Pandora’s Tower, The Last Story and Xenoblade Chronicles – three JRPGs that have found themselves linked as arguably a loose, inexplicable trilogy of Wii JRPGs that many thought would never reach Western shores. While the US still awaits a chance to get their hands on these, with the online campaign Operation Rainfall still fighting the good fight, Australia has managed to snare all three, with Pandora’s Tower being the last to reach our shores. Out of the three titles, it’s likely underwhelming – an creative combat system, interesting story and occasional flashes of graphical grandeur are really let down by a curious initial execution of its story and a presentation which is inconsistent in many areas .
Pandora’s Tower takes place in the mystical Kingdom of Elyria within the land of Imperia. In the middle of the land is a great crack in the earth’s crust, known ominously as ‘The Scar’. The only thing stopping it from getting any larger and crumbling all of existence is twelve mighty chains, which are connected to the thirteen towers. It’s here where the game takes place and the fates of the characters will be decided. You play as Aeron, who has made it his mission to save Elena, who has been cursed and threatens to turn into a beast. The only way to stave off the curse and get rid of it forever is to plunder the tower for beast flesh, which keeps the curse at bay temporarily, and master flesh, which is obtained by defeating the bosses that reside within each of the towers. Of course, the way you find out all of these basic parts of the story is a bit perplexing – you don’t know all of these things by simply watching the opening cinematic, which is beautiful but consist more of actions rather than words. Without enough exposition, it makes it difficult to engage with the game from the start because you don’t have a sense of the legends and history of the land that the characters themselves are already aware, and it’s something the game really could have used to establish its premise from the get-go. If you do persevere, you will find quite the fascinating story as to how the curse came about and the ultimate roles of Aeron and Elena in everything, but the lack of an early grounding may turn off some players. Thankfully though, the same lack of cohesion can’t be said to apply for the actual gameplay itself, which fares far better.
You’ll spend the game playing as Aeron, as he fights his way up the towers to obtain beast flesh and master flesh. Beast flesh can be obtained from any mook that you encounter. Though you do have a sword to bring this about, it’s your chain that steals the show and ultimately is a lot more fun and effective when it comes to harvesting beast flesh. You can simply repeatedly whip an enemy with your chain until they are weak enough for their flesh to be yanked from their very body, or you can try a few other tricks. Using your chain, you can shackle multiple enemies to each other at once for a limited time, or even attach them to certain surfaces to restrict their movements in order to slash with your sword in a safer manner. Some of the lighter and airborne enemies can be thrown around in the air and beaten into the ground, walls and each other, which proves to be immensely satisfying. However satisfying it may be taking out ordinary enemies with the Oraclos Chain, as it’s known, it’s perhaps put to its most compelling use against the Masters you defeat at the top of each tower. You still have the basic goal of using the chain to yank out a key piece of flesh, but it’s significantly more complicated than that most of the time, as the environment also plays a role in how you can attack tower masters and use your chain. In a way it is reminiscent of the duels in the legendary PS2 game Shadow of the Colossus, though perhaps not quite on the same scale.
The chain isn’t just used for bullying almost-colossi into submission, however. As you navigate the towers, you’ll find puzzles that make use of your chain. You may have to grab an object and affix it to a certain spot, pull a switch from a certain distance or use it to crank a mechanism to get a platform moving. While it’s great to see the chain having applications outside of battle, there are still stretches of the game where you are simply just mowing down enemies and getting to the next room or traversing a pathway rather than tapping into the chain’s creative potential to progress. It seems like something of a missed opportunity, but what they have capitalized on is compelling enough.
As you progress through levels, you’re reminded that you’re on a bit of a time limit. Along with your health and chain power meters, there is also a circular meter at the bottom of the screen which shows how far along Elena has progressed before running the risk of succumbing to her curse, so it’s vital that you keep returning to her position of safety in the Observatory so she may sup on your collected beast flesh. This equates to a bit of backtracking and revisiting areas in order to progress, which some players may find a bit tedious. However, your interactions with Elena are also vital in determining what ending of the game you will receive. Besides beast flesh, you’ll also collect various gifts and have the chance to converse with Elena, interactions which will determine which of the five game endings you will receive. There’s also another ending that will play out whenever you fail to bring Elena beast flesh in time, which is a treat to watch in of itself.
These cinematic sequences are the visual highlights of the game, which doesn’t have anywhere near as many graphical niceties in standard gameplay or in your interactions with Elena. The environments themselves do have a uniqueness about them in their base artistic style, but their representation leaves a lot to be desired. There are clear cases of aliasing and jagged edges which are a bit disconcerting to see. Even though the Wii isn’t the visual powerhouse that the PS3 and Xbox 360 are, it’s clear that the full potential of its graphical capabilities hasn’t been utilized. On a similar note, the audio aspects of Pandora’s Tower are inconsistent. The general musical score and sound effects are serviceable enough, but the voice acting is really mixed. The performances of the lead characters veer between being wooden and over the top, whereas the work done by the narrator and the mysteriously helpful merchant named Mavda easily outshine them.
Pandora’s Tower is clearly at its strongest when it comes to its base gameplay and combat – as an action-JRPG, it definitely excels in this regard. The chain you wield has some of more more creative and unique uses that aren’t really seen in other games of its genre or indeed in others. Where Pandora’s Tower does threaten to teeter over, however, is its overall consistency – the story is one worthy of telling, but is told in a curious manner. The chain is a great weapon with creative uses, but there are long stretches where these are not exploited and the visuals are very hit and miss. Though these aspects do make Pandora’s Tower a bit wobbly, they don’t threaten to crumble, much like the game world itself does should your mission be unsuccessful. It still remains worthy of chaining yourself to your Wii for a little while at least, until you yourself need to pause to consume beast flesh.