With its bags packed and celebrations over, the Nintendo Wii is churning out the last remaining goodbyes – attempting to remind the fans what the console was really about. Forget the family games, the party games and those downright embarrassing ones, the console’s parting gifts are aimed purely at the fans that were once forgotten. Well, all but the Americans, who (as of yet) are not receiving the latest JRPG – Pandora’s Tower, developed by Ganbarion and published by Nintendo. But is it a gift worth grieving over or is the wrapping the most impressive part?
You play through the game as Aeron, pressed with the task of helping your beloved Elena, who, after offering her voice at the Harvest Festival, is branded with a curse, threatening to turn her into a demon if something isn’t done. And fast.
You’re thrown into the game knowing little more than this, but are still expected to care about this girl, to risk your life in order to save hers. Now correct us if we’re wrong but something says you wouldn’t do that in a real life situation. Nevertheless, Aeron being the brave protagonist he is, steps out to search the thirteen towers for the flesh of master beasts that reside in them. March on through your quest and slowly the game will answer any questions you might want to ask, starting small with “who the hell are you?” and working up to much more important ones like “why the hell is my friend cursed?” some of which are answered directly and others shown within flashbacks induced by the flesh that poor, vegetarian Elena is forced to eat in order to cure herself.
Rather than being a typical JRPG, Pandora’s Tower attempts to move away from stereotypes by borrowing heavily from the Zelda and Devil May Cry series’, eventually creating one long fetch-quest. In order to boast even more originality, it stick a timer onto your numerous tasks, leaving very little room for exploration which is what really brings games in the genre into their own. Instead, you’ll travel down linear corridors and sometimes stumble across the privilege of a dead end, possibly with some treasure at the end. Or maybe just a monster.
Limited exploration like this is never praised in role-playing games and as such was abolished in the best examples years ago – when you were just a little tyke no doubt. Even if it was available, you wouldn’t be able to wander very far due to the timer that seems to tick away at an incredible rate, especially if you just so happen to stick your nose into a little cranny along the way. You’re expected to rush around the towers, getting as far as possible and returning back to the observatory in order to reset the timer by forcing the flesh you ripped from different beasts onto your poor, vulnerable girl before rushing off once more. Fail to do so without the timer running out and you’re in some deep trouble.
As you sprint through the towers – often grabbing onto ledges and fumbling about like a young child with little to no hand-eye-coordination, you’ll meet many different beasts. The character designs of which are unique and plentiful enough that you won’t get tired of seeing the same clones over and over again, but they’re nothing you won’t have seen before in other games (with slight modifications). In order to beat these monsters, you are given a chain by friendly traveller Mavda, which allows you to swipe from a good distance away or get up close and personal. However, don’t expect to do both very well in the same fight as Aeron’s combat technique is very clunky and so you’ll often find that when switching targets, you’ll have to wait around for a few seconds before continuing – these seconds more often than not resulting in a painful and embarrassing death.
Along your travels, you’ll unlock new abilities for your chain such as swinging objects and enemies around or binding them together, allowing you to kill two birds with one swipe. Except it’s not that easy. Despite these moves sounding impressive, you’ll often see little to no difference in the amount of damage you manage to exert from your weapon. As well as this the attacks often fall flat, giving you the impression of hacking away at a concrete wall until something gives way and it’s not very satisfying when it finally does. Even when you charge up your attack there’s no impressive stunt or sound, but rather a cold feeling of disappointment as you slay your way through the rooms. Once dead, you can wrap the beasts up in your chain and pull away to receive different items, usually in the form of dripping, juicy flesh but every now and then you’ll find something worth spending your time yanking for. Just don’t get your hopes up that this might happen any time soon.
The bosses in Pandora’s Tower are slightly different in that there’s a level of skill involved rather than mindlessly button bashing. Inspiration taken from games such as Shadow of the Colossus, these magnificent beasts tower over you, dealing impressive attacks that could knock you over and end the game if you’re not careful. Each one requires a slightly different strategy, but even so, it’s far beyond impressive. There will be one specific weak point that you’ll have to aim for on their body in order to do any significant amount of damage and seeing as these are pointed out to you in one way or another, they don’t pose much of a challenge – though those few moments of confusion at the start of each fight where you’re figuring out how to go about it are worth embracing.
