It seems to my mind that there are fewer decent RPGs in the console world than there used to be, but a new Wii game, Pandora’s Tower, could be challenging that. Is there still life in both the Wii and the RPG genre? I traipsed around the Towers to find out.
Pandora’s Tower tells the tale of a girl, Elena, enslaved by a curse that slowly turns her into a monster over time. To fight the curse, her true beloved, Aeron, must fight to the heart of each of the thirteen towers, and defeat each Tower’s Master. That, in a very, very small pistachio shell, is the plot of Pandora’s Tower. For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I’m grossly oversimplifying the plot, but that’s the basic gist of it.
In the game, you control Aeron, obviously, as he battles his way through the thirteen Towers. Initially, the weapons you have access to are his sword and a handy chain whip that you can also use as a grapple, amongst other things. As you muck about the Towers fighting off the monsters and solving the environmental puzzles, you have to take care to keep an eye on the timer that shows you how long it will be until Elena starts doing her Jekyll/Hyde routine again. Reversing the curse’s effects entails obtaining the game’s macabre version of medicine for her while you’re in the Towers and giving it to her on your return to the Observatory (which serves as your base of operations). Coming back too late means that she’s started sprouting tentacles and…other growths, but it can be remedied with the aforementioned medicine. Removing the curse entirely means defeating the Masters. The game becomes an interesting mix of exploring, and managing your time. Yes, you have to return to Elena at intervals to stop her from becoming eligible for Ms Teen Ugly, but exploring each Tower also opens up shortcuts, allowing you to get further into the Tower quicker each time.
Pandora’s Tower makes me think more of a Metroidvania-style game than a traditional RPG. Yes, you can take a gander at Aeron’s stats, but the only real use they have is to determine whether the equipment you’re looking at is better or worse than the stuff you have on. Otherwise, it’s just Aeron and his various weapons, potions, and other effects in the Towers. And the many, many monsters, of course. There’s no party to manage. Battles take place in real-time. And then there are those environment-based puzzles, more commonly a feature of an action platform game than a traditional RPG.
Elena’s not just a bog-standard NPC who spouts the same lines over and over, either. Interaction with her is fairly important, since she’s the only other character that you have any interaction with (aside from the old bat who runs the shop). Elena is, naturally, Aeron’s one true love. Their love is supposedly forbidden, natch, and they have, to quote one famous singer, “found love in a hopeless place”. The game tracks how well you manage the relationship between Elena and Aeron, and you can improve this relationship by not spending too much time in the Towers before returning, buying gifts for her, not letting her become vomitously hideous, and just plain chatting to her. The way you manage this relationship determines the ending you get, so it’d be a good idea to keep an eye on that sort of thing if you care about the endings.
One of the things I found impressive about Pandora’s Tower is the camera management, which is to say, there’s none at all. Having been subjected to terrible camera schemes on the Wii before (cough cough Epic Mickey cough), it’s refreshing to see such a hands-off camera. Some games with such a camera scheme opt to use a camera AI, but Pandora’s Tower simplifies everything by putting the camera on rails, and it responds to where on the screen you move. Genius!
Combat, too, is fun. The game introduces different levels of combat complexity a bit at a time, giving you a chance to get used to a concept before moving on. You’ll make a lot of use of the chain whip, because it not only grapples things, but also binds monsters to things to stop them from moving around, binds monsters to each other so that any damage you do to one gets done to the other, and functions as a makeshift swing, amongst other things. I must admit having played a little too much Zelda prior to playing Pandora’s Tower, as I kept swinging the Wii Remote to use my weapons instead of pressing A. It took a bit of getting used to on my behalf, but I also feel like it’s a huge missed opportunity in terms of control.
One of the best parts of the game is the collection of Masters who rule over each tower. Each one is so different from the others, and you have to reformulate your strategies for every single one. It’s a brilliant challenge, and so much fun to see what form each boss takes.
There’s not too much I can say is wrong with Pandora’s Tower. It’s a fairly solid game: it is about the right length, and there’s quite a bit of replay value, what with certain sections of the game only opening up after you finish it the first time around. The non-boss monsters can get a bit samey after a while, and once you’ve learned how to tackle one variety of beast, you’re fairly sorted on strategy. Still, they come in greater numbers the further you explore, keeping the challenge up. The monsters also replenish themselves, so the Towers are never quite empty.
The bit that fascinated me the most about the game was the relationship between Elena and Aeron (and to some extent, Mavda, the old bag who serves as both shopkeeper and knowledge storehouse). I absolutely loved the way that the developers infused so much personality into Elena. This comes through not only in the various cutscenes but also in the conversations between the two. For instance, Elena will be shown in a cutscene, fondly chiding Aeron for leaving his quills lying about, or she’ll prepare food for the two of them. She makes do with the various presents you buy off Mavda (plants, bolts of cloth, etc), trying to turn the Observatory into a home, however temporary. She genuinely worries about Aeron going off into the Towers alone, all to cure her curse, and it comes through very clearly. It’s touching, sweet, and very romantic. It’s wonderful to see such a well-fleshed character (no pun intended), as opposed to the usual big bosomed cardboard floozies you normally see flouncing about RPGs.
I’m going to bet that Pandora’s Tower is the Wii’s RPG swan song. And boy, what a song! I can honestly claim that I’ve not played such a wonderful RPG in a long time; quite possibly not since I played games on the PS2. Whether you’re an RPG fan, or an action-adventure fan, you’re going to find something to enjoy about this game. Some people might find less enjoyment in exploring the relationship side of the game, but I’m also willing to bet that those same people are also not mature enough to enjoy a really deeply engaging story. To conclude, Pandora’s Tower is one of the best games I’ve played in a long time. Obviously it’s not graphically stupendous, what with it being on the Wii, but it’s an amazing game nonetheless. I honestly hope you’ll give it a go—you won’t be disappointed.
Final score: 8.5 cursed, tentacled prawns out of 10
Distributor: Nintendo South Africa
Platform: Nintendo Wii
Age Rating: 12