Spectacular endurance-test boss battles, a thoughtful and touching tale of two young lovers, great level design (even if it does get recycled later on).
Takes a few hours to warm up, combat can get repetitive, potentially lots of backtracking.
This review was originally published on May 7th 2012. We’ve brought it forward to reflect the US release date.
Pandora’s Tower is a game full of gambles. It expects you to care straight off the bat, it assumes you won’t mind a bit of backtracking, and it hopes you’ll stick around long enough for the combat to break out of its wrist-flicking, button-mashing monotony. It also assumes you know exactly what you’re letting yourself in for, as its rather retro approach to story-telling goes against the grain of nearly everything we’ve come to expect from JRPGs over the last couple of years. It simply gives you your objective– defeat the Masters of the thirteen towers and bring back their flesh to lift the curse on your friend Elena– shows you the door, and expects you get on with it.
Now that’s great if you like a game that’s structured like Zelda, plays like something out of Castlevania, and has intense, almost Shadow of the Colossus-style, boss battles. If you’re here for anything else, though, you’ll be sorely disappointed, as Pandora’s Tower is very much a game for the tried and tested fans of its source material only. It unashamedly piggy-backs on the success and appeal of its forebears, but doesn’t quite succeed in carving out its own unique identity to appeal to those less sure of their personal tastes. It’s a slow-burner too, and the underlying story is eked out on a game-wide drip-feed of information, but if that sounds right up your dungeon-crawler street, then by all means, read on.
You’ll be spending most of your time in the towers (themed by element, of course), and Zelda fans will be right at home here as main hero Aeron explores vast atriums filled with giant, upside-down trees, huge waterwheels, and cavernous crystal sculptures to name but a few sights and set-pieces. Each one has a certain Gothic splendour to it, and your main aim is to reach the Master Chamber at the very top. These are locked shut by a series of chains that snake through the corridors of each tower, and you’ll need to destroy them all before you can enter and retrieve your coveted Master flesh.
But while the towers themselves exude the same clever design as their Hylian ancestors, the general combat doesn’t quite live up to the same standard. There’s a slight delay on Aeron’s sword which sometimes doesn’t even make contact with enemies standing right next to you (though I suspect the delay is tied in with your ability to perform a charged attack without having to strike first), and until you learn some more advanced whip moves, the Oraclos Chain does little to spice things up.
You can wrestle the more agile servants to the ground with your chain, but you won’t be able to hold them there forever.
Instead of being able to whip enemies into next week like the Belmonts, all Aeron can do is aim and pull (or flick your wrist) to inflict any damage, and it gets quite repetitive very quickly. Eventually he’ll learn how to throw enemies, swing them about and chain them together, but until that happens, the combat feels rather limp and lifeless. It also doesn’t help that the “servant” monsters roaming each tower are a bit slow on the uptake as well. There are plenty of ways to take them out, but they’re often not required.
The Masters, on the other hand, are another story altogether, and it’s here where the game shines brightest. These are brutal boss battle endurance tests to the extreme, and can easily last between 15 and 20 minutes. You will die many, many times as you try and figure out their own individual strategy (some of which require some quite lateral thinking), but it’s immensely satisfying when you finally take one down. Yet the Masters are another of Pandora’s risky gambles, as the whole reason why they feel like endurance tests is because once you’ve figured out the right strategy, it’s often just a case of rinse-and-repeating said strategy until it’s dead (albeit with a steadily increasing difficulty curve as they get to end of their life bar). That said, if you liked Shadow of the Colossus, Pandora’s Masters certainly won’t disappoint.
You’ll need to be careful you don’t get too battered by them, though, as one swipe can easily break several items in your inventory, regardless of whether they’re equipped or not (although quite how you “break” a berry or shot of medicine and get them fixed is anyone’s guess). You can still use broken healing items (though to slightly less effect), but others lose their ability altogether unless you get them repaired. Whether it’s a flower you wanted to give Elena or a precious metal to upgrade your sword, nothing is safe unless it’s stored safely in your trunk back at your base in the observatory. The only things that don’t break are your hunks of servant flesh– they just dry out instead if you leave them lying around in your bag too long.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about the timer (or as I like to call it, the “Elena’s about to turn into an almighty slug” bar). Just when you thought the Masters couldn’t get any tougher, Pandora’s Tower piles on the pressure by making them timed as well. In fact, everything is a constant battle against the clock here, because the longer you leave Elena unattended, the more she’ll transform into an oozing, purple monstrosity. It’s only by eating servant or Master flesh that helps stave off her curse, and if you don’t keep topping up her meat quota, you’ll get a nasty surprise the next time you return to the observatory.
More gruelling than watching Daenerys Targaryen munch on a raw horse heart.
In a way, this is perhaps why the servant monsters aren’t particularly bright, because unless you stumble upon a rare Shard of Divinity or have just defeated a Master, there’s no quick way back to Elena if you’re cutting things a bit fine. You’d be backtracking like there’s no tomorrow if you spent too long dealing with the servants, and while there are short-cuts available, more often than not you can only access them once you reach the very top of the tower.
Servant intelligence aside, though, there is an inevitable amount of backtracking involved if you don’t manage your time well. Not many towers can be completed in one sitting, but while it is a bit of a pain, it’s not all just about keeping Elena well-fed. If you take the time to chat with her and buy her presents from your strange merchant companion, Mavda, your bond will gradually grow stronger. You can’t chat with her continuously, mind, as she’ll only say a couple of things before reverting to a simple “What’s up?” or “Yes, Aeron?”, but the closer you become the more you’ll learn about why you’re here, the origin of Elena’s curse, and why you’re being pursued. It will also affect the game’s ending, and you can judge your progress by a handy affinity bar on the side of the screen.
The story itself is quite touching too when you finally uncover it. Despite its borrowing far and wide from other gameplay mechanics, Pandora’s Tower is surprisingly subtle when it comes to its narrative, and by keeping players on a slow drip-feed of plot points, supplemented by small notes you find scattered about the towers, it constantly feels like there’s something more to discover, something you’re not quite being told. From the small changes in Elena’s behaviour to the original purpose of the towers themselves, it resists the need to shove the whole thing down your throat in extended cut-scenes and instead lets you decide how much you want to know.
But as with everything else in Pandora’s Tower, where there’s a high, there’s also a low, and perhaps the most disappointing thing about this game is its obsession with copying– and I’m not just talking about its blatant copying from other games either. Nearly halfway through, after enjoying five wonderfully original towers, the next five towers are all carbon-copies of the originals. Granted they are different enough to make you feel like you’re not just playing the same tower again (the Masters are different, too), but it felt like a cheap way to extend the game and a downright slap in the face after having taken so many chances with it.
As I said at the beginning, this is a game full of gambles, and most don’t pay off the way you might expect. There are as many triumphs as there are failures, and it’s almost like it’s cursed by its own design. It certainly won’t be to everyone’s tastes– you’ll either love it or you’ll hate it– but if you can look past its flaws, there’s still plenty of enjoyment to be found underneath.