Wii owners who enjoy Japanese RPGs have been spoiled recently, especially those that live in Europe: Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story provide two very different flavours of Japanese gaming, and the trio of originally Japan-exclusive titles is complete with Pandora’s Tower. If you like challenging concepts, demons and unconventional character relationships, then this should be on your radar.
From the moment Pandora’s Tower loads it begins its mission to confuse and intrigue you in equal measure. A sudden montage of cut-scenes shows a young woman, Elena, ambushed by a mysterious beast while singing to an adoring crowd, with a curse appearing as a tattoo ingrained on her back. Your humble hero, Aeron, and a mysterious old woman called Mavda — who carries a skeleton companion in a basket on her back — are shown walking to an observatory that overlooks a black hole or ‘tear’ in the land, with enormous chains connecting your hub to an island packed with 13 towers. So far, so peculiar.
Unfortunately for Elena, and her budding relationship with your character, her curse is destined to turn her into an appalling monster. Her only hope of beating it rests with your ability to obtain Master Flesh from enormous bosses within the towers, which she consumes raw and reluctantly. It’s a dark and slightly disturbing premise, with the art design suitably styled with a low-key, muted palette. This isn’t a title that presents beautiful landscapes and vistas, but rather an experience in a dangerous, deteriorating world of struggle and suffering.
From the first tower that you stumble through to the initial moment of witnessing Elena eat raw monster flesh, you're drawn into a grim reality. This isn’t a flaw, but a deliberate artistic choice that challenges you to deal with the difficult environment. It’s an appropriate setting for a quest that, at times, feels like a desperate struggle. Unlike so many RPG experiences that allow dithering and side-tracking, this is an action title that constantly reminds you of the urgency of your task: you're reminded of Elena’s current condition at all times, and must ensure she receives beast flesh before she transforms into a monster. Ideally you’ll present her with Master Flesh, but a meal from a servant monster can also be given to put off the effects of the curse.
Every action you take revolves around Elena, narrowing the focus of the adventure in a fairly unconventional way. The storyline may throw in lore about warring races and past generations, but at its heart this is a basic tale of a boy trying to save a girl. Between tackling Masters and navigating the tower labyrinths, you must build an affinity with Elena by talking to her and giving her gifts: not taking too long between courses of curse-reversing beast flesh also helps. Ultimately, the stronger your relationship, the more satisfying of the multiple endings you’ll receive.
Cultivating this relationship, managing your own equipment and items – the usual fare of specialist weapons, valuable commodities and health replenishing goods – and levelling up Aeron represents the RPG element of this title. Mavda cunningly serves as a merchant and equipment upgrader, as well as fulfilling the role of slowly revealing plot secrets, so managing your resources often involves a degree of trading and weapon enhancements. Many of the goods you need to sell come from the towers themselves, yet you’re always in a hurry to return to Elena. That is ultimately the choice you have to make, keeping an eye on the health of your companion while trying to explore and find as many items as possible. It’s a clever mechanic, designed to keep you on edge.
The 13 towers themselves are generally well designed. Each has its own theme, and they feel like small, Zelda-style dungeons, with levers and simplistic puzzles liberally scattered around. Your basic goal is to destroy two enormous chains that lock the Master’s door, after which you confront the boss in order to steal their flesh. The boss encounters are impressive and epic, while the dungeon design is mostly strong, with the architecture often successfully disorientating you, making the time limit of Elena’s health seem even more punishing.
Exploring these towers and defeating the masters fulfils the action part, where all of your considered resource management and planning is put to the sword. Navigating Aeron is simple enough, while his weapons of choice are a sword – or varied blades that you discover – and a lengthy chain. The blades are self-explanatory and wielded with the A button, but the chain is your most valuable resource for battles and puzzle solving. When facing smaller enemies throughout the towers you can use the Wii Remote pointer to aim the chain and bind their limbs, throw them around the room or, with a flick of the Wii Remote, rip the chain painfully off their bodies. It’s possible for a button-only system on the Classic Controller or Classic Controller Pro, but the basic motion and pointer controls are particularly instinctive.
It’s a visceral and brutal weapon, with the only downsides being the game engine and some design flaws that undermine the battles. While targeting body areas of monsters works brilliantly there are often drops in frame-rate and, as a result, slightly delayed and slow input reactions. The mechanics are enjoyable and ripe for experimentation, but can become a chore due to the overall game performance; this is sometimes exasperated by recurring enemies that can take an eternity to polish off. These issues aren’t as problematic when using the chain for basic puzzle solving or navigation: there’s plenty of lever-pulling and chain-swinging to add to the diversity of what is, ultimately, a simple weapon.
In terms of concepts, Pandora’s Tower is therefore full of excellent ideas and potential. It’s a pity, then, that it’s so undermined by technical limitations, not all of which can be blamed on the ageing Wii hardware. In addition to frame rate drops on occasions, you’ll have to contend with an often poorly executed fixed camera. You have no camera control, and while large areas are displayed clearly to allow easy navigation, moving between smaller areas is an exercise in frustration. The camera isn’t dynamic enough in following your movements, so it will be common for on-screen clutter to obscure your view, even resulting in you missing your targets with chain attacks. Sharp camera changes between rooms feel like a relic of the late 1990s, and can lead to some brief confusion if a battle spills into a new area. It doesn’t break the game, but it does impact on the experience.
This title also struggles visually, with a seemingly low-budget graphics engine only saved by strong artistic design. The dull colour palette, while a sound choice artistically, does show up the basic graphical performance, while the zoomed-in view courtesy of the chain’s targeting system is horribly pixelated, with lagged movement contributing to the problem. Sound fares better in terms of atmospheric background music, though the voice acting is mediocre.
Pandora’s Tower delivers an involving resource and time-management RPG experience with an imaginative action and combat system. Its overall aesthetic, as well as its focus on a relationship between two characters, are bold design choices that work well as long as you’re willing to invest in the game world. It’s a pity that the experience, most notably the action segments that take up a large part of the 12-15 hour adventure, are partially undermined by technical failings: as a result it’s questionable whether many will engage in multiple playthroughs in pursuit of happier endings. This title has much to recommend it, as long as you’re willing to look beyond some of its faults.