For Aeron, though, the fight is not the important part of these creatures – it’s the flesh that they provide once defeated. This can be returned to Elena with the satisfaction of bringing her one step closer towards normality (well, apart from the great stinking army chasing after you both). By doing so, you increase your relationship with her – a feature that is skipped past when introducing you to the game, but one that holds a great importance to the game. It’s not just with this flesh that you can become closer to the girl though, you can also stop your journey for a little while to offer a listening ear or present her with gifts – the latter of which she’ll usually make into something nice for you. As you do so, you really start to understand the feelings between these two characters and appreciate them, not least because they’ll get you the best ending.
Any other meat or items left over can be sold to Mavda – a merchant of the Vestra race – as they have no importance to you. In exchange, she’ll give you money that can then be handed straight back over to her in order to buy or repair any items you may have. But then again, since when did merchants work in simple ways? This is where the genre really comes into play. Due to a limited inventory place, you can spend hours sorting out what to sell, what to store away and what to keep close to your side. To make matters even more puzzling, you have to decide on whether to spend the money on yourself, upgrading weapons and purchasing better equipment or to spend it all on buying Elena presents in order to keep the pain of the curse out of her mind. The former will make the game much easier to complete, however the latter will make sure that your efforts were not in vain and present you with one of the much nicer endings.
Not often does a game give multiple endings, but Pandora’s Tower makes that definite step to the minority of the gaming group and it’s one of the very few correct steps it actually takes. By doing so, the game gives you an initiative to play through again and watch them all firsthand which is more than helpful at this point as very little else will make you even look at the box again. What it fails to do though is make any real difference between endings. Of course, the cutscenes and dialogue changes but each ending apart from the ‘S’ rated one leaves you with a sense of defeat, like the whole game didn’t have any point to it seeing as things were planned out to go wrong from the very beginning. Although this is more realistic (we mean, your friend is turning into a demon and you’re being chased down by a powerful group of people), it’s certainly not what you want to see after slogging your way through hours of gameplay, trying to do everything right.
At least there’s one thread to hold onto at this point though and that’s the graphics. Cutscenes really push the Wii to its full capacity and look almost breathtaking to watch (as long as you’ve just switched from a Dreamcast or something – no matter how hard it tries, the Wii just doesn’t do pretty). It really seems to be the only part of the game the developers really took their time over, which is a nice change to the rushed feeling of everything else. In gameplay, the character models still look fairly impressive, each feature looks incredibly smooth around them; however the scenery takes a turn for the worse. Despite being pixellated, the colours bring out the mood and depth to each area, even if that mood does mainly seem to be brown and depressing.
It’s a shame the same can’t be said about the music. Usually it’s a bad sign when you don’t notice any music throughout the game and the same goes for Pandora’s Tower. Sure, it’s pretty music and obviously isn’t so bad that it stands out that way, but next to the impressive workings of some veterans to this genre it lacks somewhat. There doesn’t seem to be much power behind the notes and due to the deep storyline, you come to almost expect it. What is different is the voice acting. And when we say different, we mean not very good. Elena says many of her lines with a bit too much power – detracting from the vulnerable girl attitude she’s portraying and the protagonist doesn’t do much better. They’re not bad voice actors and with time and practice they’ll no doubt flourish into something brilliant but at the moment, they’re falling short. One that does stand out though is Mavda, her voice fitting the role perfectly in an almost creepy fashion.
In theory, this game is definitely worth a place in your collection: the story is deep and dark, there are twists and turns everywhere you look and the gameplay strolls strongly away from the typical of this genre. However, in practice it trips over a few hurdles. Actions are rough, the camera never seems to agree with you and it feels like a blended mix of elements from the most popular games of the past 15 years – not necessarily a good thing. Given a little more time and passion Pandora’s Tower could be something to boast about, but that isn’t the case and instead you’re left with a game that feels half finished with a real lack of effort.
Sadly, it’s time for the Wii to take its leave, and this is a game that won’t be missed for long. 6/10.
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