Pandora's Tower (Nintentdo Wii)
It is a brave developer who decides to release an adventure role playing game for the Wii. As soon as it is announced comparisons will be made with the Zelda franchise. Does it match up graphically, is the story too similar, or not similar enough... and then when people actually play it, how does it compare overall. An RPG on Wii can be impressive but fail to get close to Zelda and many will see it as a failure, not worth their time or money.
Releasing an action RPG is exactly what Ganbarion have done though with Pandoras Tower, one of the few major releases left in the Wii before its successor is released. Little known outside Japan Ganbarion have been producing games which mainly focus on the fighting genre for some time now and so this is their first real attempt at the action RPG genre, and at attempting to live up to so many classics which have come before.
As Pandora's Tower begins we are introduced to the two main characters, Aeron and Elena. Elena has been cursed and is slowly transforming from human into monster. It is our role, as Aeron, to find the cure and rid our companion of the curse before she fully turns. Aiding us along the way is a third (or fourth) character, Mavda, whose knowledge of the curse, game universe and cure will guide us along the way. Mavda too has a companion, her partner who she carries on her back, though he rarely speaks.
In an interesting decision for an RPG Pandora's Tower mainly focuses on these three characters and despite being based in a game world which clearly has a civilisation or two in it, we have essentially set off on a quest to a remote region and are out there on our own. That remote area of the game world is The Scar and suspended above it are a collection of towers.
Upon reaching the scar we set up camp in the observatory and this acts as our main hub when not exploring towers (essentially dungeon crawling). Here we can sleep to recover, save, converse with Elena and interact with Mavda who allows us to buy/sell items or discuss events through a series of scripted options.
Unfortunately for Elena the cure for her curse, and the only way to slow down her transformation, is to eat the flesh of beasts which are found throughout the towers. It is therefore our task as Aeron to explore each tower against the clock, returning before the latest transformation completes.
The main gameplay really kicks in at this point and follows a traditional RPG interface. For example we have an inventory which is accessed through the game menu. In here we can equip items to limited slots and use others. As we progress in the game and level up more slots become available and of course more advanced items are also awarded. Two aspects are ever present though, a sword and the Oraclos Chain. The sword offers the standard hack and slash gameplay which we would associate with an RPG however the Oraclos Chain adds some interesting mechanics. We can for example use it to swing from one place to another, flick switches or to attack beasts in the towers, ripping flesh from them and causing damage in the process; even throwing them about. Expanding further on the chain concept we can also "chain" items together, for example multiple monsters, to cause damage to more than one at a time. Or include objects in our chain to solve puzzles and defeat more cunning enemies.
Elsewhere the gameplay follows a reasonably traditional RPG style with the stick used to move around our environment and A to interact, C to examine/drop, Z to block/evade, B to zoom and so on. Pressing A for longer allows us to execute more advanced attacks and B, as well as allowing us to look closer at the areas of interest also lets us target more specific areas of the monsters we encounter before waving the Wiimote to rip at them.
Aiding us along the way are boosts which enhance aspects such as defence, health and cloaking. Ailments are also present which include paralysis, defang (reduced attacks) and corrosion (inability to block). We can drink potions to combat the effects of ailments, or enhance our abilities and the gameplay is further enhanced by various meters. Our chain meter controls how powerful the chain is, health is the standard use, time remaining focuses on when we need to return to Elena and when in the observatory our relationship with her is monitored with our bond increasing as we talk, give her gifts or feed her flesh. This bond is of course key to future events in the game...
At the end of each tower is a Master Beast, a boss essentially, who is far larger and tougher than the other foes and generally they have weak spots we must attack before ripping out their Master Flesh to feed Elena. Beat twelve bosses and the curse should be lifted.
Graphics and Audio
When designing Pandoras Tower the developers chose to go with fixed camera positions and allow our character to run about within the visible area, moving between rooms by climbing ladders, taking lifts and moving through doors. This allows them to minimise the rendering work required by the game and as a result focus on packing in as much detail as they felt possible on the Wii. Overall it is an approach which succeeds and while the hardware limitations do mean enemies are somewhat lacking in detail the overall environments are decent and each has its own style. Treetop Tower for example has an obvious feel with a massive tree growing upside down as we climb through the various levels within the structure, Sheerdrop Spire which is the next area then changes the tower contents appropriately.
Animations are smooth within the game and the cut-scenes which take the form of storyboard or anime-esq graphics are also decent and it is always clear what is going on in the game, or where we need to go next.
In terms of audio the orchestral based soundtrack is good and the limited cast has allowed the developer to pack in spoken parts which often lack on Wii RPGs. Really the majority of the dialogue is handled by Mavda and Elena with Aeron rarely speaking. Both Mavda and Elena are voiced clearly however Elenas accent is a little too theatrical, clearly a stylistic choice by the developers.
Pandora's Tower has been out in Japan for a while now and because of that the developer has had time to tweak the game based on feedback from that initial launch however things are still not quite as polished as they should be. The introduction sequence for example doesn't quite fill in the entire story required to introduce our characters, we get the basics but it could have been expanded further. There are also gaps elsewhere such as mid-way through conversations we can be told by Mavda "don't you remember, I told you..." or words to that effect when there has been no mention of an event previously. These instances are few and far between though and given that most of our time as the plot progresses we are on our own, exploring the towers, there is little to concern ourselves with over story aspects.
Speaking of those dungeon sections, Gambarion ease us into the game reasonably well with a tutorial which feels well-paced, explaining the main mechanics over the first 30 minutes or so of game time before we return to the observatory and begin the game proper.
Pacing remains good after this as we are always working against the clock, or beast meter, to get back with our latest batch of flesh for Elena. Difficulty is also set well and from the outset we get the feel that this won't be an easy adventure, and one which will require some thought in amongst a significant amount of bashing the A button to attack.
As is normal for games of this genre the end of tower bosses, or masters, are huge and while the early versions don't have much of a challenge this does change and we need to ensure our character is appropriately levelled up, enhanced and equipped before starting a tower if we are to succeed. Which brings us to another minor issue, that being if we accidentally sell an item to Mavda early on in the game it cannot be bought back and early on the items we require to enhance our character are not immediately obvious. It is best to hold on to items until they are very obviously not required before selling.
At the start of the article we noted that games such as this will always be compared to Zelda and while there are flashes of Nintendo's epic franchise present in this game it does manage to distance itself from the legend reasonably well. This is often very much down to the tone of the game, this is a much darker world than we might experience elsewhere and while Elena in her human form does offer some light the developers have captured the bleak story well, even offering some rather grotesque events nicely. Seeing Elena bite into master flesh with slime dripping from her mouth afterwards is not something we would normally expect from a Wii game and this clash of styles works well.
A well-paced, challenging and engaging game which offers something different for Wii owners. Some extra polish and more epic bosses would have elevated it closer to the Zelda franchise but some nice storytelling and good chain mechanic impress.