Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Pandora's Tower (Nintendo Wii) Review

           The first time I booted up Pandora’s Tower, I was immediately taken in by the lonely, haunting atmosphere of the title screen. A mysterious structure hangs suspended by massive chains over a vast chasm as a mysterious, reverberating wind resonates just barely within earshot. After the camera pans back, revealing more of this bizarre environment, the game’s logo materializes into view. No music. Nothing else. Prior to playing the game, I had only maybe seen one or two trailers for Pandora’s Tower and I knew the basic nature of the plot. But that was it. I almost didn’t even buy the game, but ended up getting it merely to complete the “Operation Rainfall” trilogy of Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story, and Pandora’s Tower. For those who don’t know, Operation Rainfall was a fan-driven campaign to get Nintendo to bring these three games to the US, where Nintendo Wii owners were hungry for games during the console’s sparse final years. It would have been a real shame if I had passed this game up, because it turned out to be something quite special.  
After a brief introductory cut-scene breezes through some confusing events and introduces the game’s three main characters while bringing them to the game’s main setting, the game starts. Despite the entire situation not being quite clear at first, the goal of the game’s protagonist is made very clear from the start. The basic plot is this: you play as Aeron, a young solider whose girlfriend, Elena, has been afflicted with a horrifying curse. This curse is slowly turning Elena into a hideous monster and the only way to break this curse, according to a mysterious old woman named Mavda that accompanies the couple on their journey, is by having Elena eat disgusting purple flesh from beasts that inhabit what is known as the Thirteen Towers. The Thirteen Towers are, well, thirteen towers that combine to form a single massive fortress that is suspended via several gigantic chains over The Scar, which is a vast chasm in the middle of a barren wasteland. Aeron’s main goal is to defeat the twelve “Masters” of the towers and bring back their flesh for Elena to eat so the curse can be lifted and her terrible fate averted. If you’ve played Shadow of the Colossus, you might understand the parallels here as the ultimate goal of both games is to best a number of unique bosses to save a loved one’s life. The game’s quiet, isolated atmosphere also gives me ICO and Shadow of the Colossus vibes. 

                Pandora’s Tower revolves entirely around the bond between Aeron and Elena. Aeron is a taciturn young man (he’s almost a silent protagonist and has very little spoken dialogue; just something worth mentioning because it stuck out to me) that is clearly willing to do anything for Elena, even if it means sacrificing his own life. Elena, likewise, cares very deeply for Aeron and feels guilty for putting him through such danger for her sake. The couple’s relationship is the axis around which the entire plot spins and therefore it’s crucial that the player care about Elena and want to save her. The game mostly succeeds on this front. The story puts the player in Aeron’s shoes and goes to a lot of effort to make Elena a likable character that we want to help. I pitied Elena’s terrible fate and I really did care about helping her and I also really wanted the couple to have a happy future. Elena’s urgent situation makes for great motivation for the player. Aeron isn’t fulfilling his destiny as some kind of great hero or he isn’t saving the world from some big evil force, he’s just trying to save the life of the woman he loves. This is a personal story. The urgency of the situation isn’t merely imposed on players in cut-scenes either, but is actually constantly on the player’s mind because of an in-game timer that is constantly depleting while Aeron explores the towers.

The game contains two main environments: the Observatory, which is a structure on the outskirts of The Scar that acts as the player’s home base, and the Thirteen Towers, where all the action takes place. Aeron must explore the towers and acquire beast flesh from the various monsters that roam the towers. This flesh curbs Elena’s curse, but only temporarily. While in the towers, the clock is constantly ticking, and if Aeron takes too long, Elena will slowly undergo the transformation into a hideous beast. In order to prevent this, Aeron must bring beast flesh back to Elena. Eating this flesh will buy the couple some time, but in order to fully destroy to curse, all twelve pieces of “master flesh”, which can only be acquired from the twelve bosses of the towers, must be consumed.

                The time limit imposed on Aeron while he is in the towers forces the player to manage their time effectively and to consistently return to the Observatory, and it also makes sure the player is always keeping Elena first in their thoughts. It’s downright heartbreaking to return to the Observatory just a little too late and to find Elena half-transformed into a beast and to hear her apologize for the purple goop that spills onto the floor when this transformation happens. It’s also physically nauseating to watch her reluctantly take a piece of pulsating, goopy monster flesh and bite into it, practically gagging on the meat she is forced to eat and then nearly coughing it up. Oh yeah, and Elena is also a vegetarian because of her religion, so the experience is doubly unpleasant for her. 

