As the Wii approaches its end, original role playing games seem to be landing left and right. Xenoblade has its grand vistas, The Last Story has its amazingly natural dialogue, and Pandora's Tower well it has Elena. The aim of the game being to prevent a curse from turning her into a monster. To stop the curse you take control of the semi-silent protagonist Aeron; for the most part he's a bit like Link from the Zelda series or the vault dweller from fallout 3 but in scenes with drama he does talk. It's a nice halfway house that sets out to give you the immersion of playing the part of the character while at the same time allowing for dramatic scenes to feel fluid and not like a series of button prompts. Armed with the mystical oraclos chain, given to you by a creepy old woman named Mavda you are instructed to collect the flesh of beasts from the towers for Elena to chow down on. You soon find out that said beast flesh is only a temporary solution; it only delays the effects of the curse for 30 or 40 minutes. The only way to truly break the curse and save the day is to obtain flesh from the masters lying in wait at the top of each of the thirteen towers.
The aforementioned towers are guarded by enemies and puzzles, in order to reach the final room of each tower the plucky hero must first unseal the rooms containing the dangerous creatures known as the masters. This is achieved by destroying a handful of pedestals which ground the chains barring entrance to the final room of a tower. As you begin scaling the towers you will notice two things, the first is that each tower corresponds to an element a bit like The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of time's fire temple, water temple, forest temple etc. This is great for the first five towers as it keeps things fresh both in terms of art direction and game mechanics, the second half of the game isn't quite so interesting due to tower 6 to 10 repeating the themes of 1 to 5. Nobody really wants to go through two water temples. The second thing you will notice about the towers is that you are not going to manage to get through them in 30-40 minutes, most will require at least two trips back to the observatory. This could have easily made the whole experience a lot more tedious, to the developers credit though they have done an amazing job making backtracking bearable. Each tower has shortcuts you can open up in the form of unlocking barricaded doors and dropping down ladders, which make traversing to the top of each tower a quick and painless task. Also included is an item that instantaneously transports you back to the observatory, these are particularly useful in getting the most out of your time in the towers.
The unique concept of having to come back at regular intervals to prevent the damsel in distress from mutating horrifically is quite gripping. On the one hand you want to fully explore the Towers and discover the mysteries behind them but on the other you don't want to watch Elena Gag as she eats raw oozing purple monster flesh. There aren't too many games that make you feel guilty for wanting to explore every nook and cranny. One of the thing the game does really well is make you want to protect Elena and get back before the curse takes hold. There's a kind of morbid curiosity at the start of the game where you want to see what happens when you leave it to the last minute to get back to Elena. Once you've watched that scene once, you will never want to see it again, probably the darkest thing you will ever see in a Nintendo published game.
When you eventually reach one of the towers masters you will immediately be reminded of the colossi from Team Ico's epic shadow of the colossus, in the sense that each of the boss battles feels like a puzzle rather than a challenge of your reflexes or combat proficiency. It feels a lot more brain over brawn. The idea behind these master battles is to hook onto the glowing weak point with the oraclos chain and perform some abrupt, unwanted keyhole surgery. The difficulty comes from trying to figure out how to reveal the masters weak point and get off a fully charged yank. Generally if you impale something with a metal spike, they are not likely to sit there and wait for you to remove their aorta. So before going for their Achilles heel you will need to stun them, figuring out how to stun them is the important bit. It's a really interesting dynamic combined with the constantly draining hourglass, the pressure doesn't come from beating the boss but beating the boss in a timely fashion so as not to see Elena horribly deformed.
The main focus of the combat is not the sword but the chain. Before the game was released, people seemed to believe Pandora's Tower was a Devil May Cry clone. That's a pretty massive misconception, the only thing Pandora's Tower has in common with Devil May Cry is fixed camera angles, which are surprisingly not all that intrusive. The key to success in combat is making good use of the oraclos chain, be it as a projectile, a whip or as a tool for blinding, tripping, throwing, spinning or tethering an enemy. Motion controls are used, but before you grumble they're used well and in intelligent ways. If you're one of those strange people who think finding joy in pulling a vital organ out of an enemy with a flick of the wrist runs the risk of turning you into a soccer mom over night, classic controller support is available. The game play revolves around pointing at enemies though so using the classic controller seems counterproductive. Defeating enemies efficiently comes down to using the chain to hinder enemies and leave them open to sword, swords or scythes.
Speaking of the weapons there is an upgrade system in place, the weapons can be upgraded by collecting certain items in the tower. In order to get each weapon to its full potential, you will need to visit specific towers at a certain time of day, what time and which tower can be discovered by listening to the not so cryptic hints of a certain old woman. With each upgrade a weapon receives the damage it does increases, every 3rd upgrade the weapon unlocks a new charge attack. Charge attacks allow for extended combos that deal a lot of damage. The problem with the level up system and upgrading weapons is that it really doesn't impact the game that much. You don't get the sense that you need to do it. It just makes battles slightly easier and look a little bit more stylish.
Visually Pandora's Tower isn't gonna be winning any awards, that's not to say it looks bad it just doesn't stand out, the towers look good but they're not exactly pushing the hardware to its limits. It does score points for its monster design especially the masters and Elena's varying degrees of mutation. The artwork is also top of the line, so good in fact I wholeheartedly recommend getting the collectors edition for the art book and metal case. The music is good but can get a little repetitive towards the end because they seem to use the same or a similar track in each tower, the highlight of the soundtrack is easily the orchestrated version of Dies Irae. The translation and voice acting is really well done especially Mavda, it would have been nice if the original language track had been included but the performance by the actors is so good I don't think I would have ever used it.
Pandora's Tower like all good RPGs has a new game plus, aside from the usual start over and keep all your stuff, it actually gives you a reason to play back through. New gifts are added which means extra scenes with Elena, new reports are added which means more exposition, new rooms in the towers are unlocked so you can find rare items as well as a new weapon. Not to mention the game has 5 endings, all of which are significantly different and worth seeing. The only issue with new game plus is the lack of difficulty, because the chain carries with it the upgrades from your first play through, the first four or so bosses can be beaten in one hit. It would have been the icing on an already delicious cake if boss patterns and health had seen a boost the second time around. It's a minor quibble considering how well laid out it is, for example unlike the majority of games with new game+ Pandora's Tower allows you to skip to various different parts in the story, this is a godsend for a game that features multiple endings, as let's face it who wants to replay the same game 5 times in a row, that's 10 water temples.
The story is Ganbarions ace in the hole, as it slowly unravels via reports found in the towers and through the dreams Elena begins to have, you start to question whether everything and everyone is what it seems. There's also a mechanic in the game where you can give Elena gifts to raise her spirits and affinity with Aeron, some of these gifts will result in extra dialogue that often reveals more about their relationship and what happened in the past. It's a nice touch which encourages you to replay the game and buy all the gift items, how many trinkets you give to Elena and how fast you return from a dungeon will also affect which ending you get. The combination of the mystery that is gradually being revealed to you and the many different interactions with Elena, make for some really effective and subtle story progression. The endings themselves are significantly different depending on what you do throughout the game. It's not just a case of max out your affinity and you get the best ending, the other endings are well thought out and some might argue more interesting than the `perfect' ending.
These days every JRPG seems to feature a group of seven unlikely heroes saving the world from a generic bad guy on a power trip, it's refreshing to see a developer put some thought and originality into a game's story. The game play is simple but fun, it's well presented, the bosses are great and the towers are well designed. Read more ›