While there is still a tenuous relationship between the game industry and consumers, events of recent years have shown that publishers are becoming more receptive to the requests of their customers. Two notable examples were the fan outcry over the disappointing endings to Fallout 3 and Mass Effect 3, prompting the developers to create patches for both titles that would amend the conclusions to make them (subjectively) more satisfying as well as rectify plot holes. Another fan-led movement with noticeable results was Operation Rainfall, a campaign formed to convince Nintendo of America to localize three Japanese RPGs for the Wii. These games had already been localized for other English-speaking nations like the United Kingdom and Australia, but Nintendo was hesitant about publishing them in the United States out of concern they wouldn’t sell well. Eventually, through continual displays of interest from the fans, some success was seen in 2012 with the release of two desired titles: Xenoblade Chronicles, published by Nintendo, and The Last Story, published by Xseed Games. The latter became Xseed’s biggest seller in the United States, prompting them to localize the final game in the Rainfall trio, Pandora’s Tower: Until I Return to your Side, which was developed by Ganbarion and Nintendo. Re-titled simply as Pandora’s Tower outside of Japan, the game regretfully isn’t a case where the best title was saved for last, but still offers an enjoyable experience in spite of its flaws.

Elena, a young woman from the kingdom of Elyria, has been afflicted with a strange curse. She is gradually turning into a hideous monster, prompting the military to pursue her, and presumably kill her, before she transforms completely. With the help of her love Aeron, a soldier from the rival kingdom of Athos, and Mavda, a traveling merchant belonging to the enigmatic Vestra tribe, she is able to evade capture. Seeking refuge in an abandoned observatory once used as a military outpost in the wastelands of Okanos, Mavda informs the young lovers of a way to undo the curse. The observatory overlooks The Scar, a massive chasm that would be rumored to swallow up the entire continent of Imperia if it were not held in check by a dozen titanic chains. Suspended by these chains are thirteen interconnected towers, each home to a number of grotesque monsters. Within twelve of these towers reside massive beasts known as Masters, all of whom have enchanted flesh. If Elena eats the flesh of all the Masters, her curse will be lifted. Determined to save the woman he loves, Aeron ventures through the towers to obtain the magical organs, fighting through hordes of grotesque monsters while uncovering lost secrets about the dark past of the kingdoms, learning of horrors that seem destined to occur again if he should fail.

With a premise focused on slaying massive monsters to save the woman you love, Pandora’s Tower is very reminiscent to the acclaimed Shadow of the Colossus. It is not, however, a shameless copy, as the titles differ substantially in scope, scale, and impact. The world of Pandora’s Tower is considerably smaller than that of Shadow of the Colossus, being restricted to a series of buildings rather than a sprawling wilderness, but it feels deeper. There’s more satisfaction to be gained in battling your way through ravenous monsters and solving puzzles in order to reach your target rather than simply wandering through mostly empty land. However, this depth extends more to gameplay than the narrative. Shadow of the Colossus was rich with mystery and symbolism, almost completely free of dialogue in order convey its intended message through the action, the aesthetics, even the names of several characters. Austin Yorski of Blistered Thumbs wrote an article detailing some of the symbolism that many players may have missed. (http://www.blisteredthumbs.net/2012/07/pixel-pretens-shadow-colossus/)