While in the Observatory, Aeron can rest up to heal himself, find old documents lying around that Elena can translate, buy and sell items at a shop that Mavda runs, as well as use the wide variety of strange materials that Aeron finds in the towers to upgrade his weapons and also fuse these items together to create new items. Aeron can also talk to Elena and give her gifts like plants and decorations that make the Observatory more homey, as well as jewelry such as bracelets and necklaces. The whole aspect of Elena waiting around for her boyfriend to help her and the process of giving her new clothes and jewelry to make her like you more feels a little bit like old-fashioned sexism, but Elena’s not exactly a fighter like Aeron is, and most of the couple’s bonding moments come from talking and sharing personal moments rather than from Aeron peppering her with gifts. I like the feeling of having a “home base” in an adventure game, a place that is always there for the player no matter how dangerous their adventure becomes. Naturally, I enjoyed the back and forth between the towers and the Observatory, despite the process becoming very routine and repetitive as the game went on. While in the Observatory, an affinity gauge is visible. Over the course of the game, the player can raise the affinity between Aeron and Elena by talking to Elena, giving her gifts, and by successfully curbing her curse. If the player allows Elena to begin her transformation or gives her a gift that she doesn’t like, the couple’s affinity is negatively affected. I cannot stress the importance of this affinity gauge enough, as it will directly affect the ending of the game, which varies wildly depending on your affinity.

                Essentially, Pandora’s Tower is an action-adventure reminiscent of games like the Legend of Zelda and Castlevania series. Aeron starts out with a sword and acquires a few more weapons in the towers to use in battle. Each weapon features unique attack animations and each one can be upgraded to gain more attacking abilities. The basic combat is simple, featuring standard light and heavy attacks depending on how long the player holds the attack button down, and whether or not they press the button at the right time to unleash stronger combos. The combat could have been deeper in the department of basic attacks, but it’s still satisfying, if not repetitive, to nail a successful combo chain and dig into an enemy. There’s a nice sense of connection when you strike a monster head on, although the game could have benefited from a lock-on feature. Also, unless multiple foes gang up on you, the regular enemy battles in the game are usually fairly simplistic. Once you knock an enemy down for the first time, they’re basically stunned and it’s only a matter of continuously combo-ing them until they fall for good.

 The game’s main gameplay hook comes in the form of the Oraclos Chain, which is a mystical artifact that Mavda bestows upon Aeron. Much of the game’s unique, elegant design revolves around this chain. Aeron can use the chain for a wide variety of purposes, from combat to navigating the towers. In combat, the chain can be used to bind enemies to restrict their movement, swing them around by shaking the Nunchuk, and rip out their flesh by flicking the Wii Remote, among other actions. Outside of combat, the chain can be used for everything from grappling to ledges, swinging across pits, picking up items from afar, pulling boxes around, pulling levers and doing all manner of actions to solve puzzles. Aeron can also use a magnifying-glass-like ability to zoom in and spot objects from afar and can also zoom in on a monster to watch them in slow motion and target a specific part of their body with the chain. You might target an enemy’s helmet for example and rip it off with the chain so you can do more damage. Or you can target an enemy’s weapon and rip it out of their hand, toning down their offensive capabilities. Combining the chain’s abilities with normal attacks is often crucial in combat, especially with large groups of monsters, and although you may find yourself using a lot of the same tactics over and over again, it’s still a unique and fun system.

 One might think of Pandora’s Tower as a Zelda game that revolves around the use of a single, multi-faceted item. Instead of acquiring several tools to progress in your adventure, the player uses one extremely useful tool for a variety of different actions throughout the game. The Oraclos Chain is basically The Legend of Zelda’s Hookshot with a ton of different uses. I love this concept and it’s executed very well here. The Oraclos Chain is very fun to use and the controls are very intuitive as well. Players need only to use the Wii pointer to aim at anything in the environment (the game can also be played with a Wii Classic Controller, but I never tried it). If the chain can be used to interact with an object, a cursor will light up and the chain can be fired at it (if you’ve played Super Mario Galaxy 2, the chain works exactly like Yoshi’s tongue in that game). The pointer controls are very intuitive and mostly work great, except for a few occasions when I meant to fire the chain at something, but it didn’t work for some reason. I can’t really explain these mishaps and they were rare, but it’s worth noting that motion control like this, while beneficial in a lot of ways, still can irritate when I mean to do an action and, due to my own ineptness or not, fail at that action. Conventional button controls don’t have this problem and never will. When I mean to do a specific action, I can always count on a specific button or combination of buttons to perform that action. This said, I don’t think this game would be as fun or work as well without the pointer control, despite these rare instances of unreliability. 

