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A fantasy land. A damsel in distress. She has a lover, a questing hero. His challenge? To slay 13 beasts secreted around the world in order to restore her to health. Fumito Ueda’s colossal shadow hangs over Ganbarion’s first title, the final in a series of three JRPGs – following The Last Story and Xenoblade – that has seen Wii’s twilight years play host to some of the keenest experimentation with the mechanics and tropes of this venerable genre.
Pandora’s Tower is perhaps the most experimental of all, an action-RPG that takes its cues from God Of War as much as Final Fantasy. While protagonist Aeron might have the fey demeanour and highly decorative yet only partially concealing armour of your typical JRPG lead, he’s also got a chain weapon that rivals Kratos’s Blades Of Chaos. Combat is built around a standard range of swipes, dodges and slashes, but at any time in the fray aiming the pointer at an enemy and pressing B on the Remote will fling Aeron’s chain at them. Snare in place, the tension in the grip can be increased by pulling away from the entangled beast or holding down a button on the nunchuck. And once the tension is at maximum, shaking the Remote will deal out a high-damage attack against your chained foe.
It’s an empowering idea that weds gesture controls to the combo-based mechanics of an action title, meaning that you can flit between fighting the enemies directly in front of you and at range in an instant. Later additions to the chain’s repertoire allow you to grip and fling your foes, slash at them, and even tie two enemies together. Once a pair of enemies are tied, attacking one will damage the other for as long as the chain holds. Aeron’s chain also has environmental functions outside of combat that see it playing the role of, among other things, a surprisingly effective substitute for Link’s hookshot.
But the promise of Devil May Cry crossed with The Legend Of Zelda isn’t quite delivered. Aeron’s too sluggish, for one thing, lacking the supple flexibility of Bayonetta or Dante in a scrap, and failing to compensate with anything like Kratos’s beefy brutality. His combos are crude, and can’t be strung together with the kind of freewheeling creativity that gives you a feeling of genuine mastery over the character. Enemy designs, while not without personality, aren’t sophisticated enough either, lacking the audio and visual cues that help to telegraph attacks and signal successful hits of your own. Most disappointing of all, given the clever chain techniques on offer, is that it’s hard to elegantly switch between the chain and a melee weapon mid-battle, giving a staccato rhythm to what should be fluid.
Boss encounters fare better: these lumbering beasts (which, like Shadow Of The Colossus’s colossi, usually innocently wait for you to land the first blow) offer more thought-out interplay between chain, enemy and environment. They’re unashamedly ‘aim for the glowing weak point’ encounters, but on occasion clever ones.
The reason Aeron is hunting these beasts – the masters of the 13 towers – is to save his beloved, Elena, from a particularly horrible fate. This damsel’s unusual distress is that she’s been cursed, and the only way to stop her transforming into a creature more gruesome than anything Aeron slays is to bring her hunks of flesh ripped from the bodies of the tower’s beasts. As well as leaning refreshingly towards dark fairytale over the colourful sci-fi of many a JRPG, this setup offers more than simply a motivation. During missions, a timer in the bottom-right of the screen counts down towards Elena’s transformation. If you don’t kill the boss of the tower you’re currently in and feed Elena its flesh before the timer reaches zero, you’ll need to return to her mid-mission in order to top up the counter with meat taken from run-of-the-mill beasts. This in turn sets up a dynamic where you push upwards through a tower while carefully memorising shortcuts and unlocking routes towards its bottom.
It’s a surprisingly effective motivator – the longer you take between missions, the more disfigured Elena becomes – and even then the gruesome scenes of her chomping on the restorative monster parts provide a surprisingly stomach-churning payoff to what is essentially a repeated fetch quest. Elena’s presence within the game is further strengthened by the option to give her gifts and to talk to her between tower quests, with the relationship between the pair determining the course of the story.
But for all the surprising tenderness of Pandora’s Tower's narrative, there are other problems alongside the unsatisfactory combat. The chain might moonlight as a hookshot, but these level designs offer little of the ingenuity of Zelda’s dungeons, asking players to push through samey rooms and corridors in a series of what are essentially switch puzzles. And while the game’s fixed camera angle avoids burdening you with any responsibility for framing the action, it doesn’t do a terribly good job of it either – enemies have a frustrating habit of keeping a fight right on the transition between two angles. After a few too many instances of this, you’ll almost swear they’re doing it on purpose. An upgrade system is the most typically RPG thing about the overall experience, but it’s also dully familiar, seeing you trade trinkets picked up on sorties for intangible boosts to stats.
A little slicker, and Pandora’s Tower could have provided a surprisingly effective alternative in the character-action genre. Its blend of pointer controls
and button-based combat begs to be further explored. But as it is, this a clunky action title – albeit one with a flicker of genuine emotion at its heart.
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