It’s tempting to suggest that Pandora’s Tower occupies a design space floating sweetly between Castlevania and Shadow of the Colossus. The game’s ambitious agenda seems ever eager to marry elements of both to create a masterpiece. A sword and a length of chain that allows the game’s protagonist, Aeron, to grapple enemies as well as the environment, offers a chance to feel something like a Belmont, while the gravity of Aeron’s quest grabs at the narrative weight one might expect from a Ueda title.
At the heart of this quest is Elena, who is cursed to turn into a beast unless Aeron can save her, which puts the two in the company of a strange old woman, Mavda, who lends advice. Together, the party journeys to an observatory overlooking the Scar, a hole in the earth held together by massive chains that keep the Scar from spreading ever wider and destroying the Earth. These chains connect to an equally massive series of thirteen towers hanging over the center of the Scar.
Filled with monsters, Aeron must rip the flesh from beasts and return to Elena with the only substance that can reverse her transformation into a monster. However, feeding on normal beast flesh only temporally silences the curse, and in order to permanently lift it, Aeron must return with the flesh of the master beasts residing within each tower. As these details unfold, Pandora’s Tower becomes something more akin to an action game spliced with a relationship simulator.
A gauge in the bottom corner of the screen beats down as Elena’s transformation worsens, warning players that they need to break from exploring the towers to return with beast flesh—if you arrive late, the game troubles itself to offer a sequence where Elena has completely transformed and kills Aeron.
During time enforced breaks from the towers, players are encouraged to talk with Elena, and offer her gifts aside from the choicest piece of dripping beast flesh. Strengthening their relationship affects their bond, which in turn leads players toward more ideal endings. A more immediate motivation for interaction with Elena is her ability to put some gifts to use—she was good enough to use some berries to make me a lunch and spends her time translating texts.
Her deteriorating condition means that visits to the towers need to be as efficient as possible. You’re always on the clock, and ideally returning with fresh flesh before Elena has started to transform into a beast once more. I actually felt like an ass when I got back late and she was waiting with an embarrassed look and a monstrous arm—so mission to establish a bond somewhat successful, I reckon?
Rather than letting players loose to explore what appears as an intertwining series of structures, towers are tackled one at a time via a destination menu. Each tower enforces light exploration by blocking the boss door with large chains, leaving you to search out and destroy the links to clear the way forward. The monsters standing between you and these chains become familiar rather quickly, offering safe designs split mostly between small flying nuisances and larger soldier styled brutes wielding weapons. The interesting aspect of this is that the game’s bestiary is largely anything but interesting, at least until Aeron’s chain is put to use against the hordes.
Taking aim with the Wii Remote, you can target any enemy and latch the chain on to them, which will immediately cause them to struggle to break free, which they will when given enough time. But that window of opportunity means that you can essentially stop any enemy in its tracks and move in for a quick series of strikes with their equipped weapon.
You can also attached both links of the chain to an enemy to bind them tighter, attach the end to another enemy to knot two up for a short time, or pull on the chain to charge its strength before ripping it from their flesh to cause damage. This essentially makes nearly every normal enemy type in the game utterly harmless—they can charge at you with a sword and you simply latch on and rip it from their hands before binding them and moving in for the kill. If they should break free while you’re in too close, Aeron also has a quick evasion move that saves the day.
There’s a fair amount of personality that emerges from using the chain against standard enemy types, particularly with the ability to latch on to them and then swing the chain to flip enemies into the air before smashing them into the walls—or tossing them into chasms when the opportunity presents itself.
Towers will occasionally respond by offering tougher enemies, perhaps ones that require flinging other enemies into them, or ripping off armor before finding a chance to do damage, but the bulk of the path toward each boss will leave you feeling greatly overpowered for a time. And while the RPG elements will be building your strength and encouraging you to upgrade your weapons, there’s room to wonder why one would bother when given such an overpowered mechanic, at least there would be if it wasn’t enjoyable feeling so overpowered at times.
The chain is also used for interacting with the towers, from obligatory doors that require you to hook on to a part of them and pull for several seconds, to hooks that allow you to swing over broken stairwells. These parts of the game feel every bit like a tedious attempt to justify using the chain as much as possible. But the game deserves a nod for creating environments where players will latch on to the environment and swing and climb and not find themselves screaming at the camera—although, this is often accomplished by latching on to a rising object and waiting until a hook becomes visible, and then pointing and clicking once again to complete the transaction with some light swinging.
There are some good reasons to yell at the fixed camera angles however. While the exploration is largely linear, it’s definitely worth mentioning that there are times you may miss the way forward because of locked camera angles, or maybe because you have to move right close to a wall before Aeron reveals his sudden willingness to crawl along a thin ledge. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve dropped off the wrong ledge and fallen all the way back to the beginning of an area. A saving grace is that Aeron will grab on to any ledge you may fall off of while locked into a series of sword strikes, but it would be nicer if it wasn’t so easy to fall in the first place.
Bosses seek to further justify the chain as well as raise the difficulty of Aeron’s quest, sporting a specific point the player needs to latch on to with the chain. While difficulty is always subjective, the boss difficulty curve ramps up quickly here. At first the game seems like a cakewalk—the first boss requires you to just continually latch on to its face and pull, while the second boss tasks you with latching one of its limbs to a stone so that you can get behind it and attack the weak point. But by the third tower, you’ll face a boss that has a rotating weak point you need to grab while dodging water attacks, only to then have it sprout tentacles and pound your head in.
While I don’t want to invite commentary on my mad skills, I spent about two hours trying to defeat that one boss, which was more than the time it took me to reach him from the beginning of the game. I don’t mean to complain about the challenge—after all, it’s the first game in quite awhile that made me stand up and scream while trying to overcome it—it just seems rather important to note that you could park thirteen towers between the gap in the sudden difficulty spike.
Back at the observatory, there are a lot of small details to get caught up in, such as item management and creation enabled by visiting Mavda. Finding items in the towers offers supplies for upgrading existing weapons, fashioning new items, and making medicines, while additional items can be purchased directly from Mavda, who is always eager to buy spare beast flesh and texts for a good bit of coin. Item management takes a back seat to Wii Remote skills, though—you can arm yourself with some defense and attack boosters and back some medicine, but boss encounters favor the quick and nimble.
Pandora’s Tower pulls plenty of elements together to create a unique game, shifting between an action title and the relationship players are encouraged to form with Elena. At times, this direction also breaks the action in strange ways as the story develops and you keep having to leave a tower to bring Elena dinner before time runs out. Luckily, the game offers ways to speed this up, with a crystal that will warp you back to the observatory and towers that offer a chance to create shortcuts to the boss. And yet, that serves as the point where the game is backed into a corner by the attempt to split the player’s focus.
The time limit presented by Elena’s condition means that, while towers can offer a few secrets here and there, they ultimately have to yield to a simplicity that forms a quickly recurring formula. Moreover, splitting your time between the towers and Elena as separate destinations makes it hard to become overly attached and invested in either. And as interesting as the mechanics and narrative pursuits prove to be, the daunting task of all those towers left me feeling weary about the entire endeavor by the time I’d cleared the fourth, which finds me thinking something I rarely consider: that this game is too damn long for its own good—stretching its chain a bit too thin as it were.
Food for thought:
1. Aeron can only carry a certain amount of items at the start of his quest and can store more items in a trunk back at the observatory. It’s 2013, why is that still considered a good design choice versus letting me carry all the stuff?
2. Each time Elena has to eat beast flesh, the game is quite eager to make you repeatedly watch a cutscene that convinces me that eating monster guts is probably one of the worst experiences ever.