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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (407)

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Tyranny 3.5/5
Pine 2/5
Victor Vran 3/5
Front Mission Evolved 2/5
Greedfall 4.5/5
The Deep Paths: Labyrin... 3/5
The Vagrant 4/5
Avadon: The Black Fortr... 2/5
Mass Effect 3 3.5/5
Mass Effect 2 3.5/5
Mass Effect 2.5/5
Knightin'+ 3.5/5
Indivisible 3/5
Final Fantasy XIV Onlin... 2/5
A Total War Saga: Troy 3/5
Stardew Valley 3/5
Soulcalibur VI 4.5/5
Owlboy 3/5
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Bloodstained: Ritual of... 3/5
The Legend of Zelda: A ... 4/5
Hob 3/5
Assassin's Creed Odyssey 4.5/5
Ittle Dew 2 4.5/5
Luigi's Mansion 3 4/5

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Pandora's Tower   Wii 

A New IP that Pounds Old IPs into the Dust    5/5 stars

“Pandora’s Tower” (“PT”) is the third and final game that appeared on the Operation Rainfall list of localization demands. While both “Xenoblade Chronicles” and “The Last Story” were RPGs that were picked-up by North American companies for localization (Nintendo of America and Xseed respectively), “PT” was neither. Instead, “PT” is an Action/Adventure game by Namco-and-Nintendo second-party developer, Ganbarion, a company more widely known for its fighting games based on “Shonen Jump” manga. After a long wait, during which I almost decided to skip “PT” due to its Action/Adventure pedigree and some less-than-positive hearsay, I finally decided to import the Limited Edition box from the United Kingdom. The import process ended up costing me over $80 (including VAT and the monetary conversion fee charged by my credit card company) for a surprisingly sparse Limited Edition whose only perks were an art book and a fancy metal case for storing the game disc. Yet after all that monetary bloodletting and months of waiting, “PT” proved to be well worth the effort I went through to play it, as it is one of the Wii’s best games, and one of the best games of this entire generation.

Presentation
“PT” is a typical-looking polygonal Wii game. Yes, there are some jaggies, yes there are some muddy textures. However, these flaws only become readily apparent when using the magnification/search feature of the game to zoom in on certain portions of the screen. Outside of these situations, the graphics are quite effective. The characters and enemies are interesting to look at (despite the fact that the hero and heroine look like Korean models who got carried away with the hair bleach), the weapon and costume designs are distinctive and fantastical without veering into the realm of bad anime cosplay, and the environments are stylistically consistent and evocative of the mysterious nature of the game’s story.

The game also features a number of cutscenes that reveal the game world’s backstory. Some of these are simply higher-resolution movies using the game’s normal graphical assets. The most interesting ones, however, are 2D and minimally animated. However, these 2D cutscenes are meant to be abstract, and the way they are presented really works, making them very effective and interesting to watch.

While the graphics are always a slight sticking point in any Wii game, “PT” more than makes up for these shortcomings with the excellent sound work. The game’s soundtrack is a mix of new compositions and reworked pieces by Franz Liszt, one of the most popular composers of the 19th century. I found this music to be superbly used, and was very disappointed that the Limited Edition box didn’t come with any kind of bonus soundtrack.

The voiceacting is excellent as well, with only one or two lines coming off as not quite perfect. Like the other two Operation Rainfall games, the dubbing was done in the UK with British actors of unknown pedigree. However, they are all excellent matches for the characters they portray and perform far better than the typical low-budget videogame voiceactors utilized by North American localization companies.

There are two tiny flaws that prevent the sound in “PT” from being absolutely perfect. One is that the main characters lines are frequently unvoiced in the middle of an otherwise-fully-voiced cutscene. There is no reason for this, as the main character IS voiced in other scenes. The other issue is some slight crackling or distortion that occurs during the game’s pre-rendered cutscenes. I’m not sure if this flaw is part of the English dub or if it’s a result of playing a European disc on a North American Wii (it shouldn’t be, as I haven’t experienced this kind of thing before with imports). But it’s noticeable.

Story
“Pandora’s Tower” is a love story. Our hero, Aeron, and heroine, Elena, suddenly find themselves fugitives from three different armies in the middle of a grueling civil war. While these two have their own histories, which are revealed through cutscenes and flashbacks throughout the game, their troubles really begin when Elena, in the midst of performing a celebratory song at her nation’s Harvest Festival – an all-too-brief respite from the constant conflict that has drained the country’s morale and resources – transforms into a shadowy, purple monster and wrecks havoc.

