Rounding out an interesting trilogy of Japanese games that formed the focus of Operation Rainfall’s localisation campaign is Pandora’s Tower, a dark fantasy action title with mild RPG elements. After the excellent The Last Story and the genre-defining Xenoblade Chronicles this game from Ganbarion feels like the underdog and arrives very late in the day in the UK with North American gamers still waiting, probably indefinitely, for its confirmation. The Wii U is mere days away and its predecessor has been limping along on its last legs for some time now but any Wii owners looking for a fix from their little white box before the new arrival might consider giving this game a go.
You play as Aeron, a young warrior whose lady love Elena is suffering under a curse that is slowly turning her into a monster. Aided by Mavda, an old peddler with ambiguous motives, the pair travel to a forgotten place at the edge of the kingdom, a vast fissure in the earth called the Scar in which a huge fortress known as the Thirteen Towers hangs suspended by massive chains. Twelve of these towers are home to a variety of genetically-engineered beast called Masters. The only way to break Elena’s curse is for her to consume the uncooked flesh taken from all twelve of these masters, an ordeal made all the more horrible by her hailing from a society of vegetarians. Aeron must penetrate into the towers, locate kill each Master and deliver their flesh back to Elena.
It’s an unpleasant but effective scenario that provokes a genuine reaction. Watching Elena suffer as she forces herself to eat the raw meet, gagging and crying as she does, is sure to create a feeling of unease and pity in players and the motivation to save this cheerful and gentle girl from her horrid fate is clear. Aeron’s relationship with Elena is explored to some extent in your base between missions and as the game progresses you can build up the pair’s affinity by talking to her and giving her gifts. The game smartly never lets you lose sight of what you’re fighting for.
The action all takes place within the various towers and is broken down into equal parts combat and exploration. You carry two key weapons, a melee weapon for close-quarters combat and the Oraclos Chain which can be used both offensively and for traversing and interacting with environments. Melee attacks amount to simple combos that can be charged to deal more hits but the chain offers more variety. You can latch onto enemies and yank it out sharply to do damage or pull at them to build up power in the chain so increasing the damage it will do. Alternatively you can use it to bind enemies making them briefly helpless or link two enemies together so that the damage you deal one is transferred along the chain to hurt the other. Otherwise you can focus your aim on foes and use good timing to chain together up to five strikes. Once enemies are downed you can latch on with the chain and use it to pull items out of their bodies including Beast Flesh.
Although eating twelve pieces of Master Flesh is the only way to break Elena’s curse its effects can be temporarily reversed if she eats the flesh of normal beasts. You’ll have to keep a close eye on a meter in the display showing Elena’s current degree of transformation and hightail it back to base with Beast Flesh if the gauge starts to empty. That’s right, this is a timed game rather like Pikmin or The Legend of Zelda – Majora’s Mask. I know a lot of people don’t like this kind of approach to game design but I find the stress associated with a sensibly-integrated time limit has the effect of heightening the experience and it works well here. Tougher beasts yield better quality flesh which will replenish more of Elena’s transformation meter and there is some strategy involved in deciding when to press further into a tower and when to turn back. There’s no shortage of beasts to drop flesh so if you let Elena transform, which will force you to go back to your last save, you only have yourself to blame.
The towers themselves are all structures around the concept of locating and destroying the source of a number of chains that run through the structures and bind the entrance to the Master’s lair. There is some light puzzling involved, usually brining the chain into play to activate mechanisms but a lot of the tricks are repeated again and again and you’re never really forced to think creatively until the final pair of towers which do a decent job of aping a classic Zelda trope. Combat holds more challenge but usually once you’ve figured out a technique to beating individual enemy types you should be able to tackle them without much trouble. On the whole the gameplay is decent and satisfying and swinging around with the chain and seeking paths to explore in the crumbling towers is good fun but the game lacks real variety. The clear highlight of the game is its superb boss battles which are inventive, prolonged and intense, demanding a great deal of concentration despite relying on the glowing weak spot cliché. Working out how to get to a boss’ weak spot and riding the onslaught of attacks they all present is a significant challenge that action seekers should relish and there is plenty of variety in the design of each thrilling encounter.
Pandora’s Tower delivers a solid experience that at times feels like it approaches excellence but the experience is hindered by a series of downfalls that could easily have been avoided. Having to pick up items with a button press gets quickly tiresome and Aeron stands still for a couple of seconds to use items including healing items which is a nightmare in heated battles. Also if you take a heavy blow you will often find an item has been damaged rendering it useless until you pay you have it repaired which can be a big pain. The idea is obviously to incentivise the player to approach combat with caution but sometimes taking a hit is unavoidable especially in some of the hell-for-leather boss fights and the idea just doesn’t improve anything. The game also takes every opportunity to encourage you to revisit previously conquered towers at different times of day to find rare items and there’s a fairly in-depth item creation system but there’s little incentive to go in for wither as you can generally tackle everything thrown at you with basic items and the right strategy. This is one occasion where a simpler approach and a tighter focus would have been more beneficial.
Design – 6
Gameplay – 7
Graphics – 7
Sound – 7
Content – 7
Some very thoughtful work has gone into making Pandora’s Tower a memorable and unique experience but it never quite lives up to its potential. Most aspects of the game’s design are middling at best and few risks are taken except with the setup. It’s an entertaining and absorbing title that is satisfying to progress through and can easily last over twenty hours but it won’t completely satisfy those used to the likes of Zelda or God of War. Still if you want one last outing for the Wii you could do a lot worse.