A quality ARPG that will hopefully stand tall in your estimation.
How far are you willing to go to save the woman you love? Would you fight a series of enormous monsters with nothing but a sword and a chain? Would you stuff monster flesh (not a euphemism) down her gullet to keep her from transforming into a tentacled monstrosity? Would you dust off that Wii for one more Japanese RPG from Operation Rainfall?
These are questions posed by Pandora's Tower, an Action RPG from relatively obscure developers Ganbarion - perhaps best known for their One Piece and Jump anime licensed games - and Nintendo themselves. It received something of a minor furore in the gaming news lately after the announcement of a long-awaited March release for the US, thanks to localization mavens XSEED Games. This elation was in part due to it being the third and final success of the Operation Rainfall movement along with Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story, which received their own US releases last year.
Pandora's Tower is a hard game to describe without taking that oft-reductive route of comparing it to existing games, but here goes: The player controls a young soldier named Aeron who absconds from enemy territory with the young woman he's involved with, a demure lass by the name of Elena who found herself cursed by a malevolent force during a singing performance at a festival. The curse, as the dubious travelling vendor Mavda informs the duo, will transform the girl into a hideous monster unless she is fed flesh from the masters of the twelve towers of a region called the Scar: a strikingly foreboding land overlooking a massive chasm into an abyss.
So far, this sounds a bit like that one game with all those umbra-casting gigantic fellows, but each of these masters lives atop a tower which must be scaled before they can be fought. Furthermore, Aeron has to destroy the chains which lock the massive doors to each of the lairs at the top of these towers, necessitating a thorough exploration of each tower to find and destroy the chains' weak points. Unfortunately, the aforementioned curse will not wait patiently for Aeron to finish his task and will work quickly on irrevocably metamorphizing the luckless deuteragonist Elena. The player has around an hour of real time after he leaves the sanctity of the hub domicile in which to return with some meat to temporarily stave off this curse, and therein lies the crux of the challenge Pandora's Tower presents.
As cumbersome and anathema to exploration a time limit might seem, it soon becomes evident how much of an inextricable factor of the game it truly is - managing one's time turns into an extremely important consideration, with every lowered ladder short-cut and destroyed chain feeling like a major breakthrough. Progress comes quickly or slowly, depending on the player's resourcefulness with each tower's array of puzzles and henchman battles, but every step closer to the tower's master feels earned and each trip back to the hub for Elena's takeaway meal when progress has been made feels like a minor victory. Each tower has its own theme and element, with the first five unlocking consecutively and the following five being more challenging "remixes" of the first quintet, which are unlocked all at once to allow the player a bit of freedom. The masterstroke of the game's level design is apparent with the final two towers, the secrets of which I'll allow you all to discover for yourselves.
The game's true star is the Chain of Oraclos: a magical weapon-cum-McGuffin given to Aeron early on and the only way to permanently harm the bosses of the tower. Aeron also has a selection of conventional melee weapons - a sword initially, but a pair of daggers and a scythe can be found in other towers (and an absurdly powerful stake-firing crossbow in new game+). These normal weapons are what you'll be using to take out a lot of monsters, and they can all be upgraded with the game's exhaustive crafting system along with many pieces of armor and accessories that Aeron has limited space to equip, but the chain's such a fun weapon that you might find yourself using the others sparingly. The chain's also instrumental for many of the puzzles the dungeon offers as well, from hooking onto footholds to manipulating levers. It can: Bind creatures in place; bind creatures to other creatures causing them to share damage for a while; one-shot annoying, swarming flying creatures; pick up smaller creatures which can then be spun around in a circle for crowd control or hurled at a wall, off a ledge or into another monster; and also used to target a specific part of a monster, or to scan the environment for treasures ensconced in the walls. Increasing tension in the chain, by manually pulling on the chain or dragging enemies with it, increases the damage output when you tear it from its perch with a quick waggle of the Wii Remote and this maneuver is central for the boss fights: Each fight is predicated on finding the boss's weak spot and pulling on it with the chain to cause lasting damage. Figuring out how to expose this weak spot is half the battle in itself, with the process of damaging it over time directly competing with whatever time you have left to rescue Elena with another prompt helping of monster meat. Despite all these applications, most of the controls - motion and otherwise - regarding the chain are intuitive: Pointing the cursor at the screen and hitting B fires the chain in that direction and almost every other button will perform a follow-up action with it - though initially a struggle to memorize all these techniques, it becomes second nature in no time at all.
The game's presentation is a bit hit or miss, in all honesty. The towers look a little too similar despite their elemental diversity, the orchestral renditions of various pieces of classical music are sparse in number but generally excellently performed and Elena is a well-crafted tragic heroine if perhaps not the most socially-progressive construct. She's rather dependent on Aeron and his martial prowess for her survival, for one thing, and spends much of the game either suffering in pain, cleaning the living space she and Aeron shares between his tower visits or devouring dripping raw meat in bizarrely sensationalized cutscenes. In all fairness, these scenes are more in service to Elena's progression from initially gagging on the meat's taste (like everyone in her religiously devout country, she was raised vegetarian) to hungrily devouring it like a drug addict getting their fix. This is a significant factor of the game's slow-built if predictable conclusion, but it can't help but come off as majorly disturbing in more ways than one. Considering the recent issues people are having with sexism in the medium, I'll toss in a healthy caveat emptor for that particular aspect, but it's really nothing too discouraging or dispiriting when the context is made clear. On a more positive note, Pandora's Tower is also fond of setting up questions and answering them far later on, giving the player ample opportunity to arrive at their own conclusions by finding notes and messages lying around and listening to the hints of resident cryptic shopkeeper Mavda and construing future plot developments from their subtext. The notes you find in each boss room in particular are slow-burners, and it's wonderful that a game like this respects the player's intelligence while never leaving behind those who couldn't figure it out or don't care to. While it's not necessarily a positive to say a game's twists can be guessed ahead of time, there's generally a lot more going on beneath the surface of Pandora's Tower than is spelled out in the occasional expository cutscene.
While the game has echoes of half a dozen other action RPGs, character action games and even roguelikes (dungeons reset their items each time and sometimes you'll enter a tower just to farm useful materials for crafting), it's a truly unique combination of disparate elements that creates a cohesive and comprehensive adventure that you don't have to be a JRPG nut to enjoy.