The game’s many towers serve as dungeons full of enemies to conquer and problems to solve. The earlier towers are more linear, but later ones open up and can become quiet confusing. It’s necessary to explore multiple paths and memorize a tower’s spatial layout, especially because escaping quickly to return to Elena and give her flesh is important. The towers’ designs take this into account and feature many shortcuts that lead back to the entrance that can be opened as the player explores (additionally, an item that instantly warps Aeron back to the Observatory can be acquired in the game). The ultimate goal in each tower is to destroy a certain number of chains (the number of chains vary in each tower, with later towers adding on more chains than earlier ones) that serve as a lock on the massive door that leads to the boss’s chamber. One end of these chains is attached to the boss door and the other end is anchored to the ground, and it is this point of connection, hidden in special rooms throughout the towers, which must be destroyed. After defeating the boss and acquiring its “master flesh”, it’s back to the Observatory to give the flesh to Elena and then on to the next tower. 

The bosses in the game are very creative (in terms of both visual and gameplay design) and each one requires a different strategy in order to defeat it. These bosses are unique as far as adventure games go because the ultimate goal isn’t to continuously attack the boss until it falls, but instead the goal is to use the Oraclos Chain to rip out the beast’s glowing master flesh (which comes in the form of a glowing orb of sorts located somewhere on the boss’s body). While some bosses require you to attack them in conventional ways in order to stun them, these bosses mainly require the player to think in a different way. The goal isn’t to destroy them with a barrage of attacks, but to locate and slowly rip this master flesh out. This process requires the player to latch onto the flesh with their chain, charge the chain’s power by slowly pulling it, and then rip at the flesh. Fully excavating the flesh will require several charged pulls with the chain, with more fully charged ones doing more “damage” and bringing the player closer to fully tearing the flesh out of the creature’s body. It’s very satisfying when you finally wear a boss down and rip their master flesh out with one final yank of the Wii Remote (although, watching the poor things scream and finally perish made me feel a bit guilty for killing these creatures, which were minding their own business before I came along. This aspect is another element that Pandora’s Tower has in common with Shadow of the Colossus, although it isn’t quite as moving or pronounced as in Team ICO’s masterpiece). The design of having to locate and figure out how to access a boss’s master flesh makes each boss more of a puzzle than anything (I hate to keep drawing parallels with Shadow of the Colossus, but…), and I quite like this approach. These creatures will do everything in their power to protect this flesh, however, and some of these bosses can be quite frustrating. Sometimes, I felt things could have been a little clearer as to what I should be doing and for some of these creatures, I felt like I defeated them in the wrong way, and like there would have been a more efficient way to deal with them. As I said, I like having to figure out how to ultimately solve each boss, but if the game still allows me to beat them without ever having that “Aha!” moment, it can make for lengthy, frustrating fights that aren’t very satisfying to complete. For the most part though, the bosses were a lot of fun to fight and each one involved figuring out how to get to the master flesh and then the process of latching onto it and ripping it out while avoiding the creature’s attacks.

Pandora’s Tower isn’t incredibly technically impressive on a graphical level, but the art direction is decent enough, and shines brightly in some areas, such as boss designs. Some towers’ visual designs certainly stand out more than others, with the eleventh and twelfth towers deserving special mention, but overall all the towers, despite having unique themes, contain a lot of the same art assets and I feel that more could have been achieved artistically to make these areas more visually distinct. To use another Zelda comparison, if you play any of the 3D Zelda games, every single dungeon is painstakingly crafted down to the finest detail, with every one having a unique theme, visual design, and accompanying musical piece. This sort of variety is important in a lengthy adventure game (and Pandora’s Tower is surprisingly lengthy). Pandora’s towers possess different themes, but visually they still all have the same sort of generic-looking metallic/stone architecture. The most stunning sight in the game is actually the view of the Thirteen Towers from the Observatory, which I never got tired of looking at (basically, the view seen at the title screen). Musically, things are also a bit on the redundant side. While I do think the game possesses a fair deal of good atmosphere, there are only about three musical tracks that will play in every single tower for the entire game. These tracks manage to never become annoying because they’re mainly environmental and are akin to background noise. Oftentimes there’s no music at all playing in Pandora’s Tower. Again, this supports the game’s quiet atmosphere, but a game can still have this kind of atmosphere and also possess varied and beautiful music. Just look at the Metroid series, and again, the dungeon music from the Zelda series. The orchestrated music that plays during boss battles and cut-scenes is high quality, if not very memorable. The exception (as far as memorability goes) is the game’s main theme and also the music that plays during the final boss (which incorporates the main theme), which I quite enjoyed. I’ve heard that a lot of the music in the game is based on real-life classical music, so that’s pretty nifty.