Pandora’s Tower, while still having an engaging plot, is more up front about its messages and metaphors. Several concepts, such as the prevalence of chains and the laws of the Aiosian religion pertaining to harmonic balance, are explained in detail with very little left for the player to interpret on their own. When the truth behind the origins of the Masters is revealed, it’s almost immediately dismissed as an issue not to be concerned about, diminishing any potential guilt or remorse Aeron would feel regarding his actions. Repeated references to the suffering endured by those living in war-torn areas, while intended to elicit sympathy, end up sounding forced and in some cases melodramatic. But there are several moments that deliver a greater impact through non-verbal methods. Elena is initially hesitant towards consuming the flesh of the Masters, having lived a vegetarian lifestyle as dictated by the faith of Aios, but as she becomes more ravenous with each piece eaten, we get the sense that she’s gradually becoming corrupted in a way other than the mutation of the curse. We’re presented with the possibility that, like Wander, Aeron’s journey to save the woman he loves may be inadvertently giving power to another threat. There are also several references to classical Greek mythology. Aside from the title and how it relates to the legend of Pandora’s Box in the search for hope, the characters’ original names in Japanese were inspired by characters from the lore. Mavda, for example, was initially named Graiai, after the crone-like witches who offered assistance to heroes such as Perseus. The official names for the Masters provided in the stragegy guide are inspired by various mythological entities, such as the blazing titan of Crimson Keep being called Surtr after the Norse fire giant, and the elephant like Master of Sheerdrop Spire is named after Airavata, the elephant which served as the mount for the Hindu deity Indra.

The plot of Pandora’s Tower may not be as intricate as the game which inspired it, but it still manages to tell an impressive tale. It has a good sense of mystery, beginning in medias res with the main trio trying to escape from the military, with only little information about what transpired. It’s only through progression where the backstory is better fleshed out, providing insight into what happened to Elena, her relationship with Aeron, and the history of Imperia, the last of which is essential in providing a deeper understanding to the events of the game. Since this is a minimalist title with few characters, however, much of the plot is revealed through basic exposition with flashbacks and notes discovered throughout the quest. Additionally, you can only have conversations with two characters, Elena and Mavda. This provides more detail about the game’s world, but the limited scope made me eager to learn more, wishing that there were other NPCs I could interact with to enhance the mythology. I wanted to know more about what sparked the war between the kingdoms of Imperia and how it was affecting others, to learn about the societal differences between the different kingdoms, to meet individuals who ventured into the towers before and learn what the experience did to them, rather than simply reading about the horrors they experienced. There are also multiple endings that vary in the effectiveness of their impact, which I’ll discuss when covering the gameplay.

The narrative falls a bit short in world-building, but this is because Ganbarion wanted the story’s central focus to be on its characters, primarily Elena. She was initially conceived as a rather generic damsel in distress, with early play-testers having little emotional involvement in curing her of her plight, feeling that constantly returning to the tower to give her the monster flesh that would temporarily heal her was like a tedious chore. To rectify this, producer Chikako Yamakura and director Toru Haga revised her character to be more sympathetic without feeling like a burden. They were successful, as Elena’s final incarnation is very emotionally compelling. You feel her anguish when she transforms, her guilt over Aeron risking his life in the towers to save her, the small glimpses of hope and happiness when she’s given a gift or their goal draws closer. Conversation options and slice-of-life cutscenes flesh her out greatly, making players more invested in saving her from the curse. The enigmatic Mavda is the most interesting of the small cast. It’s evident from the start that she knows far more about the curse and the history of the towers than she lets on, making cryptic, sometimes disturbing remarks about your journey and what you’ll face, but her true agenda remains unclear, leaving you guessing until the end draws near. Oddly, it’s the protagonist Aeron who has the weakest characterization; he’s mostly silent, speaking only rarely in cutscenes (though Elena does comment that he never said much during the time she’s known him.) Haga said this was intentional; they wanted a hero who wasn’t too outspoken or assertive so that players would be able to more easily relate to him. Unfortunately, this also prevents a fully developed emotional bond between him and Elena from being realized. Near the end of the game, he does demonstrate a greater attachment to Elena, though it seems odd that for a title meant to convey a relationship based on “true love”, such affection isn’t constant throughout the title.

