Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Review: Pandora's Tower (Wii)

Time to make an admission: I was wrong. I’ve been going around various people’s comments and Websites going on about how terrible Pandora’s Tower is. This was based on my experience of the Japanese game. I’ve held off on the review of the game for Otaku Gaming because, like I did with Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story, I wanted to make sure that my imperfect understanding of Japanese was not hindering my experience of the game.

Xenoblade and The Last Story turned out to be much the same experience. Pandora’s Tower, however, I was wrong about. This is a game where context is everything. It’s still a terrible game to play, but there’s an operatic quality to the presentation that in many ways reminds me of my favourite game of the last few generations, if not ever: Nier.

That makes this a difficult review to write. On the one hand, I loved every second of Pandora’s Tower. The problem is, I loved it despite its insistence that I should hate it. The combat (which is 90 per cent of the game) is clunky and frustrating. The camera angles are often positioned terribly for a start, and swinging the hero’s weapon is slow and lacks impact. There’s even a noticeable delay in tapping the dodge/ block button and anything happening on screen. Finally, there’s pointer controls. Oh how I hate pointer controls for action games, and here they’re especially bad, since they’re twitchy and just happen to be tied in to the use of the chain whip, which is kind of necessary for the game.

And to compound my absolute irritation with the gameplay of Pandora’s Tower, the game has a strict time limit. See, in this game, there’s a girl. She’s being turned into a monster courtesy of a nasty little curse. The only thing that can save her is the flesh of monsters. Now, in practice this concept translates to a time limit: score the monster flesh and get back to the girl before the time runs out, or it’s game over. But the time limit is rather strict. This means that firstly the developers haven’t bothered to introduce the concept of exploration to the game. It’s as linear as linear gets, as there’s no time in-game to step back and admire the world. Secondly the in-game puzzles are astoundingly straight forward. After all, a complex puzzle with a time limit would be ragequit-worthy.

Pulling all these elements together, and I ended up with a very strong feeling that Nintendo, having seen the successes with God of War, Castlevania on the PS3 and the likes of Darksiders, decided to get in on the action, and discovered Ganbarion was working on one. It’s a quality of the action isn’t a patch on the quality of those other games, because the Wii doesn’t really have an alternative to Pandora’s Tower, but I suspect most people interested in this kind of game have a PS3 or Xbox 360 already. For those gamers: rest assured, Pandora’s Tower is not better than the HD games in terms of gameplay.

But (and this is a big but), I preferred Pandora’s Tower to many of those other games because when it comes to everything but the gameplay, this is a darkly beautiful masterpiece. The closest thing I can compare it to is an opera or ballet: there’s minimal dialogue, minimal story sequences, but the game tells a tragic story simply by showing, not telling. The relationship between the hero and the girl is subtle and genuinely touching, and the voice actors Nintendo found for this release fit the bill perfectly.

Indeed, the game is affecting on multiple primal levels. The romance between the man and girl is sweet, rather than overt, captured perfectly from the very outset. The scene when, gifted with a lamp, the girl throws the hero a sad smile of thanks tells a story of desperation and lost hope that no Wii game has captured previously. It’s hard to show, rather than tell stories on such limited hardware, but Ganbarion did it here. On the complete other end of the spectrum, it never gets easy watching the girl, a vegetarian, gag down the raw meat she is forced to consume simply to survive. Time and time again, Pandora’s Tower tears at the soul of those playing, forcing an emotional response nearly the equal of a masterful performance of Swan Lake.

The music also has an operatic quality. It crescendos at just the right moments, and full credit must go to the Ganbarion for resisting the natural inclination for a game of this style to have a dark and menacing soundtrack. For the most part the score of Pandora’s Tower is soaring, delicate, and poetic. It’s affecting in itself and indeed it heightens the emotional attachment players end up feeling to the characters.

The setting, too, is one of a kind. While there’s no epic world to explore in Pandora’s Tower, the 13 towers players will explore are positioned in a castle suspended by chains over a gaping fissure. It’s intriguing and mysterious, decrepit and yet wonderful at the same time. Though there’s very little by way of NPCs to interact with, the woman that acts as the seer and in-game shop is based heavily on Gypsy mythology, and the world is, ever so subtly, a gentle play on Romani gothica. Frankly, Castlevania could learn a thing or two about how to make a point without battering the player with a sledgehammer from this game.

Most of all, though, Pandora’s Tower reminds me of a simplified, combat-heavy take on Nier. There’s the same protectionist story of a defenceless girl and hero way out of his depth. There’s the same soaring music score that is both inspirational and poetic. There’s the same unrelenting grimness to the world that is claustrophobic and tense while never straying into cheap horror. It’s not as well made as Nier, and where Nier was guilty of trying too many things with its gameplay, Pandora’s Tower fails to get even one basic combat system right, but I’m firmly convinced that the game is not the point of this game (how’s that for a mind twister). Pandora’s Tower is an audio/visual experience that, like opera or ballet, is high art, rather than easy consumption.

I was all set, after playing the Japanese game, to give this a very, very low score. Now that I understand the full weight of Ganbario’s vision? It’s well, well worth struggling through the woeful gameplay for that experience.

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