Pandora’s Tower, the last of the three “Operation Rainfall” JRPGs for the Wii, is a beautiful game in many ways: visually, mechanically, thematically and in the simplicity of its execution. It’s a fitting sendoff to three of the finest games of the entire console generation — and, indeed, some might say, to the Wii itself.
In Pandora’s Tower, you take on the role of Aeron. Aeron is a quiet sort of chap, though not quite entirely mute. Aeron is in love with Elena, who is a singer from the “wrong side” of the war that our hero was involved with. She’s also, thanks to a series of events which come to light over the course of the story, cursed to turn into a slobbering monster unless Something is Done. That Something, as revealed by a peculiar frog-like woman named Mavda who inexplicably carries her gigantic, incomprehensible skeletal husband in a cauldron on her back, is to consume the flesh of twelve “Masters” who reside in the Thirteen Towers, a mysterious structure suspended across the top of a seemingly bottomless chasm known as The Scar.
Thus begins Aeron’s adventure, which is roughly equal parts dating sim, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus with a splash of Zelda here and there. It’s up to the player to guide Aeron through the Thirteen Towers in an attempt to lift the curse from Elena while simultaneously ensuring that his beloved still loves him by showering her with gifts and affection.
The exploration of the towers makes up the meat (no pun intended) of the gameplay in Pandora’s Tower. Unfolding from a series of non-controllable but dynamic camera angles, Aeron must work his way through the challenges that each tower confronts him with, smash the chains which lock the Master’s door shut and then kick some serious ass.
Aeron is initially armed with a sword and the Oraclos Chain, an implement that symbolises the bonds between people and the power held within them. Using the chain, it’s possible for Aeron to hookshot into far-off areas, tie up monsters, pull remote switches, tie things to other things and generally cause plenty of mischief. While it’s tempting to charge in and simply attempt to hack-and-slash your way through the game’s combat, the melee weapons Aeron acquires are in many way the least important things in his arsenal. Rather, the chain is the key to keeping Aeron out of harm and the numerous denizens of the Towers at bay.
By aiming the chain using the Wii Remote‘s pointer function (or the right analogue stick on the Classic Controller), it’s possible for Aeron to attach the chain to all sorts of things. Hook it on to a handhold and he’ll pull himself up Batman-style. Clip it on to a switch and he’ll be able to pull it from afar. Attach it to a monster and it’ll provide him with a suitably unfair advantage to exploit depending on which part of the monster it is hooked on to. Pull it taut and a “chain strength” gauge will gradually power up, enabling it to stay attached to things for longer or do more damage if jerked away suddenly with a flick of the wrist. It’s a relatively simple mechanic — point, shoot and tug — but executed extremely well, making brilliant use of the Wii’s unique control scheme without overusing any of its gimmicks. The variety of creative methods in which the chain is used throughout the game help keep it fresh despite the fact that Aeron doesn’t really learn any new moves over the course of the game.
It quickly becomes apparent after a short period of play that combat is not the main focus of Pandora’s Tower, however. Rather, it is an environmental puzzle game where the challenge is to determine how to reach a destination which is often in sight but tantalisingly out of reach. The fixed camera angles are used effectively to point the player in the direction of a puzzle’s solution, helping to eliminate the frustration of pixel-hunting found in some games with a freely-controllable camera. The only slight issue with these is that sometimes enemies like to hide off-screen in the “changeover” point between camera angles, but they can usually be dragged around to where the player wants them using the chain.
The puzzles gradually ramp up in difficulty with each new tower at a good pace but never feel unfair — and there’s an enormously satisfying sense of achievement when you figure out a particularly troublesome solution. This comes to a head with the game’s Master battles, which are similar in concept to the Colossus battles in Shadow of the Colossus — each Master has a specific weak point which must be exploited through manipulation of the environment, spotting the patterns in their attacks and sometimes figuring out a quicker way to achieve something that initially seems obvious. The battles are more puzzles than anything, with a big part of the challenge being in figuring out what on Earth you’re supposed to do, because the game certainly isn’t going to tell you or hold your hand — a real strength of the experience and a big contributing factor to the aforementioned sense of satisfaction.
The dungeoneering segments are exceptionally well-designed, in short. This is a good thing, because not only does Aeron have to find his way to the Master’s chamber alive, he also has a time limit to contend with. While he’s in the Towers, Elena’s curse is constantly progressing, with her inexorable descent into disgusting sliminess measured by an ever-ticking meter in the corner of the screen. Should this meter run out, Elena is beyond help and the game is over, so Aeron has to carefully manage his time between pushing forward in the tower he’s currently exploring, and returning to Elena to temporarily stave off the curse using meat acquired from the tower’s normal enemies.