Gameplay is divided into two sections; traversing the towers in order to defeat the Masters, and spending time at the observatory with Elena. The latter segments, while more passive, actually play the greater role in determining how the game ends. Interactions with Elena are structured like a dating simulator, where you’re presented with many opportunities to converse with her. Most of the time this is just basic conversation, but it can vary based on what time it is according to the in-game clock. Elena follows a set schedule, doing activities like cooking, researching old texts, practicing her singing, or simply taking in the view from the roof of the outpost depending on what time it is. The dialogue choices offer not only a chance to learn more about her and the world, but also to increase the romantic affinity between her and Aeron by giving a response that will make her happy. There aren’t many responses you can give, and I would have appreciated a dialogue tree that would provide for more branching conversations, but the basic format still serves its purpose. The affection between the two is represented by a spiraling tower of light at the left side of the screen, which becomes taller as the bond grows and shrinks if the connection between the two becomes weaker. Elena’s affinity level can also be altered by giving her gifts; she’ll appreciate a lovely ring, necklace, or flower, but will react negatively to something like a wolf’s pelt. This plays a key factor in the conclusion, since the ending is determined by how great the bond is. If it’s too low, then the curse will forever shatter the relationship between Aeron and Elena, making all of his struggles futile. Obtain maximum affinity, and they will be able to resume their lives together in peace. The best ending does seem a little overly sentimental, and offers too quick a resolution for the external conflicts that were mentioned, but considering the struggles and sacrifices the characters made, it does make for a satisfying end.

The bulk of the game is a more traditional action-RPG following Aeron’s progression through twelve of the towers. They are all based on one of the laws (elements) of the Aiosian religion mentioned in the game: wood, earth, water, fire, metal and light, with two towers for each element to represent its light and dark aspect. The first five must be traversed in a specific sequence, while the next five unlocked are free to enter in any order. To advance through each structure, you’ll need to solve basic puzzles pertaining to the element it represents. For example, the plant themed Treetop Tower and Arcadian Tower require the destruction of sentient plants to clear blocked pathways, while the metal-based Ironclad Turret and Truregold Tower contain various mechanical pulley systems and pistons that need to be manipulated in order to progress. The most complex of these are seen in the Blacklight Barbican, where you need to frequently shift between light and dark versions of the tower by activating vortexes to bypass obstacles.

While some of these puzzles take a while to effectively unravel, you don’t have much time to waste trying to figure out the solution. As long as Aeron is in the towers, Elena’s curse continues to progress, indicated by a meter at the bottom of the screen. The longer you spend in a tower, the worse she’ll become. Take too long, and she’ll begin to transform, which has a further negative aspect of lowering her affinity for you. If the meter runs out completely, Elena’s metamorphosis will be complete, driving her to kill you when you return to the observatory and ending the game. It’s an interesting change of pace from most other RPGs where, in spite of the important objective driving the plot, you have unlimited free time to spend on side quests and exploration. The ticking clock adds an extra level of tension, making you carefully budget how much time you can afford to spend advancing before you need to return or risk having Elena’s affinity diminish. Thankfully, the towers contain items like ladders, elevators, and unlockable doors that you can use to return to the point where you left without the need to retrace every step. The need to frequently leave the towers does break the flow quite a bit, but it is necessary not only to heal Elena by giving her beast flesh, but also for Aeron’s benefit as well. Since the observatory serves as the main hub, it’s the only area where you can manage your inventory, heal by resting, have texts translated, and purchase, craft, or upgrade items. Certain items can only be created or upgraded using materials that are found in the towers that are only available during a specific time frame. Unfortunately, aside from noticeable shifts between day and night, there is no way to determine the exact in-game time other than by resting until a certain designated hour. A way to view the clock whenever you desired would have been helpful in this regard.

The main tool in Aeron’s arsenal is the Oraclos Chain, a large chain which acts much like a whip and the hookshot from the Legend of Zelda series. It’s used to grapple onto ledges or loose rocks in the wall, activate switches from a distance, and swing across gaps. It also serves as a combat aid against the multitude of monsters you’ll encounter in each tower. Combat can get very intense, with even relatively small creatures able to deal damage that could drain a large portion of your health, cause an item to break and become ineffective, or both. Monsters are also a part of the towers affected by the passage of time; depending on the hour, more could spawn in a room, or they could have greater strength and defense. One notable example is the Minotaur enemy, which resembles a bull during the day, but at night transforms into a human/bull hybrid that can deal much more damage. Since Aeron can suffer damage from falling, and since there’s no period of invulnerability after an attack, getting backed into a corner or knocked off a ledge can drastically drain your health, requiring you to handle your enemies carefully to avoid a quick death. There are a number of battle tactics available with the Oraclos Chain: binding an enemy in place by wrapping it around the creature or chaining it to a stationary object, using it as a whip to strike from a distance, chaining two monsters together so the damage done to one will be inflicted on the other, attacking a downed enemy to deal more damage before it gets up, or hurling them into walls, off ledges, and even into other monsters. You can build up tension on the chain to deal more damage or keep the monsters bound longer, and you can zoom in on enemies to target a specific part of the creatures’ bodies, such as their torso or legs to temporarily incapacitate them, or to draw an item from a certain part of their body after defeating them. The zoom function is necessary for certain armored enemies, as you’ll need to remove their armor to deal damage.

I personally found the Wii Remote to be the more effective controller for this combat; pulling back on the remote felt more natural when it came to releasing the chain with a snap, while the cursor movement handled more smoothly than it would with a directional pad. Admittedly, though, I would’ve liked a vibrational effect to give the chain’s attacks a more tangible feel. And the traditional Wii control’s do pose a problem when using the chain, as the nunchuck’s control stick makes it hard to change direction while swinging. There are additional weapons that can be used; you start with Aeron’s sword, finding more in the towers. Though once you obtain the scythe, you’ll have the best weapon and will want to focus on upgrading that as much as you can. Standard items for healing, stat boosting and massive enemy damage are also available, with a quick select function that allows you to use them without breaking flow to go to the menu screen. If you’re attacked while selecting an item, though, it won’t register, so you’ll need to get into a safe spot before you use one. As you slay more monsters you’ll level up, gaining more health, combat skills, and space for equipment, allowing for some strategic customization to improve your chances in battle.

Since the game’s central focus is slaying the Masters of each tower for their flesh, the boss battles were made to be suitably challenging and engaging. In another parallel to Shadow of the Colossus, each master has only one weak point – the master flesh, a glowing organ that must be pulled out with the chain in order to deal damage. While the first two are relatively simple to get you accustomed to the basics of combat, all those that follow will thoroughly test your skills. The remaining ten Masters each have a method of defending their flesh, requiring a different strategy to beat them. The shelled Masters of Wellspring Steeple and Torrent Peak have flesh that moves around on their bodies while they attack, the plant monster that rules the Arcadian Tower heals itself whenever it’s in sunlight, and the massive crystalline scorpion that dwells in Rockshard Rampart can’t be harmed unless you can climb onto its back to reach its flesh. If you explore the towers thoroughly, you’ll be able to find notes that offer some hints as to how they can be defeated. As with the regular monsters, the more tension you put on the chain, the more damage you’ll do after pulling it out. But since the Masters can react very quickly, you’ll need to carefully judge how much tension you can put on before they break free from your grip. The need for quick reflexes and careful planning make the boss fights the highlight of the game.

The gameplay is, unfortunately, marred by two major technical problems. The biggest issue is a fixed camera that makes exploring large areas troublesome. I often found myself missing an object that I could latch onto with the chain because I hadn’t moved into range for the camera to shift angles, or was ambushed by a monster that was out of the field of view. I don’t understand why the developers didn’t give the player control of the camera. The second problem is less frequent, but much more annoying. In the North American versions of the game, there’s a bug which will cause it to crash randomly whenever you enter the Dawn Tower or Dusk Tower. This happens in the standard game and in New Game Plus mode. Representatives from Ganbarion and XSeed are aware of the problem, having offered ways around the glitch like entering from another tower instead of the observatory, or not heading to one of those towers until a time where leaving will trigger a cutscene of Elena wishing Aeron luck. The bug doesn’t affect saved data, but it’s still a pain to have to frequently reset the Wii when it happens. Still, it’s not as bad as the many technical flaws that have been seen in more recent big budget titles like Aliens: Colonial Marines or SimCity.

Visuals aren’t spectacular, but make the best of the Wii’s limited graphics capabilities. Much like a late era Playstation 2 title, the in-game designs and character models are a bit blocky (appearing very grainy when using the zoom function) while in cutscenes everything is much smoother. The animations can be a little jerky at times, though, and the characters’ mouths don’t properly synch up with the dialogue. But there are some impressive little touches like seeing the wind blow a character’s hair, or the disturbing forms Elena takes as she mutates further. The environments are all well designed, each starting from a basic tower structure and altered to fit the aesthetic of its designated environment. The wood-themed towers are rich with lush plant life, the earth towers made to look like part of a mountain with stone overgrowth and crystals jutting out from the walls, the light and dark towers each with their own filter to make the areas brighter or more shaded respectively, with pulsating tendrils of light spread throughout the rooms. The monsters you encounter are all very grotesque, humanoid or animal-like abominations twisted into disturbing abstractions. These eldrich aesthetics also extend to the Masters, along with incorporating the element of the tower they inhabit into their designs. One aspect I found interesting was how their models tied into the mythology of the game. According to the laws of Aios, the light half of each element is masculine, while the dark half is feminine. So each master encountered in a dark temple (represented by a statue of a goddess) has subtle female features, such as breasts or a feminine face.

Sound design, while not the most impressive, reflects the title’s minimalist themes. The soundtrack is made up of classical compositions that have been tonally altered to better reflect the desired atmosphere of an area. In the towers, for example, they went for a gothic approach with heavy use of organ, brass, percussion, and occasional ominous chanting, all of which become faster paced and more intense during the battles against the Masters. During the more pleasant scenes, such as moments spent with Elena, the music becomes lighter with emphasis on piano, strings and woodwind. The problem is that there’s no variation in the background music; it’s the same in each tower, and after hearing repeated for so long, its impact begins to fade. The audio team missed an opportunity to have a more memorable soundtrack by not varying the music based on the theme of each tower. Some of the musical choices do have a deeper implication though. The song that plays during the introduction is based on Dies Irae, a medieval hymn about seeking salvation on Judgment Day, which reflects on Elena’s desire to be saved from her curse, rather than cast into the massive pit that is the Scar. Elena herself sings a variation of Lizst’s third Liebesträume composition, a piece focused on the concept of unconditional love. Even Mavda has her own personal leifmotif whenever she appears – a more somber rendition of Caccini’s Amarilli, Mia Bella, a song about unwavering love and devotion. Voice acting isn’t stellar, but the British cast does their job well. Charlotte Sanderson effectively conveys the many conflicting emotions Elena goes through, while veteran actress Ann Beach adds a delightfully twisted take to the mysterious Mavda. Since Aeron rarely says much during the game, Ryan Philpott doesn’t get a chance to shine with the role. There are also some small auditory touches that help to enhance the atmosphere: the rattling of the Oraclos Chain as it’s unleashed, the rhythmic tapping of Mavda’s cane on the floor, the absence of music when outside the towers with only the wind to provide sound, and the lack of beastly growls or snarls from most monsters, suggesting they’re more than mindless savage beasts.

Regretfully, the mechanical and narrative flaws in Pandora’s Tower make it the weakest of the Operation Rainfall trio, but it is by no means a bad game. Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story had their problems as well. For each game, though, the captivating experience they provided was more than enough to compensate for any hindrances. They are all great titles that should in any Wii owner’s collection. Hopefully the success of these games will remind Japanese publishers that there is a loyal North American audience interested in niche titles so that we’re not deprived of other unique experiences in the future. Pandora’s Tower is most likely the last big name title for the Wii that will ever be released now that Nintendo has moved onto a new console, so there’s little chance that other long desired game like Captain Rainbow or Another Code: R – A Journey Into Lost Memories will get a U.S. localization unless they can be made compatible with the WiiU. Though as the legend of Pandora reminds us, there is always hope.

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