The fortuitous appearance of an old woman of the Vestra Clan, named Mavda, grants some small bit of clarity and a brief respite from the chaos. It seems that Elena has become the latest victim of a curse that has been haunting the three warring nations for several decades. This curse slowly causes its victims to sprout tentacles and ooze purple slime as they transform into mindless killing machines. The only way to break the curse, Mavda explains, is for the victim to eat the flesh of monstrous beasts that dwell within the Thirteen Towers.

Thus the cursed Elena, her guardian Aeron, the wise Mavda, and Mavda’s mysterious “husband,” a malformed creature that she carries in a massive cauldron strapped to her back, make their way to the Thirteen Towers to search for the flesh required to break the curse. The Thirteen Towers themselves are an immense conglomeration of construction suspended over an enormous fissure, called The Scar (which appeared during an event known as the Cataclysm), by several colossal chains, which themselves seem to hold the sides of the Scar together.

It is in the Thirteen Towers that the majority of the game takes place. Elena, Aeron, and Mavda have a sort of home base in an Observatory at the edge of the Scar, where they can rest, recover, and hide from the army, while Aeron mounts expeditions into the towers in search of beast flesh. Of course, breaking the curse isn’t as easy as it sounds, as Elena’s entire nation is an agrarian, vegetarian culture, so eating raw monster flesh goes against everything she was ever taught. In addition, normal beast flesh is only able to slow the curse and temporarily reverse Elena’s transformations. Only by eating twelve pieces of Master Flesh – odd chunks of meat that look something like undead onions and grow out of the Master Beasts that live at the tops of twelve of the Thirteen Towers – can the curse be broken.

To aid Aeron in his quest for Master Flesh and to bind his fate to Elena’s, Mavda gives him a sacred artifact known as the Oraclos Chain and performs a ritual to spiritually chain Aeron and Elena together. Mavda also serves as a source of news about the goings-on outside the Observatory and about the history of the war and the Thirteen Towers themselves, though she is rather cryptic and rarely reveals everything on her mind.

As the game progresses, more cryptic information comes to light, both about the Thirteen Towers, the Masters, the Vestra, and the curse. All of these building mysteries eventually do resolve themselves in one of five different endings, depending on how tightly the chains of fate have bound Aeron and Elena. All of the endings are interesting, the “bad” endings vary quite a bit, and the “best” ending provides perfect closure to a well-written story, showing us just how powerful the bonds of love can be.

Gameplay
“PT” combines quite a few ideas from existing, popular franchises. Almost the entire game takes place within the dungeons of the Thirteen Towers, which are laid-out as puzzles that must be navigated. Each tower has a Master Door at the top that is held shut by one or more massive chains. To unlock each Master Door, Aeron must find the spots where each of these chains is anchored within that tower and destroy the anchor with the Oraclos Chain. While hunting for chain anchors, Aeron must also constantly be aware of the amount of time that passes, as Elena has a transformation gauge that continually ticks-down whenever Aeron is outside the Observatory (which serves as a stage hub). The dungeon floorplans are all designed with the need to quickly return to Elena in mind, as they are riddled with shortcuts that make it both easy to get back to the Observatory with some beast flesh and to get back into the heart of the current dungeon without wasting a lot of time or retracing very many paths.

The Oraclos Chain is more than just a tool for unlocking the Master Doors, however, as it is also Aeron’s secondary weapon. While he starts with a sword and can acquire three other weapons in the course of exploring the towers, Aeron will end up using the Oraclos Chain in combat quite a bit, as it can bind enemies, be used to fling smaller enemies around (and use them as weapons against their allies), and tear pieces of beast flesh or other items off of defeated monsters. Aeron can also use the Oraclos Chain to pull levers, pick-up distant items, and grapple across gaps. In essence, the Oraclos Chain and dungeon-exploration in “PT” combines the best parts of ‘Zelda’ games and ‘Castlevania’ games, with the Oraclos Chain acting as a combination whip/hookshot.

