In the shadow of a colossus
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A young maiden lies in peril, victim of a tragic fate. A headstrong young hero aims to reverse her condition—and he’ll even go to the lengths of vanquishing more than a dozen monstrous, hulking beasts in order to do so.
No, this isn’t Fumito Ueda’s landmark 2005 PlayStation 2 classic, Shadow of the Colossus. This is Pandora’s Tower, the last of the three highly anticipated Operation Rainfall Wii RPGs to hit North America. And this obvious “borrowing” from other, more famous titles—whether wholly intentional or not—is a theme throughout the game. While the world itself found here is surprisingly imaginative and features some excellent visual design, the elements that populate the experience have all been seen before—and done far better—in games like Shadow of the Colossus, Ico, Persona, Etrian Odyssey, and Zelda.
That is, of course, if you can even successfully get the game to run in the first place. My Wii, like thousands of others across America, had been gathering copious amounts of dust over the past year or so. When I attempted to start Pandora’s Tower, the console clicked and whirred like some disc-devouring contraption that had suddenly gained sentience. In fact, I was lucky to pry the disc out of the console at all! Luckily, the Wii U is backward-compatible, so I decided to try out the office console instead; unfortunately, a certain editor’s kitten had chewed through the Wii Remote sensor bar.
I finally tracked down a working sensor bar, but if it hadn’t been my job to review Pandora’s Tower, I’d have probably thrown up my hands and retreated to the sweet embrace of Booker DeWitt and BioShock Infinite again, and I imagine plenty of other gamers will be in similar positions after dragging their Wiis out from storage.
But I’m glad I persevered, because Pandora’s Tower, while highly flawed, does provide a memorable twist on the conventional Japanese action-RPG. It’s also a bit of a paradox; despite the fact that so much of it seems cobbled together from better-known games, Pandora’s Tower certainly feels like a decidedly different experience. While little-known developer Ganbarion may not have the pedigree of Monolith (Xenoblade Chronicles) or Hironobu Sakaguchi (The Last Story), that doesn’t mean they’re any less ambitious.
To its credit, Pandora’s Tower dispenses with the traditional drawn-out Japanese RPG opening and gets right to the important stuff. The backstory is illuminated over the course of the game, but the basics are there from the start: Boy meets girl. Girl turns into hideous beast. Boy must explore 13 towers to feed her the heaping piles of beast flesh found within in order to reverse the curse. Oh, and did I mention she’s…a vegetarian?
Despite so much of the game focusing on the relationship between this couple—Aeron and Elena, for the record—I didn’t feel as though I actually got to know them any better over the course of my playthrough. I constantly fed her dripping helpings of meat not because I felt a particular attachment to her as a character, but because I didn’t like the sight of her as a hideous monster and wanted to remedy that injustice.
The game includes light “dating sim” elements that aim to increase your attachment to your cursed companion; if you chat with Elena or give her a gift, you can improve the relationship. None of this adds to the interplay between Aeron and Elena in any meaningful way, though, and I won’t excuse this failure simply because this is a Japanese game and something might’ve been lost in translation; I’ve seen far too many Japanese titles succeed with this sort of characterization over the years, and the fact that Pandora’s Tower botches this basic element when the entire game revolves around this relationship is a bitter pill to swallow. A game like Persona 4 can even handle minor platonic relationships with nuance, after all.
I also found the dungeon exploration here to be reminiscent of Persona—but, again, not in a good way. You’ll need to backtrack to Elena and constantly feed her beast flesh in order to stall her transformation, which is marked with a meter on the bottom-left corner of the screen. Unfortunately, this completely wrecks any sort of pacing or exploration Pandora’s Tower might have had. This sort of “countdown timer” works in Persona, where dungeon exploration is simply about advancing to the next floor; it doesn’t work when the majority of your time in dungeons is spent solving puzzles and unlocking doors. And, yeah, some might say that Etrian Odyssey—a series I adore—features constant backtracking to a base area, but again, that’s on your own terms. When I retreat back to town in Etrian Odyssey, it’s because I’m running out of health due to my own skill—not because some meter on the side of the screen arbitrarily says it’s time to go back.
Aeron’s equipped with a standard-issue hero sword, but he also has a whip-like chain, probably the coolest part of the combat system. You can use this Belmont-esque apparatus to rip apart flying enemies, which adds some variety to the combat, and easy targeting with the Wii Remote means that you can quickly choose your victim with the wave of your hand. Unfortunately, fixed camera angles really hinder the controls and exploration of the labyrinths. During one particularly frustrating area, I kept falling into the water not from lack of skill, but from lack of proper camera orientation. Ocarina of Time managed to deliver flawless 3D dungeon exploration more than a decade ago; when a 15-year-old game delivers a more polished experience, you’ve got major design problems.
The other huge issue here? The constant respawning of enemies. Anytime you return to a room, baddies magically pop back to life. Now, perhaps this is because the game realizes that you’ll always need a slab of meat to deliver back to Elena, but it’s just one more reason that back-and-forth throughout comes to feel like a massive chore—and why I had to constantly force myself to play through some of the game’s more trying areas.
Thankfully, though, Pandora’s Tower saves the best for last: the boss battles. While they clearly take an absurd amount of inspiration from Shadow of the Colossus—figure out the weakness of the hulking monstrosity in front of you—they offer enough strategy and intrigue that all of the frustrating backtracking almost seems worth it. But it’s also frustrating in that you wonder why this level of design ingenuity isn’t found elsewhere in the game.
In the end, then, Pandora’s Tower is much like its Operation Rainfall brethren, Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story. These are intriguing concepts worth playing for hardcore role-playing fans that certainly aren’t anywhere close to cookie-cutter Japanese RPGs—yet they still somehow manage to be less than the sum of their parts. I’m glad North America ultimately saw all three games, but the potential of these experiences far outweighs their ultimate payoffs.
|Developer: Ganbarion • Publisher: XSEED • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 04.16.13|
The last of the “Operation Rainfall Three,” Pandora’s Tower borrows heavily from Shadow of the Colossus—young lad must rescue his beloved from a gruesome fate by felling massive beasts—but you can’t help but think you’ve played a far better version of this game before. Hardcore Japanese RPG fans might forgive some of the glaring flaws here, but Pandora’s Tower certainly won’t have the mass appeal of Team Ico’s 2005 PS2 classic.
|The Good||Imaginative world design, impressive variety of different tower types|
|The Bad||Respawning enemies, repetitive gameplay, unruly fixed camera.|
|The Ugly||Dripping beast flesh.|
|Pandora’s Tower is a Wii exclusive.|