"A wonderful mix of intense battles and entertaining puzzle solving."
While Wii owners stateside are enjoying Xenoblade and Last Story courtesy of fan movement, one game that RPG enthusiasts have been demanding is noticeably missing from the current Wii release schedule. Pandora's Tower, a game that completes the trifecta of Wii RPGs that exemplify classic Japanese RPG design, is now the only game out of the three not slated for release in North America, much to the chagrin of many Wii owners. But does Pandora's Tower truly deserve the localization that many are demanding?
Pandora's Tower takes place in the kingdom of Elyria. The player steps into the shoes of Aeron, who was formerly a soldier of a rival kingdom. Elena, a friend of Aeron's, has been chosen to sing at Elyria's Harvest Festival. Predictably, the event goes horribly awry. Monsters attack the kingdom, and Elena herself turns into a monster. Aeron finds her after she turns back into a human, and the two flee the city into the Wastelands of Okanos, where an array of thirteen towers and twelve chains hold together a massive canyon called The Scar, keeping it from growing and potentially cleaving the world in two. There, the two find that Elena has been cursed, and to lift this curse, Aeron needs to find and kill the monsters of the thirteen towers and bring their flesh for Elena to eat.
Segments of the story play out after each tower is conquered, and the plot is unremarkable at best. The narrative would've been better if Aeron and Elena had some meaningful interactions, but Aeron is inexplicably one-dimensional. He is critically short on backstory, and what little there is don't make him a compelling character. This poses a problem because a large part of the game hinges on Aeron and Elena's relationship and interactions, and it's hard to care when one character does most of the talking and the other just stands there and gawks. It feels like the developers wanted to create a role that the player can insert him- or herself into, but also had the qualities of the standard RPG hero. The result is a main character who has a bare minimum of personality and can't really be directed by the player either.
It's a shame, because interactions with Elena had a lot of potential; the relationship between Aeron and Elena is represented by a bar that increases or decreases depending on the player's actions. Certain gifts will increase Elena's affection towards Aeron, while others make her upset. Chatting with Elena or bringing her flesh from a monster to keep the curse at bay also increases this relationship meter, and it affects which of the five endings the player gets. The relationship building system is still very intriguing, and the relationship between Aeron and Elena eventually becomes quite moving and well executed, but it doesn't reach its full potential because of Aeron's weak characterization.
While the graphics are nothing too special, what makes the game is its art style. While Aeron and Elena are very generic character designs, Mavda the shopkeeper is incredibly well designed, with a quirky and bizarre attitude. Similarly, the boss monsters are intricately designed and well constructed, and the grotesque transformations Elena goes through give off a nauseating aura that I'd be hard pressed to find in any other game. The game's soundtrack is excellent, and the boss fights can be quite memorable due in no small part to the incredible music that plays during the intense battles. This is in addition to the very atmospheric music that the game starts with right off the bat. Pandora's Tower is one of the few games that has a soundtrack that I wouldn't mind owning. The voice acting, while not the best, is passable, and at the least portrays the relationship between Aeron and Elena quite well.
Pandora's Tower is, at its core, a combination of roguelike dungeon crawling and puzzle solving. There is one central hub area where Aeron can do all his shopping, crafting, and relationship building. Outside of that single safe zone, there are only the thirteen towers where Aeron has to journey to in order to lift the curse on Elena. Each tower has several puzzles to solve and enemies to defeat before Aeron can reach the boss at the top of the tower. Central to each of these encounters is the Oraclos Chain that Aeron wields.
While Aeron can eventually gain an impressive arsenal of gear and improve his stats through traditional leveling, his most important weapon and tool is the Oraclos Chain. The chain is used for everything from exploration to monster fighting. Aeron can use it to hit switches or obtain items from afar, swing from poles and ledges, and tear off armor or flesh from enemies. It can be somewhat unwieldy at first, but control of the chain slowly becomes natural once the player gets used to the mechanics of the Oraclos Chain.
Each dungeon has several puzzles that must be solved in order to climb to the top of the tower, and while the earlier dungeons simply involve pulling levers to unlock doors, they quickly become more intricate and involved, requiring a good deal of brain power to solve. The boss encounters themselves are puzzles to be solved, as Aeron can't just hack and slash and expect to come out on top; the bosses have weak spots that can only be accessed with the Oraclos Chain, and only hitting these weak spots can deplete their health. These boss fights embody what are probably the most memorable parts of the game, requiring players to have quick reflexes, a steady hand, and puzzle-solving skills in order to prevail. Boss encounters are never a monotonous affair, either; each boss is unique in its design and battle strategy, and comprise some of the best battles I've experienced in any RPG. It's just a shame that the ingenuity for boss battles couldn't be extended a little to the normal enemies, as well.
Not every part of the game is so well-crafted, though: the camera angles are fixed for most of each dungeon, meaning that sometimes puzzles can be artificially difficult. The camera moves around a bit more during boss battles, but without the ability the control it manually, the boss encounters can become a bit frustrating when camera problems prevent precise use of the Oraclos Chain.
Elena's curse is very unforgiving as well; a timer counts down as Aeron is away from Elena, and he is required to bring her flesh from normal enemies on a regular basis to keep the curse at bay while he climbs the towers. If the timer runs out, Elena succumbs to the curse. While it makes sense in the context of the game, having a time limit that consistently threatens the player while traversing dungeons, solving puzzles, and fighting monsters is a double edged sword. On one hand, it gives a sense of gravity to the situation and requires that players fight smart and try to solve puzzles as fast as they can. On the other, it can be frustrating for players who want to take their time in exploring the dungeons and forces players to exit and re-enter dungeons simply to upkeep Elena's condition. Ultimately, it never becomes a hassle, and it's more of an annoyance than an outright frustration; items can be created that allow Aeron to warp back to the hub area and shortcuts to exit a dungeon more quickly help alleviate the grievances some might have with this particular feature.
Pandora's Tower has a modest length of about 20 to 25 hours, though it also has quite a bit of post game content for those who really enjoy it. While some of the elements of the game are not fully realized or well implemented, the different parts combine into an incredibly enjoyable whole. The story, while it contains some flawed characterization, is quite touching, and the gameplay is a wonderful mix of intense battles and entertaining puzzle solving. It's truly a shame that this game has not been announced for North America, as it's one that definitely deserves it.