"Much like Elena in the throes of disfiguration, Pandora's Tower is imperfect, but begging to be loved."
The Wii's last hurrah has at last arrived on North American shores. Pandora's Tower is an action RPG/dating sim hybrid by little-known developer Ganbarion that feels curiously original and derivative at the same time. It's hard to look at this game and not see elements of other well-known franchises scattered about. Pandora's Tower cobbles together Zelda-esque bosses and puzzles, a semi-gothic aesthetic not unlike Castlevania's, and a somber atmosphere that evokes Shadow of the Colossus in more ways than one. I might even go so far as to call it the Wii's equivalent to Nier, thanks to its unusual characters and multiple (very different) endings. The design feels cohesive, though, and were it not for recycled content, bland music, and so-so combat, Pandora's Tower would be a perfect swan song for its console. It's a shame that its rough edges are too rough to overlook.
"Even like this... do you still love me?" This heartrending question is at the center of the narrative in Pandora's Tower. Elena, an indomitably cheerful young singer from the country of Elyria, is afflicted with a horrendous curse on the day of a festival. This "Beast's Curse" causes her to gradually transform into a grotesque, tentacled beast, causing her immense pain all the while. The only way for her to reverse the transfiguration is to consume the raw flesh of monsters within the Thirteen Towers, a monument to man's folly suspended over an abyss known as The Scar. Aeron, a blond-haired knight from the country of Athos, is tasked with retrieving this flesh to spare Elena her terrible fate.
At the start of the game, it isn't apparent that the narrative begins in medias res. Aeron seems to be a stranger to Elena, and his motivation for saving her is unclear. However, as the game progresses, backstory unfolds via short vignettes between each dungeon. It becomes clear that Aeron and Elena share a history, making their connection more believable. Guided by the bizarre Mavda, an enigmatic old woman from the nomadic Vestra tribe, Aeron tackles the Thirteen Towers one by one, employing chain-whipping skills that would put a Belmont to shame. Elena's condition necessitates frequent returns to the Observatory, a home base of sorts, where Aeron must supply her with the flesh she needs to stay human, as well as a bevy of gifts to keep her in high spirits. Her happiness is directly tied to the game's narrative; higher affinity between the characters leads to better endings. It should be noted that even the game's "bad" endings are interesting and add nuance to the plot, so completionists would do well to seek them all out.
On the subject of characters, Aeron is an especially dull hero with almost no development. The game isn't about him, though — it's about Elena. Thankfully, she's a very likeable character, so it's easy to empathize with her plight. If Aeron takes too long to bring Elena her meat medicine, she begins to transform, breaking furniture and covering the Observatory in goopy monster juice. Her ragged breathing as she feigns wellness is one of most heartbreaking things I've seen in a game. Despite her affliction, Elena doesn't just sit around all day, channeling her inner Khaleesi
by ripping into monster flesh. She may be too frail to venture into the Towers herself, but she does whatever she can to help Aeron, from cooking and cleaning to translating ancient texts. Who could turn his back on such a considerate lass?
I've refrained from speaking about the gameplay thus far because I feel that the narrative plays a more pivotal role in defining Pandora's Tower. The "meat" of the game (I'm full of meat jokes today, folks) is composed of action-based monster slaying, light platforming, and puzzle-solving. Each of the Thirteen Towers has a generic elemental theme, with puzzles and enemies matched accordingly. A water tower involves manipulating a giant waterwheel, for example, while a fire tower requires Aeron to disable lava traps in order to proceed. It's inoffensive enough until the second half of the game. Rather than creating thirteen unique dungeons, Ganbarion literally recycled the first five towers into five more with nearly identical layouts. The only difference? Harder enemies and more aggravating puzzles. Falling off a ledge and being forced to run back up three flights of stairs is not my idea of a challenge. Things become even more frustrating when the time limit comes into play; if you spend too much time on a puzzle, you are forced to retreat to the Observatory and start over from the beginning. Shortcuts can be opened up to lessen backtracking, but I still found myself running low on time more often than not.
Combat is not especially deep, but Aeron's moves are flashy and fun to execute. In addition to his standard weapons (a sword and scythe, among others), Aeron makes heavy use of the Oraclos Chain to ensnare monsters and grapple ledges. Pointing at the screen to target with the chain is intuitive enough, but the control scheme feels somewhat clunky, a problem exacerbated by the game's static camera angles. I'd often accidentally drop down a ledge or swing in the wrong direction because I wasn't anticipating a sudden camera shift. Bosses (known as "Masters") are by far the highlight of the game's combat, with patterns and weaknesses that must be ascertained to secure victory, much like in Zelda games.
The towers have some interesting design elements here and there, such as upside-down trees and gigantic rideable pistons, but for the most part, they feel fairly boxy and drab. A lot of the textures in the game are blurry up close, too. I thought the character models were nice, though, and the developers paid close attention to Elena. Her facial expressions and movements are genuine, especially when she's in the middle of dealing with the fact that one of her arms is a mess of tentacles. The Masters are the most inspired graphical assets, with zoomorphic designs that mimic Shadow of the Colossus, right down to the docile behavior several of them exhibit.
With such a heavy emphasis on plot, I expected Pandora's Tower to feature a memorable soundtrack. Alas, I was disappointed. There are only a handful of tracks that I can even remember hearing throughout the game. Each tower opens with the exact same music, and all bosses (save the last) have the same theme. I could probably hum the Observatory music or Elena's Song, but that's about it. I found the music to be appropriate while I was playing, but it's incredibly forgettable. The voice acting is competent: Aeron hardly talks, but Elena is fittingly sweet, and Mavda cackles like an old witch who never tires of saying the world "flesssssshhhh." These three characters speak the bulk of the game's voiced dialogue, and they all do a good job.
Despite its faults, I enjoyed Pandora's Tower. My excitement in the early stages of the game gave way to frustration as I was forced to retread content, but as I approached the end, I found myself once again ensnared by the narrative's grip. If the level design wasn't so bland and the combat had more oomph, this game might have been the ideal send-off for the Wii. Instead, it sits awkwardly between its Operation Rainfall brethren, with neither the brilliance of Xenoblade nor the pedigree of The Last Story. Much like Elena in the throes of disfiguration, Pandora's Tower is imperfect, but begging to be loved.