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When Operation Rainfall came into existence almost two years ago, a trio of unreleased Wii games suddenly became the talking points on gamers’ lips all over Europe and North America. There was:
– The latest JRPG from acclaimed developer Tetsuya Takahashi, most famous for the classic Xeno series.
– The latest JRPG from acclaimed developer Hironobu Sakaguchi, most famous for no less than the Final Fantasy series.
– A strange new action / dating sim game from unknown quantity Ganbarion, most famous for…well, you tell me!
Did you spot the odd one out? Well done! I personally have no idea why Tyson and the Oprainfall team decided to include Pandora’s Tower in their campaign for localisation, but OMG am I glad they did.
Pandora’s Tower is a Wii game that comes in a black case. I can only surmise that Nintendo really want you to know, before you even put the disc in the machine, that this is not your average casual-friendly Wii title. The gorgeous art book that comes with the special edition lends credence to my theory. This is a game that depicts some pretty gruesome body horror while simultaneously telling a beautiful love story. Oh, and it’s set to a backdrop of warring nations and ethically questionable ways of bringing an end to war. It’s a little more complex than saving the princess who baked you a cake*. The main story is delivered in the time-honoured way of cutscenes and FMV, and while there are only 3 main characters (and one of them is practically a mute), there is still a great deal of very professionally-delivered voice acting, particularly from veteran British actress Ann Beach who puts in a remarkable performance as Mavda.
*Technically, you’re saving the girlfriend who bakes you some cookies.
The back-story is done in a way which I really enjoyed and I wish more games would make use of – the classic Resident Evil style of leaving notes and documents lying around for the player to discover and peruse at their leisure. It allows you to take in as much or as little of the game’s back-story as you like, although there is the added complication of having certain documents that affect an aspect of the gameplay (I’ll get onto that later).
Let’s do the time warp… Again
Did you enjoy The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask? The reason I ask is because there was a time mechanic in that game that some people loved and some people really hated. Well, there’s a similar…ish sort of time mechanic in this game. Basically, the main flow of the game has you ascending some thirteen towers, battling your way through their various grotesque monstrous inhabitants, trying to reach the master at each tower’s summit to steal his flesh and bring it back to your temporary base of operations (your vegetarian girlfriend, Elena, has a curse that only master flesh will cure…just roll with it). The clock is ticking the whole time, visibly so – there’s a little icon in the corner of the screen – and the time limit before Elena is overcome by the curse is actually pretty tight. Without timing it, I’d say it’s about 30-40 minutes real time. If you don’t have the master flesh in hand before the time is up, you have to go back and ‘top her up’ with regular flesh. Having to make several visits to a tower before vanquishing its master could definitely have turned out to be a real pain in the ass, but thankfully there are a couple of things that not only save you from such bowel discomfort, but which actually make the game brilliant.
Firstly, the design of the towers is nothing short of genius. Every trip you make, you will activate some sort of quick route back to the entrance, or short cut to the top, meaning that it’s never a chore to leave and come back, as you can very quickly pick up where you left off without going over too much of the same ground. Secondly, the speed and agility with which your character, Aeron, is blessed, makes simply traversing the towers a joy for any gamer, and especially speed-runners. It’s as if the developers had a look at the new and improved Link from Skyward Sword (and in particular, his hookshot) and said “we’ll make our main character just like that, only better in every way.” You see, Aeron is in possession of an artifact known as the Oraclos Chain – a devastatingly effective weapon in combat (and the only means of tearing flesh from your enemies\’ bodies) and an eminently useful tool in traversing the towers. Any ledge, ladder, hook, handle, or otherwise tantalizing grapple-point can be used – simply point at it with the Wii remote and when the cursor changes to a chain icon, press B to fire the chain and reel yourself in. It works wonderfully – both the perfect precision of the IR controls and the seamless, organic integration of grapple points into the architecture of the towers.
Chain attack bonus!
Some of the most fun usage of the chain is during combat. I actually got the impression that it was meant to be secondary to your sword as a weapon, but I found myself using it more and more. The number of available strategies is very impressive: chain two enemies together and the damage you do to one travels down the chain to equally damage the other; bind enemies about their torso to stop them attacking, or bind their legs to topple them, or their eyes to blind them; and when you finish them, bind their torso again and pull to steal some flesh, or target their head and pull out a fang. You can even do a chain-shot combo or a sword-slash combo with some well-timed button presses. Again the controls are just about as perfect as they could be – there is no annoyingly tacked-on motion, just the afore-mentioned IR aiming and a yank on the Wii remote to pull flesh (or teeth!), which is exactly how motion controls should be: appropriate, and not over-used.
