Pandora’s Tower: April showers bring middling action

April 25, 2013

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After a long wait, the third game from the Operation Rainfall fan campaign has been released in North America, thanks to XSEED Games. Pandora’s Tower, easily the strangest of the three titles, was considered by many to be the unessential game of the group. While it has a few promising aspects and a premise worth paying attention to, the early word on this bizarre action-RPG was not entirely inaccurate.

The story follows a young couple, Aeron and Elena, after Elena was afflicted with a curse that, in time, would transform her into a hideous monster. They meet up with a mysterious old woman who helps Aeron on his quest to stop the curse and save Elena before she is lost forever. He needs to do this by traveling to 12 towers and gathering flesh from the various monsters within; when consumed, the flesh has the power to slow or altogether stop the curse before it takes over. The story attempts to go in some interesting directions, but it every step it takes it never seems to have the impact the developers so desperately need it to.

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It’s a shallow story with not much going for it outside of the relationship between Aeron and Elena. This is what the tale focuses on, and yet it even fails to deliver on that front. Elena is a vapid character without anything that helps her stand out from other “damsels in distress.” The entire goal of the story (and the game as a whole) is to get you to care about this young woman and her relationship with Aeron, but it seems nonsensical at times, despite some cute scenes between the two.

As you progress through the game, you are meant to talk with Elena and give her gifts to strengthen their relationship, but this sole mechanic undermines the entirety of the story’s main hook. If Aeron is risking his life to save Elena, why does it matter how many gifts he gives her? Isn’t his selfless act of bravery enough? It seems to exist solely to flesh out Elena’s character as well as the relationship, but it feels contrived and often goes against the very themes the game so desperately wants to establish. There are five endings, which are determined by your relationship with Elena, but this isn’t enough to make the relationship feel any less forced.

So if the crux of the game’s story fails completely, how does the gameplay hold up? Unfortunately, it’s also full of major shortcomings. This is an action-RPG, complete with a leveling system, equipment and various items to collect. Despite checking all of those prerequisite boxes, the combat at the center of it all is mediocre. You can attack enemies with your primary weapon and dodge, but the actual act of attacking enemies doesn’t feel particularly satisfying. Most of the enemies you encounter in the various towers don’t offer much of a challenge, and none of the weapons you acquire feel particularly different from one another.

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The difference between this and other, similar games is your chain tool. This can be used to restrain enemies, rip their flesh off when they die or pick up far away items and solve puzzles. As a combat tool, the chain never feels particularly useful. While you can use it to tie two enemies together and to damage both rather easily, there are few opportunities, even late in the game, when this feels absolutely essential. It can help you get through some tedious battles quickly, but I found the basic mechanics of using the chain to be as unsatisfying as the rest of the combat.

This is not the case with the boss battles, however, which feel like the best parts of the game. At the top of each tower is a master, a giant creature you must defeat in order to help cure Elena’s curse. These battles use the chain weapon effectively and mix things up just enough to prevent each encounter from becoming dull. Even though the basic enemies you fight rarely give you reason to utilize the chain’s full potential, the boss fights often keep you on your toes and are sure you are at the top of your game when handling both the chain and your basic weapon in tandem. The climb up the tower was never particularly exciting, but the fights at the top always made the trip worthwhile.

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Outside of combat, you’ll use the chain to help you solve simplistic puzzles or climb around the different parts of each tower. Once you get used to how to best use the chain in the environment, the actual tower exploration generally becomes a breeze, only offering brief respite from the combat. The towers themselves are seemingly fascinating and mysterious at first, with each new one appearing to be a lot different than the last, but this changes once you get through the first handful. The tower designs begin to repeat and you find yourself encountering very similar, if not exactly the same, room design and enemy encounters. They may differ slightly in appearance, but it won’t be long before the feeling of déjà vu washes over you repeatedly.

