Game: Pandora’s Tower
Available on: Nintendo Wii Only
As it creaks toward the end of its life, the Wii has certainly tried to bow out with a bit of dignity and class. The old girl has been lucky enough to become home to a clutch of excellent Japanese RPG titles over the past year, as well as Nintendo’s own motion-controlled masterpiece, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Proper, fully formed, grown up games that squeeze every drop out of the ageing hardware, role-playing fans have enjoyed an Indian summer with the excellent Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story. Completing this trilogy of JRPG goodness is Pandora’s Tower, courtesy of Ganbarion, a firm best known for delivering the Shonen Jump tie-in melee fighter Jump Super Stars. Perhaps the most unconventional of the three, it eschews the traditional turn based gameplay for some very interesting mechanics, an emphasis on action, and a dark, haunting story at its core.
STORY: Aeron is the brooding, archetypal RPG character, and star of the show, a noble warrior type who finds himself in a terrible predicament. His girlfriend, the radiant Elena, has been cursed. We are not talking a run of the mill gypsy curse here, nor has she been besmirched by some foul language, kids. We are dealing with a disease-like affliction that is slowly changing her into a horrific, gelatinous blob-like creature with tentacles. This isn’t something that Aeron can deal with via the local GP surgery, or a trip to Lloyds chemist, the only way he can reverse this Kafka-esque nightmare is by conquering a series of dungeon-crawl scenarios, against the clock, within the many towers that are dotted around The Scar, the barren landscape that serves as the setting for this tale of woe. He carries out this labour of love in order to bring Elena the one thing that can turn the tide of her curse; bloody great lumps of flesh from your defeated enemies, which she has to wolf down. Assisting Aeron through this quest is his creepy, witchy merchant pal Mavda, who acts as a Navi-style guide along the way; albeit whilst having a spooky skeleton strapped to her back.
GRAPHICS: Elemental dungeons within each of the thirteen ominous towers are rendered admirably, with areas representative of wood, fire, water and so on, each stage is diverse and noticeably different from the last. There are some decent cutscenes, and the in-game action is animated to a decent standard. It is, at the end of the day, a Wii title, so the graphics do not hit the heights that a game of this quality deserves, and at times it looks muddy and outdated. Also outdated is the profoundly annoying fixed camera. At times enemies will attack you or appear from hitherto unseen off-screen areas, which can be very irritating. You can use your chains (more on those later) to manipulate enemies and drag them into view, but I could have done without the many instances where I was attacked mid-combo by some lurching horror from out of nowhere.
SOUND: Like Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story, the developers have delivered a stand-up localisation job, with a great script that is delivered with some competent voice acting. The musical score is equally good, a stunning classical score that perfectly matches the brooding, dark love story that underpins the action.
GAMEPLAY: Setting out from the game’s Observatory hub, you take control of Aeron and enter one of the Towers, where, against a strict time limit, you have to work out how to break the huge chains that bind the door to the boss chamber, defeat the beast within and then return to Elena with a hunk of meat for her to consume. Doing so requires that you pay attention to the best routes through each dungeon, using shortcuts to best negotiate your way both up and down the arcane structures. If you don’t make it in time, Elena will complete her horrific metamorphosis. However, if you are running out of minutes, you can forego having to bring the actual boss monster chunks and nip back to base with some flesh from a smaller, sundry enemy to keep the wolf from the door, so to speak. Of course this means you have to start from the bottom again, which is why memorising pathways is as effective a technique as any combat style in the game in order to see any success. Each up ‘n’ down trek through a dungeon comes with its own puzzles and pitfalls to negotiate.Thankfully, Ganbarion are not as cruel as they could have been, because returning to Elena does not reset any of the puzzles you have already solved.
Strip away the unusual story, dungeon crawling and the time-based mechanics and Pandora’s Tower is essentially a third person action title which recalls a less sophisticated Devil May Cry, God of War or latter day Castlevania game. What sets it aside though are the superb Oraclos chains in Aeron’s possession which serve as the main weapon in the game but also hookshot-like tools to negotiate the dungeons, solve puzzles, and interact with the scenery. The game gives you the option to control the action with the Classic Controller, but it is much more fun, and infinitely more intuitive to use the Wiimote and Nunchuck combo. You can aim a reticule using the Wiimote to direct your chains, and use them to carry out some very satisfying offensive actions, such as binding enemies together, tearing their limbs off, shooting them in the face to paralyse them with blindness, swinging them around, slamming them into the ground, and carrying out a powerful charge attack. The miracle chains are also used to grapple with scenery, collect items out of reach, and of course to tear ruddy great sides of monster-meat away from your foes.
Aeron has a sword which is also used in combat, but in all honesty, the combos available, and basic melee combat itself, is pretty limited and dull in its execution. Enemies come thick and fast but there is a lot of repetition. There is a rudimentary levelling up system which boosts your stats negligibly, and you can interact with Mavda to forge new items, weapons and armour, but this is an area of the game which is not really developed as well as it could have been. Who cares though? Pandora’s Tower is all about the awesome Ghost Rider style chains.
It is also about some of the best designed and most enjoyable boss encounters you will find this side of Hyrule. In the same way that battling a mayor with Link, or taking down one of Team Ico’s Collosi are considered stand-out moments in gaming, Ganbarion have really delivered with the pay-offs at the end of each stage, which will see you really earning your monster flesh. Whilst the key in winning these battles is always to rip flesh from specific glowing areas on each foe, each showdown is noticeably different from the last, working the use of the Oraclos Chains expertly into the mix.
LONGEVITY: Grinding aside, you could easily spend aeons simply re-doing each tower to level up and collect items. If dungeon crawling is your bag, the main quest should take around 13-15 hours to fully complete. There are some things to consider though, Aeron’s interactions with Elena decide the ending, so the way you manage this side of the game will affect the outcome. You can return to her at any time to give her gifts of items, or simply having a chinwag during which she will often give away juicy bits of plot. The plot itself is arguably the darkest and most disturbing of any other Nintendo game, and drives you onwards, keeping you interested. There are some horrific twists in the tale, and the sense of dread and against the clock panic reminded me of obvious touchstone and brethren title Majora’s Mask which, up until I slotted this disc in, would have ranked as the most maudlin, haunting experience I have played on a Nintendo console.
VERDICT: Minor issues with camera and visuals aside, there is no arguing with the fact this is one of the most original gaming experiences you can have with the Wii. It seems almost ludicrous that a challenging, thematically dark title of this ilk has received a release over here, but you won’t find me complaining. I have trotted out similar statements before, but I will do so again by saying what a shame it is that it has taken so long for developers to put the console to good use. Ganbarion have provided one of the more memorable action role players in recent times; and without having the HD pizazz and processing muscle of other platforms. It is my hope going forward that Nintendo continues to publish left-field games, and does so from the get-go, rather than making us wait longer than it takes for Elena to sprout a set of terrifyingly Lovecraftian tentacles.