Pandora’s Tower is the last remaining title in the triumvirate of Wii games that Nintendo has been steadfastly refusing to publish in North America. While Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story have secured a release date, the fate of Pandora's Tower continues to hang in the balance. Europeans, though, have been able to check out this game for themselves since early April. But what did they find at the bottom of the box? Hope for the JRPG? Or an exercise in despair?
To tell the truth, when artwork for Pandora’s Tower first began to surface, I was more than a little skeptical — the sketches looked gorgeous, but prominently featured the delicate heroine dressed in white, the very picture of holy victimhood. Neither did the developer’s name ring any bells — Ganbarion, a Japanese gaming company whose prior experience with console games rested solely on the making of One Piece spin-offs. Pandora’s Tower marks their first original release, and after the tribulations The Last Story put me through with its main romance, I was dreading a similar experience.
Imagine my surprise when what unfolded before me was a beautiful, compelling game with a level of body horror on par with something out of Silent Hill. The young girl Elena (Ceres in the Japanese version) is afflicted with a terrible curse that slowly begins to transform her body into a nightmarish creature that would do H. R. Giger proud. Her only hope of a cure lies in the Thirteen Towers stretching over a chasm in a distant land — she must consume the raw flesh of the monsters residing at the top of each in order to stave off the transformation process. The task of slaying these monsters falls — somewhat predictably — to her lover Aeron (Ende), who has to brave the dangers of the cursed towers with a magic chain as his only effective means of bringing down the masters.
Chained to You: Gameplay
While playing Pandora’s Tower, I began to feel strongly reminded of wandering the abandoned castle maze in Ico — a lofty comparison, maybe, but the ruined towers possessed much of the same oppressive beauty as the fortress Ico and Yorda were attempting to flee. Each tower presents a unique location with its own allure — overgrown with plants, stuffed with rusting machinery, made of glowing ore. Most of the towers are also in quite a bad shape, with broken staircases, crumbling ledges, sticky sap, malevolent flora and dark pits to present interesting puzzles.
Here is where the game’s chain motif comes into play on multiple levels. Each master (read: boss monster) resides behind a door sealed with multiple chains, whose origin points must first be located and destroyed in order to unlock the secret dwelling. To reach these origin points, the player must use the Oraclos Chain, a powerful mystical instrument that will quickly become your favorite tool to use. With it, you can drag objects, hit faraway targets, latch onto swings and ledges, and open doors. Here’s also where the Wii-mote truly shines, as you can use it to precision-aim the chain and time your jumps — though the game can be played with a classic controller, it loses some of its flair that way.
Apart from being your essential navigation tool, the Oraclos Chain is also your main asset for fighting monsters. Here is where what would otherwise be a fairly standard hack’n’slash becomes a clever bit of tactical combat: Although you do get your hands on a number of different weapons to be used alongside it, the chain is what adds variety to the fighting. With it, you can topple, bind or tie enemies together to inflict damage on multiple monsters. By aiming the chain, you can also “snipe” at long-range targets, or shackle them and swing them like a merry-go-round.
When a beast is downed, you must use the chain in order to extract loot, which differs depending on the body parts you choose to aim for. The most important item you can hope to extract besides crafting materials is the precious (and frankly shudder-inducingly disgusting) monster flesh, which Aeron must give to Elena in order to keep her human for a little while longer. To this end, the game employs a gauge that acts as a clock — as soon as you enter a tower, the meter begins to recede, indicating how much time Elena has left before she turns into a slavering grotesquerie.
This meter can be replenished by giving Elena monster flesh to eat, and will take longer to deplete after handing over the flesh of a boss monster. In fact, the masters of the Thirteen Towers are easily the highlight of the game — in Shadow of the Colossus fashion, you get to engage in thirteen highly strategic and quite grueling battles that require you to expose each master’s weak spot and attack it with the chain. You’ll likely find yourself dying a couple of times, but not to worry — the game will generously restart right before the boss chamber (with the timer reset), allowing you to devise a better strategy rather than climb the tower again from the bottom, cursing the gods of game design all the way.
The only complaint I’d have is the rarity of some raw materials which you need to forge new equipment or items, and the rather limited bag space at your disposal to carry them back. For the most part, items are expensive to buy off the game’s sole merchant, the enigmatic Mavda, and the things you’ll be needing the most of, you can usually only find once or twice per trip. If you’re lucky. Your backpack can be expanded by giving the proper materials to Elena, but there is still a fair amount of packing involved as you constantly unload your findings into the trunk back at Elena’s place in order to have room again. That aside, the crafting system works pretty well — for one, it doesn’t cost money, just materials, and for another, as you find more materials, you can unlock different recipes to save your rarer loot for when you really need it.
All in all, this is an engaging game system that keeps the pressure going while also offering a tactical side and a fair amount of puzzles that help to express the unique atmosphere of the architecture.
Until I return to your side: Story
At the heart of Pandora’s Tower lies the love relationship between Elena and Aeron, and since so much of the game hinges on the player’s drive to help Elena, Ganbarion did a superb job in making them sympathetic characters. As an outcast PTSD-sufferer, it’s easy to see why the ex-soldier Aeron would feel drawn to Elena’s esprit and sweetness. Meanwhile, Elena’s despair over her condition as well as her worry for her beloved come across as very genuine (helped in part by a truly excellent voice actress).
However, what really sold me on her as a character was seeing her afflicted with the curse after I took too long returning from the first tower — horribly disfigured, covered in oozing pus and pulsing boils, Elena was desperately trying to mop up her own bodily fluids, promising that she would finish cleaning this real quick and that she was alright, all the while being in too much pain to even stand. It was the moment I really became invested in helping Elena recover, and trying to time my trips so she wouldn’t be put through unnecessary pain. Seeing her choke down the slimy, pulsating monster flesh each time was more than heart-rending enough.
To cement the romance aspect, the game contains a system for relationship-building, symbolized by a glowing chain that grows the stronger the lovers’ bond becomes. By having Aeron converse with Elena, giving her little gifts and spending time with her, their bond will grow, unlocking small scenes between them, earning you useful items and paving the way to the six different possible ending scenarios (ranging from bad to perfect).
Once again I found myself surprised by the fact that I actually wanted to see Aeron and Elena spend time together. Pandora’s Tower conveys their love through a series of small moments the player can trigger at different times of the day, the atmosphere alternating between the innocent shyness of a pair of first-time lovers and the looming threat of Elena’s worsening condition, which brings with it changes in her mood and behavior. What permeated every scene was the sense that these two characters need each other, and while it is possible to purposely neglect Elena by just not spending time with her and always returning much too late, it needs a heart of stone to even try.
However, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows in story land — where Pandora’s Tower falls flat is with its overarching plot, simply because it is a plot that is kept permanently on the backburner and so doesn’t feel at all necessary. The game designers have tried to tie the story of Aeron and Elena’s fate into a larger one of a war between their two nations (Elena’s curse is used as an excuse to start hostilities again). However, this story is exclusively told by periodic reports handed to you by Mavda, which feels a lot like reading the newspaper on something that happened on the other side of the world. It is hard to feel that the brewing war is a real threat, or that the soldiers we’re told are in hot pursuit of the couple are doing any pursuing. Pretty much all the external story elements could have easily been dropped in favor of just focusing on Aeron, Elena, and the world of the towers.
I used to love singing, you know: Graphics and Sound
The Wii tends to be the target of much condescension from game reviewers because of its inferior hardware — many times, you’ll hear that the Wii “ruined” a game, yet it is very easy to see why it would be an attractive console for a smaller company such as Ganbarion, unable to raise the funds of a SquareEnix title and spend years styling the graphics to proper HD quality.
Hardware restrictions or no, Pandora’s Tower presents a lush world full of color and interesting details. The towers never grow visually boring, and the couple’s home base on the outskirts of the Thirteen Towers changes in lots of small ways depending on the time of day, laundry getting hung out to dry, flowers being raised in the front yard, Elena sewing a variety of bedspreads and working on translating old texts.
The character animation is truly lovely — particularly Elena’s, who gets a lot of close-ups during conversations, possesses a lively and expressive face capable of conveying every subtle emotion. As you start giving her gifts, not only does she distribute the carpets, potted plants and books around the house, but she also begins to wear different outfits and alternating jewelry. The transformation and flesh-eating sequences are among the most unsettling bits of body horror the industry has to offer, ruthlessly showing the effects of a condition that steals both beauty and body control away from its victim.
I’ve already mentioned Elena’s fantastic voice actress (Charlotte Sanderson in the PAL version), but she bears mentioning again for being able to convey every change in mood and attitude without sounding at all like she is reading off a script. Mavda (Ann Beach) is sufficiently croaky to show her age, while bringing across the air of someone who knows much but is unwilling to share the details. Aeron (Ryan Philpott), while having few voiced lines for some reason, also has a pretty nice voice that conveys his withdrawn and subdued nature.
That aside, Pandora’s Tower boasts a soundtrack of ominous hymns and variations on Franz Liszt’s “Liebesträume” that serve as the backdrop for Aeron and Elena’s love relationship. While the main aria is beautiful, some of the pieces playing in the towers got a bit grating at times since they offered comparatively little variation, and their changing volume could be distracting.
Dying with beauty, or living with ugliness
I admit I have grown somewhat cynical regarding Japanese games as more and more developers opt for clichéd writing and poorly designed, spectacle-laden cutscene fests to convey a torturously generic plot, but two of the “Operation Rainfall Three” have managed to prove what dedication and a passion for the craft of game design can do. Pandora’s Tower is perhaps the most risky game of the three since it experiments with a fairly minimalistic narrative and relies exclusively on its main couple (particularly Elena) to keep the player invested. However, it is an experiment well-done and easily on par with (if not better) than some triple-A titles out there. If you love sweet romance and/or puzzles and exploration, this is definitely a game worth checking out.
Title: Pandora's Tower