"As far as throwback RPGs go, Towards the Pantheon may not reinvent the wheel, but it does offer its own distinct personality."
A warrior maiden, a talking cat, a cyborg, and a ghost walk into a dungeon. While that sounds like the beginning of a bad RPG joke, it is a loose interpretation of a delightful little indie RPG called Towards the Pantheon. Featuring vibrant sprite and tile graphics, a cool soundtrack, and gameplay that encourages exploration, Towards the Pantheon aims to bring its own personality to the crowded table of retrolicious pixel-art RPGs.
Towards the Pantheon feels much freer than those highly linear JRPGs that lead you by the neck. Town and field environments connect and flow together as in a Zelda game. Explorable areas are spacious, and travelling off the beaten path is highly encouraged in this game because you never know what surprises you will find.
Nothing in Towards the Pantheon is spoon-fed to you, be it the ultimate weapons or those big exposition dumps where someone explicitly tells you everything you need to know and do. The game's lore and worldbuilding need to be sought out via speaking to NPCs multiple times throughout the game and reading every book or paper strewn about the world. Unless you are willing to put in the work to learn more about the world and enhance the characters for yourself, Towards the Pantheon will be nothing more than a bare-bones "kid from a podunk town goes out into the world, finds some companions, then they all go defeat the evil empire" RPG.
Plot direction is occasionally vague. Yes, the main menu summarizes your current objective, but it does not tell you the sub-steps you may need to do to complete that main objective. While it's possible to wander around aimlessly, I never found it too difficult to figure out where to go and what to do. After all, a little exploration is this game's panacea. And if you're really stumped on what you specifically need to do, the elder in the warrior maiden's town will redirect your focus. You also need to backtrack once you obtain party members with certain field skills to reach previously inaccessible areas. Backtracking is made easier with Speedsters — giant racing hamsters in every town that will happily whisk you to any town you've previously visited.
Turn-based battles occur semi-randomly. What this means is that, as you're travelling, crossed-sword icons appear and disappear randomly on the field, and touching one initiates a battle. These are easy to avoid when you're low on health and need to get back to a save tent to recover. Conversely, they pop up frequently enough when you want to grind a bit. There are only four hero characters, and each one functions slightly differently in battle through unique stats you'll want to keep track of. This makes resource management essential and creates dynamic differences between each character. Party members also have skill trees, so players can decide how to level everyone up. Speaking of leveling up, everyone in the party gains EXP, even if they faint in battle. This is quite nice, as each new party member is recruited at level 1. Characters gain levels at a good pace, with lowbies leveling up very quickly. Leveling up also refills your HP and MP equivalents, which is a nice convenience.
One gameplay convenience I miss is that when shopping for items, the screen doesn't show how many I currently have in my inventory unless I menu hop. Otherwise, the interface is simple and functional. Controls are simple and functional as well, and players can choose to utilize either the keyboard or a gamepad. I used a gamepad and vastly prefer it for this style of game.
Save tents scattered throughout the land are the only places to save. This game is old school in that there is no autosave or quicksave feature. When the game started, I found myself dying often, but once I found each companion and got the hang of how the game works, progression became smoother and easier.
My favorite feature in the game is the campfire chats triggered when an exclamation point icon flashes while inside a save tent. Campfire chats are like the dinner scenes in Grandia where the characters converse with one another. A lot of character development occurs here, and everyone's personalities truly shine. Occasionally, the exclamation point trigger pops up as the party is exploring; it's a good idea to initiate these, to both enjoy in-party conversations and receive a full healing bonus.
The aforementioned campfire scenes are also the most visually stunning in the game. The rest of the game looks intentionally retro, with a bright, but limited, color palette. The sprite and tile-based graphics look like something between an 8- and 16-bit JRPG. I like some of the smaller details speckled throughout the game, like main character sprites having idle animations if they've been standing still for a while. I noticed these idle animations during the times I stood still to enjoy Towards the Pantheon's music. The game's compositions evoke that 8- and 16-bit MIDI feel and happily fit their intended environments and scenarios. My favorite compositional aspect is that the standard battle themes are different depending on the location and serve as variations of that location's theme. There aren't many boss battles, so each boss has its own funky theme as well. My biggest issue with the music is that the volume is inconsistent; some pieces came through my speakers a lot louder than others.
As far as throwback RPGs go, Towards the Pantheon may not reinvent the wheel, but it does offer its own distinct personality. I am glad I played this game because my 12 or so hours spent with it invoked the vibe of a "turn-based Zelda." Towards the Pantheon might not be for everyone, since it requires players to put in the work to get the most out of the experience, but it is loads of fun for those willing to make the effort.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.