Exploring the towers offer little challenge outside of the boss encounters, there is another main hook that will keep you on your toes. While you are exploring the towers and fighting baddies, time will continue on and Elena’s curse will worsen. As it does, a small circular meter in the lower left part of the screen will fill, signaling when you should backtrack and return to her, giving her any beast flesh you have gathered in order to briefly quell the transformation.

It can be easy to get through many of the towers without having to return, but you will want to pay close attention to that meter and make sure you are always prepared to trek back at a moment’s notice. This may seem tedious to some, it does turn what is an otherwise average action-RPG into something a bit more demanding. I found it hard to care about Elena despite the game’s constant, nagging efforts to make her seem likable, however the fear of getting a game over and having to lose all of my current progress kept me going. It’s not the best way to motivate the player, but it works well enough.

If Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story are the top quality critical darlings of Operation Rainfall, Pandora’s Tower is the bargain bin title you’ll check out for $5 and forget about a few days later. There is so much potential here, and it lives up to almost none of it. Not only that, but it fails to develop these potentially cool ideas in any exciting way, including the relationship that seems to move the rest of the game forward. If you’re expecting this game to send Nintendo’s motion-based console off on a high note, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

Pros: Exciting boss battles that best utilize the mechanics, decent amount of challenge
Cons: Dull story with odd relationship mechanics, repetitive tower design, unsatisfying combat

Score: 2/5

Questions? Check out our review guide.

{ 8 comments }

Chris Ingersoll April 25, 2013 at 7:56 am

You (and others) keep calling this an action-RPG, but in my play so far I’ve felt it closer to a Castlevania-style action-platformer game that happens to have a few RPG-like elements tacked on. Except there really isn’t enough action so far (I’m only three towers in) to really justify that comparison either.

And so far my biggest obstacle to caring about this relationship isn’t Elena, it’s Aeron. He’s not the classic/obnoxious silent protagonist, but you wouldn’t know it from watching most of the conversations I’ve seen up to now. He’s nowhere near as chatty as he should be to sell me on his side of things.

Five endings? Yeah, I’m just getting the one thanks.

Andrew Passafiume April 25, 2013 at 8:47 am

I think the crafting/equipment system and leveling system puts it more into the “RPG” camp than your typical Castlevania game with RPG elements. Either way, genres are dumb, aren’t they?

Aeron is a terrible, terrible character. I will disagree him being chattier is required to make something like that work though; Persona 4 works better than most games of this nature and the MC basically never speaks. I just think they do a poor job of connecting the two despite how much the game wants you to believe in the relationship. Aeron could be super talkative, but I don’t think it would make him (or Elena) that much more interesting.

WesFX May 14, 2013 at 9:45 pm

It sounds to me like you missed the effect of Elena. She’s for the player, not for Aeron. And that might sound creepy, but I don’t really see how that wasn’t the point of her. I understand why not everyone would be into that sort of thing, of course.

Andrew Passafiume May 15, 2013 at 6:52 am

She’s not a great character either way. And sure, maybe she’s not “for Aeron,” but their relationship (which is the entire purpose of the game) is poorly handled.

WesFX May 15, 2013 at 6:56 pm

“but their relationship (which is the entire purpose of the game)”

I don’t think we’re on the same page.

Andrew Passafiume May 15, 2013 at 9:57 pm

You’re saying the relationship between Elena and the player is what’s important, not the relationship between Aeron and Elena, right? I understand that. Either way it fails because Elena isn’t a compelling character. The relationship is the central crux of the game’s story and it doesn’t work, whether it’s between you, as the player, and Elena, or Aeron and Elena.

WesFX May 16, 2013 at 9:12 pm

See, that makes sense, as an argument. Saying the relationship was the “purpose of the game” didn’t.

Though you’re still throwing around opinions like objective statements.

Andrew Passafiume May 17, 2013 at 8:04 am

@WesFX: It is a central part of the game and if it doesn’t work, the story doesn’t work, which is one of the main problems. It’s the core of the game. Without that relationship, it devolves into something even more generic than it already is.

And I’m merely stating my opinions.