Towards the end of a console's life you often see games that really push the hardware but rely on familiar ideas. Pandora's Tower is quite the opposite: it's a game full of technical foibles that nonetheless overcomes its visual weaknesses to offer something a little different. That's not to say that it's entirely new, of course. Its blend of combat and environmental puzzles and the elemental dungeons you explore bring the Zelda series to mind. And at other times it reminded me of Cavia's underrated Nier, a similarly ambitious title whose aims outstripped both its budget and – arguably - the technological knowhow of its developer. Meanwhile its narrative setup echoes Shadow of the Colossus: like that game you play as a quiet hero on a single-minded (and possibly selfish) quest to save the woman he loves by slaying a number of large beasts.
Still, it manages to rearrange and rework these standards in clever ways, bolting them to a story with a surprisingly tender relationship at its heart. Hero Aeron is a bit of a blank slate, but he's clearly in love with the waif-like Elena, who has been cursed by a beast, and is slowly, gruesomely turning into a slug-like creature. The only way she can reverse the process is to eat the meat pulled from a dozen huge guardians that live in the castle overlooking The Scar, a chasm in the land bound by enormous chains to prevent it widening.
Your job, then, is to venture inside the twelve towers and locate the large door containing each boss, along the way tracing the source of the chains binding them shut, before smashing them and entering the final chamber to finish your grisly task. You'll face enemies and environmental puzzles therein, though the latter are fairly simple conundrums and easily solved. The trickiest aspect is finding the most efficient route to the top. Luckily, you have a secret weapon – a powerful chain which proves useful both for navigation and combat.
The battles with the castle's denizens don't have the pace or fluidity of the best action games, but thanks mostly to smart use of motion and pointer controls, there's a real heft to combat. Point the remote at the screen and you can aim your chain to bind enemies: fire at their face and they'll be temporarily blinded, or you might want to limit their movement by targeting their arms or legs. You can drag flying foes down to your level to slash with Aeron's sword, or tie enemies together to damage them both at once, with the force of your blows travelling across the chain.
You can even pick certain enemies up with the chain and throw them into walls or off ledges, or target objects in the vicinity and hurl them straight at your unsuspecting opponent. Yanking back on the remote deals substantial damage and is the only way to tear meat from downed foes. The satisfying sense of weight and feedback is even better realised in the boss battles, where you need to latch onto weak points, drag back with the nunchuk to pull the chain taut, and then pull sharply to damage them.
The longer you can keep pulling for, the more powerful the blow you'll deliver, and there's a wonderful tension to gauging the right time to jerk the remote as the boss tries to break free or launches an attack. Ganbarion might subscribe to the clich? that all bosses need to have glowing weak points, but there's a trick to reaching or revealing each of them, and there's a tremendous feeling of release when that curse-reversing slab of master flesh finally squelches free and the guardian breathes their last.
But while the bosses are inventive, over the course of the adventure, the core combat does grow tiresome. Unlike the chain, there's little feedback from Aeron's sword, and with a limited range of moves and a simple dodge, there isn't much variety either. At times, it's annoying, particularly when indestructible enemies interrupt you while you're pulling open an ancient door mechanism, or bird-like enemies flap about in your face when you're raising a platform.
And while the fixed perspectives mean you don't need to worry about adjusting the camera, there are occasions when they don't provide the most helpful view of the action, especially when enemies wait in the spot where one camera angle shifts to another. These issues are exacerbated by the lack of visual clarity, ensuring you'll sometimes get waylaid by an attack you don't see coming, and it's even more frustrating when a big hit breaks a key item in your backpack.
Not that you'll grow particularly attached to anything you're holding. Though certain objects prove useful for crafting new weapons, or offering defensive or offensive buffs, the rote combat means you won't care enough to spend too much time upgrading. It's worth spending money on extra bag space, and defensive items and health potions are useful given how hard some of the later enemies can hit, but there's little satisfaction in the grind of searching for items, as the limited inventory means you'll rarely have room for everything you want to carry.
Yet what might otherwise seem like a thankless task is lent a genuine sense of urgency thanks to Elena's condition. As soon as you enter the tower, a countdown begins – and it ticks down pretty rapidly. Particularly in the later towers, you're not going to reach the boss in one journey, so it's up to you to make sure the trip wasn't a wasted one, even if it's only to trigger shortcuts to make your ascent that much quicker on your return. Harvesting enough smaller chunks of meat from the basic enemies is crucial to temporarily staving off her transformation, even if it's only the master flesh that will have a more permanent effect. The tension of each visit is heightened by the need to race back to the entrance before the meter depletes in its entirety: you'll get a warning sign when a bell ominously chimes, but then the screen will start to shake as the curse starts to take hold once more.
The need to head back before you've faced the boss could be irritating were it not for Ganbarion's efforts in making you feel genuine affection – or at least pity - for Elena. There's a strong element of Cronenbergian body-horror about her condition, particularly in an early scene where you return to find a slimy purple trail leading to the cellar where Elena bravely and desperately tries to hide both her pain and the writhing tendrils of her monstrous form. The meat-eating sequences, meanwhile, are truly repulsive: you're forced to watch this frail vegetarian shake and cry as she reluctantly tucks into these hideous, pulsing globs of gristle and sinew, gagging as she does so. That she's so good-natured and likeable during her fleeting periods of recovery only makes you more determined to help. Between trips to the tower you can chat with her and offer her gifts, which raise your affinity with her, in turn affecting the ending you'll see once all the beasts are slain.
Though the story is slight, Pandora's Tower benefits from a strong localisation with a solid script and decent voice acting, alongside The Last Story and Xenoblade Chronicles. Ambiguous ally Mavda – who functions as both shopkeeper and blacksmith – is a particularly creepy delight. Outwardly this old lady seems kindly, but there's something troubling about her, even beyond the giant skeleton she hauls around in a cauldron strapped to her back. As with Shadow of the Colossus, you'll feel a gnawing sense of unease at your actions, partly thanks to one particularly disturbing plot development, which is best left unspoiled.
Even given the irresistible pull of the narrative, Pandora’s Tower isn’t quite up to the standard of other recent Wii RPGs. Yet if at times it seems ugly, confused and repetitive, at others it’s creative, gripping and wonderfully atmospheric. Ganbarion’s game may be no classic, but like Nier, this is rich enough in ideas and narrative force to potentially become something of a cult favourite in years to come.
There are some decent CGI cutscenes, but otherwise this is bare-bones stuff.
A handful of creative touches are muddied by dull art direction and flat textures. It’s no Xenoblade Chronicles.
Solid vocal performances and some stirring choral crescendos during boss fights.
Basic hack-and-slash combat made more interesting thanks to Aeron’s chain and some inventive boss encounters. Puzzles are standard Zelda-lite fare.
7.5 Lasting Appeal
It’ll take you around 15 hours to see the credits if you’re not rushing, perhaps longer if you want the best ending. New Game+ unlocks new locations within the towers.
TOTAL SCORE 7 ''GOOD''