Rather than this mechanic forcing the player to backtrack completely at regular intervals, however, the dungeons are designed in such a way that solving puzzles often opens up shortcuts to and from Elena. Find your way to a difficult-to-reach ledge and your reward will often be a ladder you can kick down or a locked door you can batter open, shaving valuable minutes off your time when you return to the tower once more.
Returning to Elena never feels like a chore, however, because Aeron’s interactions with her are as well fleshed out (again, no pun intended) as the dungeoneering segments. When back at the couple’s “home base”, Aeron is able to chat with Elena, ask her to translate books and texts he’s found in the towers and around their base, occasionally ask her specific questions about recent events and give her gifts. Most of these interactions have an effect on an “affection bar” at the side of the screen, which denotes how much Elena likes Aeron and also determines which of the game’s endings will unfold once the story comes to its conclusion.
Aeron doesn’t say much, but the player gets to know a great deal about Elena over the course of the story. She’s a well-defined character with her own history, likes and dislikes, all delivered in an adorable soft Yorkshire accent. She does have something of a tendency to slip into sexist stereotypes — one exchange between her and Aeron sees her asking what he’d like her to concentrate on in the base, with the available options being “cooking”, “cleaning” and “sewing” — but let’s not forget that she can turn into a slobbering evil monster at a moment’s notice, which does kind of undermine her “demure housewife” persona. To her credit, though, she does always feel bad whenever she makes a mess or breaks a gift as a result of her transformation.
Alongside interacting with Elena, Aeron is also able to call upon the mysterious Mavda between sorties to the towers. Mavda acts as a shop, crafting station, source of information and means of upgrading weapons, and there’s a surprising amount of depth to these mechanics. Upgrading weapons, for example, usually requires several different components. If the player hasn’t managed to find certain specific components, it’s often possible to craft them using other pieces of detritus that they’ve picked up over the course of their last dungeon crawl. Certain components may only be found in certain towers, as each is themed after a particular element and contains its own distinctive monsters. Finding all the pieces for a particular weapon upgrade becomes a sidequest in itself, though it’s a completely optional one that players don’t need to engage in in order to be victorious.
These mechanics are all very well and good, but in the “HD age” a big determining factor in whether or not a person will take to a new game comes in its presentation. Pandora’s Tower does not disappoint in the least: it is a lovely-looking game. Forget the fact it’s running in 480p resolution on the Wii; this ceases to matter within a few short minutes of starting to play. This is a game with exceptional art design. Aeron is a young, fresh-faced youth with intricately-designed armour. Elena is a pure-faced, simple beauty, which makes her monstrous transformations all the more traumatic to witness. Mavda and her skeletal spouse are by turns grotesque and compelling. Outside the observatory that Aeron and Elena call home during their quest, lush green grass and cloudless blue skies fade into golden sunsets and deep navy nights. Inside their temporary quarters, everything is suffused with a warm, homely sepia glow. Within the towers, beams of light pierce the gloom through long-broken windows, brightly-coloured crystal formations cast strange glows on everything around them and the emerald green of natural foliage contrasts starkly with the dull greys and browns of the stone bricks that make up the tower surrounding it.
And the sound. Oh, the sound. Based largely on classical themes including Dies Irae from Verdi’s Requiem and Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3, the soundtrack to Pandora’s Tower is not the sort of in-your-face electronica-and-electric-guitars chaos typically associated with modern Japanese games — rather, it gives the game a unique atmosphere all of its own, filled with drama at some times, overflowing with love and tenderness at others. It perfectly reflects the small-scale, intimate tone of the game’s narrative and rounds out a complete package that is beautifully, distinctively presented.
Pandora’s Tower is a worthy successor to Team Ico‘s classic titles in many ways. It’s a well put together game with exceptional presentation, a touching, intimate story and a sense of personal drama and emotion far removed from the ever-increasing stakes of mainstream titles. It’s not just a fine Wii game, it’s a fine game, full stop, and deserves to be looked back on in the future as a title that dared to try something a little different from the norm, with great results.
Time will tell if that’s how history will treat Pandora’s Tower, or whether it’s doomed to be one of those increasingly-rare games that is always talked about in sentences that begin with “I wish I’d played…”
I know I’m glad I played it. If you get the chance, you should too.