
GENRE(S): Action RPG
RELEASE DATE(S): April 16, 2013
Pandora’s Tower is the story of two star-crossed lovers on the opposite sides of war, Aeron and Elena. The tale takes the off-ramp from the Shakespeare Expressway and onto Lovecaft Boulevard from there, though. Elena has been placed under a curse, signified by the sudden appearance of a large tattoo on her back, and is slowly but surely turning into a hideous creeping monster. Luckily for the couple, the bizarre witch/traveling saleswoman/gremlin Mavda appears suddenly and explains that Aeron can save his love by harvesting flash from monsters and feeding it to her, slowing the curse’s progress.
Mavda sends Aeron to collect monster flesh from the Thirteen Towers, a large structure suspended above a hundred league chasm called The Scar. Fifty years ago, to prevent The Scar from spreading and tearing the world apart, people got together and stretched giant chains across the chasm and built the Thirteen Towers in the middle of the chains as a counterweight to The Scar’s expansion. You know, because of science.
The game plays like Majora’s Mask and Super Castlevania IV had a clandestine love child, and let Shadow of the Colossus raise it. Aeron runs around, slashing monsters with his sword or other found weaponry, blocking and dodging attacks, and making use of a long list of defensive and offensive one-time use items. The real star of the show though is the Oraclos Chain, a length of magical chain that allows him to wrap up enemies, tie them together, toss them around the room, or just yank on it, tearing enemies’ flesh with the friction. The chain also features heavily for navigating the environment and solving puzzles, allowing Aeron to swing from copacetic hooks, snag out of reach items and switches, and otherwise Belmont his way through the Thirteen Towers.
Aeron cannot spend too much time dungeon delving, though, as he has to keep returning to Elena with fresh supplies of monster flesh to keep her curse at bay, signified by an ever present timer in the bottom of the HUD. After defeating monsters, they will start bleeding to death, where you can either let them bleed out, deliver a finishing blow, or wrap them up with the chain, yanking the freshest of the flesh straight from the monster’s not-quite-dead carcass. Returning the often still quivering and pulsating flesh to Elena will reward you with an animation of her trying to eat the meat, resulting in a sequence of gagging and salivating usually reserved for Hentai films. The flesh tearing and eating is never depicted graphically, but it is presented about as gruesomely as possible without turning into a Eli Roth flick.
Speaking of the graphics, they are mostly solid, though this is a Wii game, so hopefully you are already aware that you are not going to get your mind blown. The art direction for the towers reminds me a bit of Vagrant Story, and while you visit all the classic video gaming tropes (water level, fire level, etc.), the level design is constantly evocative and creative. The characters, on the other hand, are typical J-RPG shlock: wolf-like monsters, giant level bosses, and an effeminate hero–my wife caught a sequence between Aeron and Elena and questioned me as to “what kind of lipstick lesbian game I thought I was playing”. While the art design is for the most part worthy, the technical implementation leaves a bit to be desired, as you will often see the seams between large polygons, which creates much frustration when you think you have just seen the glimmer of an item in the landscape and stop to look at what ends up being a poorly rendered pixel.
The control scheme is a bit impressive, making use of nearly every button and waggle the Wii Remote and Nunchuck can deliver, and primarily focus around the multitude of uses for your magical chain. You also have the option of using the Classic Controller instead of the Nunchuck, but this places the cursor movement needed for aiming your chain onto the right thumbstick, which tended to slow me down in combat. While the controls are serviceable, the distinct lack of camera control in 3D action environments will leave a sour taste in your mouth. The pre-programmed, on-tracks camera for the most part is functional, but tiny little concessions, such as ledges you cannot hook because they are juuuusssst off-screen or the classic Playstation 1-era Resident Evil trope of your control mapping flipping as you switch from one viewpoint to another will be obvious and irritating.
If Pandora’s Tower suffers from a curse, it is from wanting to be way more of a “Japanese” game than it needs to be. Granted, it is a Japanese game, but it seems to blatantly toss away the lessons of Western game out of pure stubbornness rather than out of any real desire to make a quality title. While the timed mechanic of having to return to Elena with fresh monster meat makes for an interesting “rush to solve as much of the dungeon as possible” pressure on the player, the rest of the game takes such a lackadaisical, plodding pace in total contrast to the clock Elena has you on. The large number of possible chain commands and slow animations make it easy to get ahead of yourself in combat, encouraging you to take a controlled and metered approach to battles. While Aeron will gain levels at a decent enough speed through normal play, your weapons and equipment will depend on the game’s crafting system, which in the end encourages you to grind finished dungeons just for the crafting materials native to those levels. It is a shame, because the total package creates a feel of artificial padding. I realize the unnecessarily long game is par for the course in Japan, but stretching the game out with the clever but all-too-short dungeons would have created a much more fulfilling payoff.
To further add to the frustration, for you completionists out there is the fact that Pandora’s Tower harbors multiple endings. These are accessed by how well Aeron treats Elena: does he bring her gifts, talk to her, keep her fed full of enough monster flesh that she doesn’t start to mutate, etc. Since these are incremental effects that happen over the course of the game, you will have to go through the game all over again (sorry, no multiple save files for the same playthrough). Because that ‘s what this game needed, to have its time investment multiplied.
In the end, I was able to overlook Pandora’s Tower’s flaws and ultimately enjoy it for its creative gameplay. As a swan song title for the Wii, I wish more titles would have taken the care Gamesquad did to make a uniquely “Wii” game–it would have slowed the speed with which gamers soured on the console, for sure. Usually, I am a huge fan of these forgotten, against-the-grain games that release after their console has been all but abandoned. Unfortunately, Pandora’s Tower is too plodding for a rental and not spectacular enough for a purchase, so it will likely fall into the bargain bins of obscurity, where it will end up in the backlog of most players’ pile-of-shame.