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Game Review

by Todd Ciolek,

Pandora's Tower

Nintendo Wii

Pandora's Tower
A woman named Elena is cursed by a mysterious force and hunted by her own country, so she and her friend Aeron flee across the Okanos desert. A traveling merchant named Mavda directs them to the Thirteen Towers, where Elena's salvation lies. The towers are home to many powerful, twisted creatures, and eating their flesh will release Elena from the curse.
Pandora's Tower is a love story in bizarre guise. It finds a man raiding towers for raw monster flesh so that a woman may devour it uncomfortably. If she doesn't, she becomes a monster herself, changed as much by despair as by an unnatural curse. It's a fitting premise for a game that values emotion as much as it does hacking through some hideous creature.

Instead of one titular spire, the game presents thirteen towers, all hanging linked above a chasm in a desolate wasteland. It's here that reticent soldier Aeron and gentle singer Elena are guided by the stooped old peddler Mavda (and her friendly skull-faced husband, who lives in a pot on her back). The group fled Elena's homeland after a ceremony went monstrously wrong, leaving the young woman with a sigil on her back and a curse in her veins. She's gradually transforming into an unknown horror, and she can escape her fate only by eating the flesh of the tower's various creatures. So Aeron takes up his sword, borrows a mysterious chain from Mavda, and heads off to those towers.

Aeron explores the towers in efficient style, finding his way from level to level and dicing up whatever creatures obstruct him. His sword and other stumbled-across armaments aren't terribly interesting. The Oraclos Chain, Mavda's gift, is the real weapon. With it Aeron binds foes, whips them through the air, swings them around, and invents other ways of destroying things. He might ensnare a monster's feet and slash it as it struggles to break free. He might jerk a sword out of an enemy's hand and hurl the blade into its former owner. He might lasso a giant beast's head, stand in place to build up the chain's energy meter, and then yank it free to devastating effect.

He'll also navigate the towers by using the chain, which functions as a grappling hook as well as a weapon. It can't grab everything (not even the original Bionic Commando allowed that), but it can snag fixtures, work elevators, and solve many of the puzzles that beset our tow-headed hero. Pandora's Tower won't shame the newest Zelda in its complexities; the themes of the towers are repeated, and their tasks are usually just a matter of figuring out where Aeron's supposed to fire the chain. Yet the tower layouts require a lot of exploration, and some of the masters show real invention. Like the titans of Shadow of the Colossus, many of them won't even bother Aeron until he strikes, and when they do attack there's a clever ruse to felling them and snatching out that gooey Master Flesh.

As Aeron roams the towers, a gauge tracks Elena's worsening condition. She slips closer to monstrous form with each minute, and it's best for Aeron to head back to their shared outpost halfway through a tower. Only Master Flesh will fully dispel Elena's curse, but the purple meat of low-level monsters will stave off her beastly symptoms for a time. Elena's at first reluctant to breach her vegetarian faith, and the scenes of her choking down bruise-colored innards are unnerving; she gags, winces, and thrashes around as though the game's stumbled into some strange fetish video. It grows equally disturbing when Elena starts to like gorging on monster organs.

Pandora's Tower does its best to make the player care about Elena and Aeron and their possibly doomed affections. It flails at first. Aeron seems a drab, seldom-heard excuse for a hero, and Elena is obnoxiously fragile. Whenever Aeron returns from tower expeditions, she'll greet him with fretful tones and attempts at housekeeping, her meekness and inanity exacerbated by Charlotte Sanderson's faint performance. Their interactions are the stuff of an exceptionally simple dating simulator, with Elena offering bland pleasantries as Aeron is tasked with choosing the cutest response or giving her the nicest possible gift. It seems sexist in concept and schmaltzy in execution.

Yet there's more to the story. The first time Aeron returns with only a scrap of Elena's gauge left, he finds her deformed and huddled in the cellar, clutching her last possible vestige of humanity. Then the truth of Elena and Aeron's relationship is clear: the seemingly banal conversations, the gifts, the flirting...all of it's just covering the horrible reality at hand. Elena can't do anything but wait and slip away a little further each day, and Aeron can't do anything but put his faith in Mavda's avaricious methods. Intentionally or not, Pandora's Tower hints at the agony of watching someone you love destroyed from within.

Pandora's Tower doesn't burrow as deep as it easily could into this morbid theme, yet it's enough to drive everything onward. It's enough to stir some guilt when Elena drifts too close to an unspeakable metamorphosis, and it's enough to draw out sympathy when Aeron gawks at a power beyond his understanding. And this gives the game a real edge. Taken on their own, the towers would be above-average in design but devoid of purpose. Presented in another medium, the story would be intriguing but far too simple. Together, they're quite compelling.

It's a relief that the game dodges a lot of potential chores. Most of the tower layouts make it easy to ferry monster giblets back to Elena, and there are other reasons to dash back and forth. Items scrounged from the towers help Mavda and her skeletal husband create new goods, and Aeron can't carry that many trinkets at once. But these are secondary concerns when there's a life to save and a story to uncover. Half of it's told in notes and rumors, but Aeron and Elena's relationship is what truly decides which ending you'll see. Each of those endings twists the story in a new direction, and the worst one isn't necessarily the saddest.

Aeron and Elena struggle with appearances in more than one respect. They gesture and sway convincingly, yet their faces show that doll-like cast common to modestly budgeted games. Their voices also take a while to adjust. Initially Aeron's too stiff and Elena's too frail, and it's easy for Anne Beach to steal the show with her cackling, perfectly matched take on Mavda. In a similar mixture, the tower environments are rather detailed, but they're standard-definition and paired with a merely adequate soundtrack. They're also designed around fixed viewpoints, and that sometimes forces Aeron to move around just to get a better vantage. An unpleasant glitch even pops up at the game's last real dungeon, forcing some elaborate workarounds.

A little more advice is in order: use the Wii remote. The classic controller works well enough for the game, and some may find its stationary cursor easier to use. Yet the remote is far more satisfying when it comes to aiming and wielding the chain, and it's well worth adjusting to the layout. It's an example of just how much potential there was (and still is) in the Wii's motion-control peripheral.

The Wii couldn't ask for a better closing line than Pandora's Tower. It's not as ambitious in scope as some other recent experiments, and yet that works for the best. Despite rough appearances, Pandora's Tower does precisely what it needs to do with its unique combat and somber touches. As love stories go, it's challenging and grotesque. As games go, it's extraordinary.

Overall : B+
Graphics : B-
Sound/Music : B
Gameplay : A-
Presentation : B+

+ The tower forays and developing storyline work together beautifully
The point of view isn't all that smooth, some ideas are overused, and there's a nasty glitch toward the end

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