Of course, there’s a lot more to the game than platforming and combat. I have repeatedly seen the game described (incorrectly) as a JRPG, due in part to its Operation Rainfall stable mates, and in part to the actually-very-reasonable amount of customising and upgrading to be done. With a handful of different primary weapons to upgrade, and an extensive list of materials to farm and items to craft, it’s understandable that so many would label it as such, but in reality it’s more of a JRPG-lite, and if you’ve ever played Muramasa: The Demon Blade, you’ll know exactly what I mean by that. If you’re the kind of obsessive completionist like me that could spend hours crafting gems in Xenoblade then you’ll love the alchemy in this game. There are so many different materials to collect and so many different ways to combine them that you can quite easily add a sizeable number of hours to your playtime in a quest to get the best armour and equipment. (And don’t forget about crafting the best gifts to give to Elena to improve that relationship status.) There are also a number of alchemist’s journals to be found which will further increase your item-fusing repertoire. Unfortunately, the menu-based interaction in this part of the game is ever-so-slightly clunky, with a lot of going backwards and forwards through options and a heck of a lot of repeated dialogue. I mentioned earlier how good Mavda’s voice acting is; well this is the one part of the game where I really wanted to turn the sound off! All I can say is you’d better get used to hearing the words “what creation method do you wish to use?” over and over and over and over…
The other aspect of the game’s audio presentation, besides the classy-if-sometimes-overused VA, is the classy-if-sometimes-underused music. Giuseppe Verdi\’s wonderfully powerful requiem, Dies Irae, is the main theme, and it is everywhere in trailers and multimedia promotional material but used only very sparingly in the actual game. I don’t really know if that’s a complaint or not, because while I’d love to hear more of it during gameplay, its conspicuous absence only serves to make it even more impactful when it does pop up. One moment in particular near the end of the game had me grinning in delight at the perfect symphony of on-screen events and musical accompaniment. The rest of the music in the game comprises various other classical pieces, all of which do a very good job of setting the mood at any given time.
Graphically…well, we’re all Wii fans here, right? I think the artistic direction is spot-on with some very well-conceived environmental themes and really great enemy design, particularly the twelve masters (and don’t let me forget to mention them again later) but for a game with no open world, no real outdoor areas to speak of, whose sole focus is the majestic, imposing tower interiors (you know – huge statues, impossibly high ceilings, some really imaginative architecture) I just felt like the technical limitations of the Wii held the game back in this regard, and I was left appreciating the intent, if not so much the execution. That’s not to say it’s a bad looking game because it certainly isn’t and it does impress with some nice graphical touches, most notably in the crystalline walls of the Rockshard Rampart, and in the fabulous border-less zoom which also slows down time slightly. I could certainly stand to see some more of that in future games!
Probably the highlight of the entire game for me, certainly on the first play-through, was each and every tower master (read: boss) encounter. I’ve never played a game which had such consistency in the brilliance of its bosses. In every aspect, too: they all look exactly, perfectly like they should; the build-up to each boss holds just exactly the right amount of tension and foreboding (something to do with those massive doors – they were chained shut for a reason!); and the actual process of fighting the boss, figuring out how to beat them as you go, and then putting a plan into action and defeating them works perfectly every single time. I think I came away from boss fights with mere seconds to spare on at least eight out of twelve occasions. The difficulty, both in figuring out how you’re going to reveal the bosses weakness and take advantage of it, and then in having the skill to actually pull it off, is perfectly judged. Never easy enough to be boring, never hard enough to be overly frustrating.
At this point, I have played Pandora’s Tower twice through (the game features the best example of a New Game+ that I’ve ever seen, by the way) and the file select screen tells me that I’ve clocked a total of 67 hours with the game. It has been an immensely enjoyable 67 hours. It’s not very often that a game reels me in for a second play-through immediately after the first, but there was just something about this game’s world, about Aeron and Elena’s relationship, and of course something about the immensely satisfying exploration, traversal and combat in the towers, that simply made me come back for more. And that’s a pretty high recommendation in my book. I do hope that Nintendo of America are planning to release this game in the US and Canada in some manner or form, because it is absolutely one of the best games released for the Wii in the last couple of years, and it is more than worthy of being the third and final part of the Wii’s epic send-off, courtesy of the Operation Rainfall trio.