The latter stages of the Nintendo Wii’s twilight years have been dominated by three absolutely wonderful Japanese RPGs; three games that have been frequently lumped together and discussed as one, and three games that were singled out as must-buys by the cognoscenti before they’d even been localised. The Last Story and Xenoblade Chronicles both expertly delivered what their anticipators had demanded of them, but Ganbarion’s Pandora’s Tower isn’t really partying at the same venue. Firstly, there’s nothing remotely intimidating about it. Secondly, it manages to be totally accessible to genre newcomers without having also been simplified to its detriment. And lastly, it’s much more of a straightforward action romp than an RPG anyway; there’s nothing as sophisticated as Xenoblade’s real-time battle system here, and nothing as fresh as the The Last Story’s multiplayer, and despite being essentially a patchwork quilt of predominantly old ideas, it’s every bit as entertaining as its two celebrated stablemates.
Rather than bombarding you with information from the off, Pandora’s Tower reveals everything about itself very deliberately. The plotting is ridiculously economical; the game opens as a young soldier named Aeron (you) arrives at an abandoned watchtower with a sick young amnesiac girl called Elena, and Mavda, an elderly female merchant. You know that you’re on the run from the authorities (it’s suggested that this is primarily something to do with the girl) and that you can only relieve her of her hideous disease by slaying thirteen beasts, all of whom stalk the grounds of the thirteen towers that lay adjacent to you. So your quest begins after a few succinct minutes, and (as is the norm) you’re drip-fed new skills and combat techniques as you progress… but what makes Pandora’s Tower so refreshing is that the plot is delivered in precisely the same fashion. When Aeron returns from each tower with the flesh of his quarry in his knapsack – which the young girl then reluctantly has to eat – she’ll suffer through some increasingly vivid nightmares that slowly fill in all of the relevant blanks.
The gameplay cribs as many ideas from things like Resident Evil – the rectangular inventory grid that constantly has to be rearranged, the merchant – as it does from the likes of Zelda, Metroid and Castlevania, and yet it never feels confused or unsure of itself. Visually it’s a very simple game – and not even as good-looking as something like Xenoblade – but like all of the finest games that have emerged in the latter half of the Wii’s life, the machine’s restrictions are acknowledged and harnessed, and used to embellish the environments with rich, flavourful atmosphere. In addition, the world is further sketched out by the Bioshock-style logs that you periodically come across, which appear in text rather than audio form. Some of these contain covert gameplay tips and some of them occasionally usher you in the right direction, but many of them are just character diaries that are localised to perfection, are rarely any longer than four or five sentences long, and are often as wacky as all hell.
These logs come as a bit of light relief in a game that’s surprisingly bleak and foreboding for the most part, although this isn’t an adult game by any stretch. If anything, it’s as perfect an entry-level RPG as most Zelda games are, and the general Grimm-ness never subtracts from the pure joy that the gameplay delivers with admirable consistency. The way that you manage your relationship with Elena not only determines which one of the game’s multiple endings you’ll arrive at, but it also broadens your options in combat; ensure that she’s well looked after, and she’ll reward you with various trinkets to assist you in battle later on. A great testament to the writing is that you will want to save her, and rushing back to her before possession takes hold involves constantly having an exit strategy at the ready. Responsive combat, a surfeit of needless grinding (and exploration) and some of the zippiest load times on the Wii, if Pandora’s Tower ends up being your final appointment with Nintendo’s revolutionary console, it’s a frankly impeccable kiss-off.
Pandora’s Tower is out now on the Nintendo Wii.
Watch the trailer for Pandora’s Tower below: