It seems like games these days have to have everything in order to please anyone. Every long-standing franchise is either adding multiplayer or simplifying gameplay in order to tick off as many boxes as possible to grab some extra market share (I'm looking at you, Ninja Gaiden). Pandora's Tower goes in the opposite direction and actually strips things down. Imagine a Zelda game in which you only have one person to talk to, one vendor, and no sprawling overworld between dungeons, but does stripping down a tried and true formula leave you with no fat, or just no soul?
Pandora's Tower is the last of the three “Operation Rainfall” targeted games and probably the one with the least hype behind it. When you compare a developer whose game catalog is 75% One Piece adaptations to Sakaguchi and Monolith Soft it's hard for Ganbarion to compete in hype. Luckily hype doesn't dictate quality, and Pandora's Tower is a pleasant surprise.
Hey kids, can you guess which part is his weakpoint?
You play as the soft spoken Aeron who is attempting to save his significant other, Elena, from the Beast's Curse. While running for their lives from the military, the couple meets a wandering merchant named Mavda who tells Aeron that in order to remove the curse from Elena she has to consume the flesh of beasts living in twelve towers. Nothing's ever easy though, and eating any old beast flesh will only delay her transformation; in order to completely remove the threat she has to eat the flesh of the twelve masters of the towers. Mavda gives you her people's 'Oraclos Chain' so that you can tear off pieces of the fiends you face, and then it's time to go meat hunting.
I always love games that focus in and don't try to do too much with their stories, and Pandora's Tower certainly exemplifies that ideal. Most of your time (when you aren't in the dungeon hunting) is spent just talking to Elena, reading historical documents, and giving her gifts. She's often not the best conversationalist - repeating lines a little too much for my liking - but as you progress the couple will reminisce about how they came together. It's a pretty cute relationship. Elena will also have dreams when she eats the master flesh that give you an idea of the backstory behind the twelve towers and Elena's curse, and how she changes throughout the game gives you some foreshadowing of what's to come. It's an interesting way to tell a love story, and is reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus (if Wander's girlfriend hadn't been on a slab the whole game). I guess the lesson here for developers is that if you want a meaningful romantic relationship in a game you have to take out all of distractions and superfluous characters.
Since you spend so much time simply interacting with Elena it's a god send that her voice acting is pretty decent. She flounders during some emotional scenes, but not nearly as badly as Aeron. Mavda's voice fits the character perfectly and I love the creepy old guy she randomly carries around on her back. The visual presentation is pretty lackluster though. For some reason it seems only a few developers are able to make games on the Wii without a significant number of jagged edges. Animations look off for minor details, like Aeron's running, there are some really choppy animations for enemies every now and then, and the lighting engine has a weird tendency to create shadows on the wrong side of walls. That said, I was surprised by how well the visuals were able to convey the disgusting nature of their ultimate task, thanks to the gruesome goop-slathered meat that Elena has to eat and the flapping tentacles that appear on her. I can't think of another game that tried to gross me out and succeeded so well.
How that shoulder tentacle of hers sways in the breeze is just too gross for words.
But you can't spend all of your time talking to Elena, or she'll turn into a tentacled monster, so it's time to go dungeon crawling. Weapons-based attacks utilise a very simple combo system and charged attacks for increased damage, and you can dodge and block like any other Action RPG, but what really makes the game unique is the Oraclos Chain that Mavda gives you. Pointing the Wiimote at the screen displays a reticule and pressing the Z button will send out the chain in the same way the hookshot has worked in Zelda since... well, forever.
Aeron's hookshot is better than Link's though because it isn't just for getting past obstacles, it's an integral part of the battle system. Every enemy you face can be grappled or generally detained by shooting the Oraclos Chain at different areas: shoot a flying monster in the wings and it'll be grounded; shoot someone in the head and the chain will wrap around so they can't see; shoot an enemy's weapon and you can yank it out of their hands. It's the most useful tool ever. I probably used the chain more often than I swung my sword when it was all said and done. Boss fights in particular are all about the chain. You can swing your sword at the bosses all you want but it's never going to hurt them in the slightest, instead you have to shoot your chain at the exposed monster flesh. Once the chain is hooked into the monster flesh you can strengthen it by holding the C button, which increases the damage done when you yank the chain out with a flick of the Wiimote.
I would, unfortunately, have to call most of the battles in Pandora's Tower pretty dull, though the boss fights are anything but dull. Each one plays out like a puzzle where you have to figure out exactly how to get the Master to expose his fleshy parts and the best timing needed to do as much damage as possible while you have the chance. Targets that move across a monster's body on a rail; mechanical monsters that you have to overheat before they'll open up; and huge four legged beasts that you have to get on top of to take down, it's all par for the course.
Link should seriously look into this hookshot
The other great part about the gameplay is the dungeons themselves. Each one plays out as a series of puzzles (again, like Zelda), as you try to gain access to the Master's final chamber. The themes repeat, but it's still smart dungeon design, and instead of having to teach you the tricks to a new dungeon before getting to the really tough puzzles at the end, the doubled up themes allow the game to just assume you know all of the mechanics so you can get straight to the difficult puzzles.
Pandora's Tower does commit one great gaming sin, and that's having a static, uncontrollable camera. The camera's designed based on the assumption that you'll kill any enemies before progressing through an area, and so if you deviate from that assumption at any point all of the enemies will attack from a gigantic blind spot. There's also a puzzle that's made much more frustrating by the static camera since you can't look around the giant room the puzzle is in. It's not something that constantly hampers your progress, but every now and then it makes the game unnecessarily frustrating.
Elena's impending beastly transformation means that you can't just explore the dungeons at your leisure. Her condition is constantly deteriorating (as depicted by a meter in the bottom left of the screen). What it boils down to is that you only have about 20 to 30 minutes before you have to run back to her with some kind of meat, Master or otherwise. A lot of the dungeons are designed with this in mind, so you can easily get back to the entrance when necessary, but a few dungeons require a bit of a slog and the teleportation items aren't plentiful enough to make use of every time you want to get back. It's a perfectly reasonable mechanic and makes sense in the context of the storyline, I just wish that every dungeon was designed with that mechanic in mind.
The only truly negative aspect of the stripped down game design is that Pandora's Tower is on the short side. My playthrough clocked in at just under 17 hours, which is quite short for an Action RPG or Zelda -esque game. It's not all bad news, though, since there are multiple endings based on how you treat Elena and you can replay the game from a couple of different points, so you don't have to wade through the entire game again in order to obtain the 'best' ending. There are no difficulty settings though, so seeing the different endings and exploring some previously locked rooms will have to be enough to justify your multiple playthroughs.
Apparently all you need to do to win over a girl is give her trinkets and listen to her stories
In some ways Pandora's Tower is actually the best of the three Wii JRPGs making their way to the West. Narrowing the focus down to just a handful of characters makes for properly fleshed-out, developed relationships, and the battle system has a uniquely Zelda-inspired flavor that makes for fun puzzles and boss fights. JRPG fans should definitely give Pandora's Tower a look; maybe you can even treat Elena well enough to get the perfect ending that I was never able to achieve.