The simple structure of going to the towers and then returning to give Elena flesh, rest, and buy and create items works well enough, and the player is rewarded with more information about the layered mystery of the story after giving Elena master flesh. There’s actually a lot more going on in Pandora’s Tower than you might think. The game contains a rich narrative that slowly unravels over the course of the game and as the player progresses onward, more and more of a detailed, well-realized world is unveiled. Pandora’s Tower is primarily an action-adventure game, but it contains an RPG-sized level of lore and mythology for its universe. I was surprised by the level of details and lore that the game contained, as I was expecting a simplistic action game. 

In addition to its detailed lore, much of which is revealed to the player through countless documents they can find in the towers and in the Observatory, the game also features armor and accessories for Aeron to equip, a leveling system, and various strange items to collect for fusing and upgrading. In this way, the game features quite a number of traditional RPG elements. There’s even a New Game+ option after finishing the game and achieving one of its multiple endings, in which the player retains all of their stats and equipment and new areas can be accessed in the towers and new items can be found. The item fusing system in the game is very robust and there are tons of materials to experiment with and tons of unique items to create. There are healing items, items that enhance Aeron’s attributes like attack and defense, items that damage enemies, and items that can be given to Elena as gifts. It’s fun to strategize and plan whether to buy a needed item for a high price or use found items to fuse the item instead. Oftentimes, fusing is smarter because money is scarce until the later portions of the game. I actually found this to be unbalanced because early in the game I was struggling to cope with Mavda’s high prices and my limited funds, but by the later portions of the game I had more money than I knew what to do with. Part of the reason for this is that Mavda pays Aeron for the various documents and notes he finds and pays more for those found later in the game. As I mentioned before, each weapon can also be upgraded up to ten times by finding certain items. After reaching certain levels, these weapons gain new attacking abilities and combos can be lengthened to tear through the beasts in the towers more efficiently. 

The overall structure of Pandora’s Tower is very repetitive and although early on in the game I truly felt terrible for Elena, watching her choke down horrible flesh from beasts, as the game goes on, this process becomes routine, and although the narrative addresses this, my sympathy for Elena did begin to wane and the experience started to feel more like a video game. In addition, the process of raising the couple’s affinity also becomes routine and after its novelty wears off, it begins to feel more like just another game mechanic. I never stopped caring about the plot, and I was satisfied with the resolution, but it’s a shame that the novelty of the experience begins to wear thin the longer the game goes on. This issue highlights one of my main problems with the game and that is that it simply goes on for too long. I already mentioned how the game has many RPG elements, but it’s still a fairly straightforward action-adventure game. The experience is pretty cut and dry: thirteen dungeons, thirteen bosses: Go. I don’t think a game with such a simple concept like this should last up to almost 40 hours, which it did for me. I’ll again compare the game to Shadow of the Colossus, an experience that stripped all the filler out and focused on a simple, straightforward goal. The player is free to take the experience in at their leisure in that game, taking the time to explore the world if they choose, or plow straight through the game’s 16 amazing colossus encounters. Filler shouldn’t be anywhere near a focused emotional story like Shadow of the Colossus or Pandora’s Tower, but unfortunately the latter half of Pandora’s Tower feels like it could have been trimmed in favor of a more condensed experience.

