Pandora's Tower has intrigued from the beginning

Friday 13th April saw the final part of the Operation Rainfall JRPG trilogy hit European shelves, with Pandora’s Tower following in the footsteps of Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story. Pandora’s Tower does feel like a rather odd member of what has become, in the eyes of most, a linked trio of releases. It has been consistently regarded alongside the other titles and bundled with them both directly and indirectly. Having played and reviewed all three games, we feel that this has led to a misunderstanding about what kind of title Pandora’s Tower is and has, potentially, elevated expectations to unreasonable levels.

Operation Rainfall and the desperation for new Wii games

Operation Rainfall, at its peak in the summer of 2011, represented different things depending on your point of view: our feature at the time, The Growing Storm of Operation Rainfall, outlined much of what made the campaign what it was and attempted to explain why it had come to pass. When Nintendo of America stated that it had no plans to bring three specific titles to its territory, gamers in North America in particular rebelled against a decision that seemed, on the surface, to be a rejection of a group of experienced or ‘hardcore’ Nintendo gamers. Japanese RPGs are, after all, traditionally regarded as some of the lengthiest, most complex and time-consuming experiences in the industry.

Part of Operation Rainfall's first campaign

On the other hand, however, frustration at withheld localisation of these titles was arguably a reflection of desperation for major releases on the Wii. Outwith The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, there was very little on the release schedule to capture the imagination of experienced gamers. With the console showing so little on the horizon, why wouldn’t Nintendo bring these titles to a worldwide audience?

When these three titles were bundled together as part of the Operation Rainfall movement, it seems that assumptions were made that they were all large-scale projects with a high degree of polish and an epic scale: an idea progressively given steam by the fact that, in Europe at least, all three releases have been published by Nintendo. Having now experienced Pandora’s Tower, it’s striking that it feels like it's on an altogether different level from its contemporaries: smaller in scale and with a technical performance suggestive of a less experienced team with a lower budget. It’s a good title, which is why we awarded a seven out of ten in our review, but it doesn’t successfully match the other JRPGs that gamers fought for last year.

The role of Nintendo and the marketing machine

It’s interesting to read the recent interpretation of an Iwata Asks for Pandora’s Tower, originally published back in May 2011 in Japan. The interview demonstrates that Ganbarion is a team of dedicated, hard-working professionals, notably embarking on its first original IP. Best known for its manga based releases, including eight One Piece titles either exclusively released in Japan, or little known outside of its homeland even when given broader distribution. Chikako Yamakura, a Director in the company and Producer for Pandora’s Tower, explained how it was a new experience for the company, as well as providing an insight into the core concept and target audience.

Our company had made games based on existing franchises, so I wanted to take up that gauntlet of producing something original. I’d always wanted to make a game that would appeal to boys, from students starting secondary school to around twenty years old. So that’s why I chose to put a woman at the centre of this game. I wanted to explore something that changed, something that underwent a transformation, and I decided that it could be this woman who undergoes that transformation.

An attractive collector's item

The same interview included two figures who represented Nintendo on the project, and the process outlined seems to be one of oversight and guidance. This was a title that represented a first step for Ganbarion, with its history of licensed titles, meaning that it was undergoing a challenging new venture. The final result is a mixture of a creative and enthralling action-RPG, combined with graphics and technical implementation that are limited and, in some respects, flawed. Standing on its own two feet, it’s a title with enough positives to earn a recommendation, with a niche appeal that would typically make it an experience suited to gamers with an attraction to the concept and, more generally, imported games.

Yet, this isn’t a limited-run localisation by an import specialist such as Atlus or Rising Star Games, but a title from Nintendo, with heavy online marketing and its own limited edition bundle. On the one hand this is pleasing to see, a title created with a great deal of effort and commitment being introduced to a wider audience. Another perspective is that it’s been swept into an unfamiliar position because of Operation Rainfall, a limited Wii release schedule and the emergence of a rare marketing opportunity to show gamers with a Wii that there is much to still enjoy on the console. The UK trailer, below, demonstrates this.

Does this categorisation of Pandora’s Tower, accompanied by the gorgeous limited edition set, mean that it’s ultimately burdened with unfair expectations? It’s possible that this is the case, because it’s not only very different stylistically from the other titles in that trailer, but also in terms of its experience. Critical reception does suggest that this title, though regarded well, doesn’t reach the standards of its contemporaries. Taken in the order from the advert, we’ve awarded The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword our top mark, Xenoblade Chronicles nine out of ten and The Last Story eight out of ten: Pandora’s Tower received seven. This trend isn’t restricted to this website, with this gradual slide being reflected on the imperfect, but nevertheless useful, Metacritic. We’d never suggest that review scores hold all of the answers, far from it, but it’s an interesting trend nevertheless. If you take it a step further, it was perhaps deliberate of Nintendo to localise these titles in a specific order, starting strongly and gradually working towards the less polished and refined releases.

Standing on its own two feet

These commemorative coins can be yours if you complete the trilogy

The intention of this feature is to point out that, on occasions, marketing and gamer perceptions don’t match well with the final product. It’s a hazard in any entertainment industry, though in the case of Pandora’s Tower Nintendo Europe appears to have been deliberate in its grouping of the Operation Rainfall trilogy: if you don’t believe us, check out the set of three commemorative coins. This title, if released on a limited print-run as a surprise import from Japan, would possibly be regarded as an intriguing purchase for those who enjoy games from the Land of the Rising Sun. Due to its release history and association with Operation Rainfall, however, it has an entirely different image and set of expectations.

When judging this title, it’s important to judge it on its own merits. It’s worth a purchase for fans of the action-RPG genre, and it explores ideas and implements game design principles that are clever and thought-provoking. It also lacks the grandiose scale of Xenoblade Chronicles, or the graphical prowess and attention to detail of The Last Story: these are unfair comparisons, however, arguably cultivated by fans and Nintendo itself. On a more positive note, it’s a title that perhaps deserves to ride on the ‘Operation Rainfall Trilogy’ band-wagon, a lower-budget experimental game that gets the opportunity to sample the big time. We’re pleased to see that it’s getting plenty of attention and media exposure, even if it’s ultimately the odd one out.