Pandora's Tower is very different from its fellow localised JRPGs, the other Operation Rainfall darlings. Unlike Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story, it's an action-adventure game that has more in common with Zelda series than any traditional grindy yarn. Its developer, Ganbarion, doesn't have the masterful experience of Mistwalker and Monolith Soft; having only specialised in lacklustre anime tie-ins. This odd proposition from a rank upstart sticks out like a sore thumb - it's the black sheep of a distinguished, elite family.
But at its core, Pandora's Tower shares one major similarity with The Last Story and Xenoblade Chronicles: it's built around a love story.
A non-traditional love story, to be sure. After a beautiful and innocent maiden finds herself stricken with a magical curse that threatens to transform her into a slavering, tentacular demon, she's whisked from the baying townsfolk by the golden-haired hero Aeron and a sinister old crone who has a skeletal man strapped to her back. Escaping the lynch mobs, the unlikely trio ends up at The Scar, a gash in the Earth that's held together by thirteen monster-infested towers. Mavda, our aforementioned sinister crone, reveals that there's only one cure to lift the curse: raw flesh ripped straight from the towers' denizens. If Aeron can defeat the thirteen masters and secure their hearts, all will be well... but the clock is ticking.
What follows is an odd mix between action-adventure and dating sim. While Aeron spends most of his time hacking and slashing his way towards tower masters (bosses), you'll have to frequently return to base camp with fleshy offerings for Elena to consume and temporarily regain some semblance of humanity (represented by resetting a timer in gameplay terms). However, the relationship between the two lovers is under immense strain, and it's up to players to use some of their precious time and resources to buy gifts, acquire homely decorations and talk to their afflicted sweetheart. The couple's affinity at the end of the game governs which ending you receive, thus giving players an exercise in credit crunch austerity as they spread income between upgrades and trinkets.
Watching a young, innocent couple attempt to build a life for themselves in an impossible situation is profoundly touching, and a premise that few games tend to explore to any great degree.
It's worth noting that Pandora's Tower never shies away from the thoroughly nasty. Elena is a vegan, and watching her splutter, gag and cry while forcing down her rancid morsels is incredibly uncomfortable no matter how many times you see it. Again, it's an unflinching direction for a Wii game - any game, in fact - to take, and further helps players sympathise with the couple's plight.
Annoyingly, a couple of issues endeavour to make players fall out of love with the romance. Chief amongst them is the woefully-designed leading man, who defies all attempts at sympathy or empathy. Aeron proves to be too stoic and bland to develop any semblance of a genuine personality, but talks too much (or issues gormless gasping noises every five seconds in general conversation) to let players read themselves into him. Worse, he's that classic anime cliche: the implausibly fey, outrageously feminine and aggravatingly naive youth who Western audiences simply can't engage with on any level. If Japanese developers are serious about cracking the American and European markets, Aeron should be used as a case study in failure.
Scripting is also a little off, and though the voice acting is generally good, the talent doesn't usually have much to work with. Despite Mavda's disturbing presence and the constant nauseating consumption of dripping demonic internal organs, character dialogue is contrived, stilted and somewhat predictable.
Thankfully, though, Aeron and Elena's relationship is earnest and charming enough to act as a fiercely compelling draw - and a genuine gameplay hook rather than a traditional storyline trope. As far as I'm concerned, it's my favourite part of the game - and the most important.
Speaking of hooks, it's time to explore the gameplay in more detail. Despite the presence of a highly derivative experience, upgrade and inventory system, Pandora's Tower is very much an action-adventure game. Aeron journeys through thirteen monster-infested towers in the pursuit of juicy Master Flesh; hacking, slashing and gaining the occasional new sword in the process.
Swordplay is very basic (if serviceable) one-button fare, but it pales in comparison to the Aeron's primary chain weapon. This versatile armament, the Oraklos Chain, can be used to temporarily bind foes, tether them to the scenery (or other monsters), rip off armour, yank airborne foes out of the air and even interact with the environment. For once, WiiMote and nunchuck controls work much better than the classic controller, and it gives manipulating the chain a nifty tactile feel.
Bosses are a particular highlight. These lumbering, satisfyingly varied brutes all subscribe to the grab obvious weak point with your chain and pull until dead school of boss design, but all offer a totally unique challenge. Interestingly, they won't attack until you make the first move, which is thought-provoking in itself. Not to put too fine a point on it. You'll see.
And throughout, you'll be under the cosh of a tight time limit. Elena will constantly devolve into her horrific demon form while you're exploring the towers, and working out when to forge forward or when to bow out with a much-needed chunk of flesh brings a constant sense of urgency to the proceedings. Every decision you make is influenced by the inexorable cost in seconds and minutes - do you dare explore for greater rewards at the risk of your beloved's life?
All the components of a truly great game are present and correct... and would have been assembled into a masterpiece by an experienced developer. But Ganbarion, try as they might, just hasn't quite got what it takes. The combat isn't anywhere near as fluid as it should be, with janky movement and clunky transitions between sword and chain attacks. You'll waste plenty of precious time grappling with some essential awkward foes who take far too long to kill, or wrestling with WiiMote commands that aren't quite responsive enough.
And the flaws continue to pile up. Pandora's Tower is depressingly presented from fixed perspective camera angles that change without warning and rarely give you a good view of the action. Tight quarters suffer worst, with enemies revelling in hiding between awkward transitions; wasting your time and patience in equal amounts. And the levels, while nicely varied from an art design standpoint, are collections of samey self-contained corridors brimming with repetitive foes.
In fact, the disastrous camera and compartmentalised level design make Pandora's Tower feel genuinely old, as if it were ripped out of the early PS2 era.
These bugbears notwithstanding, Pandora's Tower will still hold your attention throughout its 12-14 hour campaign, and I would definitely recommend doing so. But the multiple endings and New Game Plus mode scream "replay me!" from the rooftops even as the characters and combat foibles repel you from going through the narrative again. Damningly, while Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story cry out for multiple playthroughs, the one game with multiple endings and the shortest campaign simply doesn't.
- Tells a well-constructed love story
- Engaging chain mechanics
- Tense risk vs reward time limits
- Horrible camera, compartmentalised levels and stilted combat
- Hateful protagonist and predictable scripting
- Wasted potential abounds
The Short Version: Pandora's Tower is constructed around a charming and compelling love story that, for many, will be enough. Sadly, the action gameplay and characterisation aren't consistently strong enough to make Ganbarion's effort a truly great game.
Worth playing, then, but not at the expense of trying Xenoblade Chronicles or The Last Story. In that order.