                Minor spoilers ahead, not for the game’s story, but simply for the way the game progresses. After finishing the game’s first five towers in a linear order (finish one tower, another one is unlocked and so on), the next five towers are all simultaneously unlocked and the player is free to choose any of these they wish and complete them in any order they want to. The problem is that these next five towers mirror the first five, both in terms of level design and their themes. You see, twelve of the game’s thirteen towers represent the twelve gods of the prominent religion in the game’s story, the way of Aios. As I said, everything in the game revolves around Aeron and Elena’s relationship, and there is a huge theme of duality in the game. There are six male gods and six female goddesses. There are six elements in the game’s religion and these elements serve as the themes for each tower (wood, earth, water and so on). So basically, after exploring all the male versions of these elements (except for one element, which is saved for the eleventh and twelfth towers), Aeron ventures to their female counterparts. This is an intriguing concept and it serves the story in the game, but the game doesn’t do much interesting with it until the eleventh and twelfth towers which are unlocked after completing the second set of five. These last two use the duality concept in a clever, if not entirely original, way and manage to be the best-designed levels in the game. So the first five towers are unique, and the last two are unique (Spoiler alert again here, but the thirteenth tower is more of a set-piece than a full level, but it achieves what it’s going for well), but those five in the middle definitely end up feeling like padding. Although the goddess towers still feature unique problems to conquer and altered layouts from their male counterparts, they also feature familiar aesthetics, design elements, and themes. These towers are well-designed and they are still satisfying to complete; they just feel like retreading the same ground, instead of wholly unique new environments. Something good that can be said about these familiarly-designed levels though is that by revisiting design elements that the player learned in the earlier towers, they build upon those elements and introduce more complicated design to the player that is ultimately more satisfying to solve than the earlier towers. I suppose it could be said that the main problem with the goddess towers then isn't one of level design, but one of familiar, uninteresting themes, and also that these levels stretch the game out a little too much. All this said, none of this ruins the experience, only hampers it.

                Luckily, the towers’ bosses remain unique throughout. Looking forward to each big boss encounter was an aspect of the game that kept me engaged, as it was a lot of fun just to find out what each new master was going to be like. This aspect is strengthened by notes that can be found in each tower that explain elements of the bosses and serve to “hype” them up in a sense. Again, I’m reminded of Shadow of the Colossus, where I also found a lot of pleasure in anticipating each new boss.

                If the whole game was set up like the last two towers are (which I don’t want to spoil), the experience might have been more interesting and the mirrored nature of the towers might have worked better. Or, with some adjustments to the story, I wouldn’t have minded exploring the Eight Towers instead of the Thirteen. They could have just made these eight a little bit meatier and added more content to them. Ultimately, a game that relies so much on maintaining a strong emotional attachment with the player just doesn’t benefit from this kind of padding. A more focused, condensed experience is best in this case.

                 Before wrapping up, I feel it’s necessary for me to mention one very annoying glitch in the NTSC version of the game (not sure if it’s in other versions). I researched it online and it seems to be a glitch that many encountered. When I reached the eleventh tower and tried to return to it after a visit to the Observatory, the game froze on the tower’s loading screen and made an odd buzzing noise. Only by turning off the console (resetting would not work for me) and booting it back up again could I continue. Luckily I’d always save in the Observatory before my game froze, so I never lost any progress because of this glitch. This freezing happened to me without fail every time I would try to re-enter the eleventh tower after a single visit to the Observatory in a specific play session. I’ve heard this also happens with the twelfth tower as well, and I’ve heard about different variations of the glitch, such as not being able to return to the eleventh and twelfth towers after unlocking the thirteenth one. I never tried to re-enter them so I can’t confirm this aspect, but apparently, only by going to the thirteenth tower and back again can you go back to the eleventh and twelfth towers without them freezing. More about the glitch can be found here on Destructoid.com, although the editor who writes about it there seems to have not encountered my situation, but the latter situation mentioned above about not being able to return to the eleventh and twelfth towers after unlocking the thirteenth one. While not game-breaking by any means, this glitch is still annoying and a pretty big oversight. Consider this a warning if you plan on playing the game.

                Pandora’s Tower is a very memorable game, from its unique premise to its moving and intriguing story to its unique gameplay hook in the form of the Oraclos Chain. I really like the idea of a game designed around a multifaceted, useful tool like this, and using the chain in combination with weapons and wits is very satisfying. While it doesn’t reach the heights of the games that I feel inspired it, perhaps comparing it to them is unfair. Pandora’s Tower is its own beast, and has a strong identity by itself. There was something really special about the nights that I spent exploring deadly labyrinths and returning to what began to feel like my home in the Observatory to see what new items I could fuse, or to find some previously undiscovered old documents lying around the basement that unveiled more of the adventure’s layered story, or to just talk to Elena or take in the peaceful atmosphere of the firefly-filled courtyard. Despite my feelings about the game going on for a little too long, and its routine nature toning down the narrative’s emotional impact, I still never stopped caring about Aeron and Elena. At the end of it all, I grew really attached to the couple and I wanted them to be happy. Since the game ultimately inspired this feeling in me, I’d call it a success.

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