Seeing so many developers flounder around new technology like Kinect and PlayStation Move recently takes us back to the early days of the Wii and DS. Trepidation and missteps are always rife in the infancy of any new hardware, though this last wave of Wii games reminds us to be patient – since the Nintendo console launched, Wii titles have evolved from minigame collections and skill-free waggle frenzies to games that, at their finest, employ a combination of traditional and unconventional control features to create experiences no other platform could offer. As much as it might be an assurance of hope for this latest wave of hardware, though, Pandora’s Tower serves as an equally poignant reminder of something far more important. In a curiously twisted games market where all anybody seems to want to do is dance with C-3PO and shout and wave their way through menus, it takes a game of such mechanical prowess and dark themes to remind us that motion control and maturity need not be mutually exclusive concepts.
The setup is about as standard as they come – androgynous hero must save helpless female by facing increasingly arduous series of trials – but the way in which it all plays out is anything but. Ridiculously dressed hero Aeron’s Herculean task takes him to and from the titular tower (which is actually a bunch of smaller, themed towers strapped together) as the game flit schizophrenically between a more than competent Metroidvania-cum-Zelda adventure and a twisted dating game where the love interest grows tentacles if you leave her alone for too long. You see, poor Elena is cursed, an ominous clock in the bottom-left corner of the screen slowly ticking her life away as you explore. While the flesh of the tower’s Masters (read: bosses) will eventually cure her entirely of this hideous affliction, you’ll often find you need to rush back with some less potent gruesome meat lumps for her in order to buy some time. It’s bad enough having to watch her tuck into the vile dinners every time you serve one up but, in a particularly cruel twist, Elena is vegetarian.
Despite the pitiful voice acting, this growing bond between mysterious hero and tortured girl is genuinely one of Pandora’s Tower’s strongest features. You can chat to her as you please and ply her with gifts when all is well but it only takes one delayed return – to find Elena sprouting purple tentacles and clearly in agony because of your own poor timekeeping – to fire up the guilt factory, and it isn’t long before taking care of her is as much of a priority as everything that goes on in the tower itself. Each sub-tower is littered with shortcuts and escape routes, though as they grow more complex it can be a nightmare trying to find your way back to the suffering girl as the crushing ticks of the death clock grow ever louder.
It’s inventive and compelling in this respect, then, but the action sections – which are still the main meat of the game – show similar creativity. As well as a sword (and later a wider variety of melee weapons), Aeron is armed with a multi-purpose chain as useful in combat as it is in navigating the confusing towers. Enemies can be lashed, grabbed, dragged, thrown, bound and even tied together with it as the situation or enemy type dictates, the latter being a particularly handy crowd control tool as linked enemies are both damaged by any attacks dealt to just one of them. Outside of encounters, the chain serves as both a grappling hook (for swinging and climbing about the place) and a Zelda-style hookshot capable of retrieving items and activating switches. It even has a tension gauge, governing durability when used in binding enemies and attack power when laying into them more directly, the risk/reward mechanic of knowing when to shoot for a full charge and when to release before an enemy zaps the chain or reels you in an absolute joy when you learn to call it well.
It’s fair to say that without the chain, Pandora’s Tower would be nothing at all. Basic combat is a one-button affair, tapped combos and charged attacks (with timed follow-ups as weapons are levelled up) the extent of its complexity. But with button-based simplicity coupled with the Wii Remote-fuelled chain, the resulting system is something far greater than the sum of its parts, and as good a use of the Remote/Nunchuk combo as the Wii has seen. There’s Classic Controller support as well if you’d rather go down the traditional route, but unlike almost every other game that offers this option the standard setup is actually the best way to enjoy the game.
Between well-designed dungeons, thrilling boss battles and a compelling hook in Elena’s deteriorating condition, Pandora’s Tower is a unique treat for those still loyal to the Wii. The odd nose will probably be turned up at the repetitive nature of Aeron’s task, a couple more by the dating game influence and likely more still by the fixed camera angles that seem to be working against you much of the time. But for those that find their noses remain level, Ganbarion’s ambitious debut is a game that really begs (and deserves) to be loved. Pandora’s Tower really feels like a Castlevania game, only one with heart and soul like the Konami franchise has rarely enjoyed. It’s an odd fusion of action elements, RPG progression and relationship nurturing and while on paper that seems like it should end pretty terribly, the truth is that there are few better fits for the gap left after Skyward Sword’s completion.