Of the three “Operation Rainfall” Wii RPGs that an Internet pressure group (now turned full-on news and reviews site and beloved friend of MoeGamer) helped bring to Europe and North America, the title that seems to get least attention is Ganbarion’s Pandora’s Tower.
This is sad, because Pandora’s Tower is brilliant and you absolutely should care about it. Why? Well, I’m glad you asked.
The three Operation Rainfall games are wildly divergent experiences from one another but they have one key thing in common: all of them shake up the player’s understanding of what the term “JRPG” really means. Xenoblade Chronicles provides quest-heavy open-world exploration; The Last Story provides a highly linear, tightly-scripted and fast-paced experience.
Neither of them follow the traditional “walk five steps on field screen, cut to separate battle screen” model, instead each deciding to try something different. The lower development overheads of working on the Wii, rather than holding these games back, allows the developers to take bigger risks with more adventurous concepts, mechanics and narrative arcs — and these risks have paid off bigtime.
But what of Pandora’s Tower?
Ganbarion’s addition to the genre shakes things up yet again, and it’s probably the biggest difference from the “norms” of the genre yet.
Let’s rewind and talk a little about the game and its concept for those unfamiliar with it.
Pandora’s Tower casts players in the role of a very quiet young man named Aeron. Aeron is in love with a white-haired Yorkshire-accented lass known as Elena. Elena has a bit of a problem with a curse, in that unless she feeds on flesh from the monsters and masters of the “Thirteen Towers” she will turn into a slobbering, betentacled disaster and cause all manner of havoc before dying an undoubtedly very painful death. Naturally, it’s up to Aeron to save her from this horrible fate, and thus begins his quest.
There are two main components to Pandora’s Tower. When hanging out with Elena, the game has a somewhat “dating sim” feel about it — an on-screen meter reflects the relationship between Aeron and his damsel in distress, and this meter can be manipulated by offering her gifts and saying the right things in conversations. The higher the meter is at the end of the game, the better the ending. Simple.
Once Aeron gets into the Towers, however, things get interesting. Our Hero is equipped with both a sword, which is swung around by just tapping a button, and a magical chain, which is aimed with the Wii Remote and fired with the trigger.
The chain can be used for all manner of things — hookshotting up to distant platforms, tying up monsters and, perhaps most importantly, ripping flesh out of creatures that have been felled. All the time Aeron is gallivanting off around the towers, Elena’s curse is advancing, depicted by a meter in the corner of the screen.
If Aeron doesn’t find his way to the Master’s chamber and defeat it quickly, Elena will be “on the turn” when he gets back, with tentacles sprouting from places that you don’t normally expect to see tentacles sprouting from. If he takes much too long, she’ll die. Initially, the overall time limit isn’t a problem, but later towers are large enough to require a lot of back-and-forth between the dungeon and Elena in order to be successful.
This amount of backtracking could easily prove very tiresome, but Pandora’s Tower gets around this with some excellent level design inspired by titles such as Metroid and Castlevania. Make significant progress in a tower and there is always a shortcut to unlock — a door to unblock or a ladder to kick down in most cases — which means that upon Aeron’s return, he doesn’t have to repeat the same puzzles over and over again.
So long as the player keeps delivering meat to Elena on a regular basis, they can use their time in the towers to farm crafting ingredients to upgrade Aeron’s weapons or simply sell in order to afford more gifts for his loved one.
What this description probably doesn’t get across is how wonderfully thrilling it is to explore Pandora’s Tower’s environments. You might think a game set almost exclusively in stone towers would get very repetitive very quickly, but this is far from the case — each tower has a distinctive visual and environmental theme and a wonderful sense of scale within.
Some towers will see Aeron running through huge, majestic hallways of a long-forgotten civilization; others will see him hanging on by his fingertips as he dangles precariously over a pit of lava. Some will require carefully-timed Tarzan swings using the chain; others will require him to manipulate the environment to his advantage. It’s always thrilling, and there’s always something new and interesting to see.
Then come the bosses, each of whom is battled in a confrontation that wouldn’t be out of place in Shadow of the Colossus. The gigantic Masters lumber to life and Aeron must use all his skills to bring them down. Again, there’s plenty of variety here — some are straightforward dodge-and-attack battles; some require environmental manipulation; some provide a wonderful sense of physicality as Aeron uses the chain (and the player uses the Wii Remote) to pull off pieces of armor or body parts one at a time.
What really sets Pandora’s Tower apart from other JRPGs, though, is how “intimate” it feels. There are just three speaking characters in the game — Aeron, Elena and the mysterious merchant woman Mavda, who inexplicably carries her huge skeletal husband in a pot on her back.
Over the course of the game, the player gets to know both Elena and Mavda very well, with Aeron largely being left as a “blank slate” on which the player can project their own personality. Mavda is consistently and frustratingly enigmatic throughout the course of the game’s story, but the relationship between Aeron and Elena deepens over time, resulting in some genuinely touching scenes. By the time you reach the game’s finale, you’ll want to throw everything you’ve got into… well, to get into that would just be spoiler territory, now, wouldn’t it?
It’s wonderful that Operation Rainfall and the many fans of the genre convinced Nintendo and Xseed to bring Pandora’s Tower to the West. While the market for JRPGs these days is a fraction the size of that of, say, Call of Duty, there are still plenty of players out there hungry for new and interesting experiences in the genre.
And Pandora’s Tower provides just that — an experience different from the norm in which the hero’s primary concern is not saving the universe from whatever god-like thing is attacking it this week, but in saving the woman he loves from a horrible, seemingly unstoppable fate.
It’s a highly original game in so many ways — concept, execution, gameplay, aesthetic — that it deserves to be exposed to as wide an audience of potential fans as possible. And so, if you’ve never experienced this wonderful game for yourself, be sure to grab a copy for Wii or Wii U at the earliest opportunity.
This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2012 as part of the site’s regular Swords and Zippers column on JRPGs. It has been republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.
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