Unlike most modern Action/Adventure games, “PT” uses an old-school fixed camera. While the camera does move to follow Aeron at times, it is usually at a fixed angle and provides a static view of the action. While I was never a fan of fixed cameras in early 3D games, dating all the way back to the first “Resident Evil” and its horrible camera, the fixed cameras in “PT” work surprisingly well. There are a handful of locations where a camera angle transition point might cause problems in the middle of combat, but these are very few and don’t really impact the overall excellence and obvious hand-crafted care that went into setting up the best way to view each dungeon room, allowing players to discover puzzles organically instead of putting up garish indicators saying, “THIS IS A PUZZLE!” One of the things that has bothered me about ‘Zelda’ games ever since they went 3D (with the exception of “Wind Waker”) is that hookshot targets were no longer organic parts of the environment, but brightly-colored abominations that looked like archery targets. “PT” directly addresses this complaint by making all grapple-able surfaces blend in with their surrounding environs, but adding a light coating of sparkle to catch the player’s eye.

Like most fully-realized Wii games, “PT” allows players their choice of multiple control schemes. While I initially planned to play with the Classic Controller Pro, I almost immediately realized that it was an inferior control scheme to the Wiimote+Nunchuck for this game, as controlling the targeting cursor for the Oraclos Chain is far more difficult with the right-analog stick on the Classic Controller Pro than it is with the Wiimote pointer. With the Wiimote+Nunchuck control scheme, the A button commands Aeron’s primary weapon, the B button and pointer control the Oraclos Chain, and the Z button allows Aeron to guard or perform a series of two consecutive dodges. Once Aeron has an enemy trapped in the Oraclos Chain, the C button allows him to increase the tension of the chain, while waggling the Wiimote causes him to yank the chain free (dealing more damage the higher the tension is). Hitting A+B with an entangled enemy smaller than Aeron allows him to throw that enemy at the location of the cursor, while waggling the Nunchuck in the same situation allows Aeron to spin around and use the entangled enemy as a flail. The combination of melee weapons and the Oraclos Chain makes combat in “PT” quite interesting and provides the player with a large number of different ways to defeat common beasts, all without the need of any kind of annoying lock-on or targeting button. The Masters, on the other hand, all play out like big puzzles, requiring Aeron to find their chunk of Master Flesh (which conveniently glows yellow) and pull on it with the Oraclos Chain until the Master’s health meter is depleted, after which one more tug pulls the Master Flesh free and destroys the Master. Defeating each Master also increases the strength of the Oraclos Chain, allowing it to build up more tension at once.

Aside from the standard Action/Adventure elements, “PT” also has a heavy dose of RPG elements. Aeron gains levels by earning experience through combat. As he levels-up, not only do his stats increase, but he also gains the ability to equip more accessories to further boost his stats, protect him from status ailments, etc. The equipment grid starts out relatively small, but as it expands, it’s possible to rotate items in the grid (“Tetris” style!) in order to fit more stuff into it. Aeron can also carry a limited number of items on his person (a number which can be increased through a couple of bag upgrades), ranging from healing potions to expendable attack items. When Aeron’s bag is full, he can dump excess loot into a giant trunk in the Observatory for storage. The only thing I wasn’t thrilled about regarding the inventory system is the fact that items can be broken if Aeron suffers a heavy hit. Aeron’s weapons can’t break, nor can the Oraclos Chain, plus all broken items can be repaired at Mavda’s shop, so it’s not a terrible burden, so much as a barely-perceptible annoyance.

Speaking of Mavda’s shop, her deformed husband, known only as “Oldman,” can create items for Aeron by combining things that Aeron might find in the towers: Yes, “PT” has an item-crafting system. Fortunately, item crafting is free, as is upgrading weapons (whereas buying items and repairing them are not). For the most part, the components necessary for crafting are easy enough to find that it never feels like a grind to search for them. There are a handful of ‘rare’ items that only appear in the towers at night, or at dawn, or at some other specific time, which can be a pain to track-down (fortunately, resting in the Observatory until a specific time doesn’t cause Elena’s transformation gauge to deplete), especially when it requires revisiting an already-completed tower during a time of day during which stronger monsters appear. The bright side is that these rare items don’t become a requirement until late in the adventure, which means that it’s just as easy to leave them until New Game+. “PT” features a great New Game+ system that allows the player to instantly jump to any point in the story while keeping Aeron’s level, experience, money, and items. It completely removes the last bits of tedium from the search for item crafting components and also makes it easy and convenient to pursue the game’s additional endings (either by boosting Aeron’s and Elena’s Affinity Gauge or by purposefully emptying the gauge).

Overall
Despite suffering from typical Wii graphics, the moving soundtrack, engaging story, and well polished gameplay more than make up for a few jaggies and muddy textures. “Pandora’s Tower” is a unique experience, yet at the same time incorporates enough gameplay mechanics from beloved older franchises that it feels both new and familiar at the same time. Nintendo really dropped the ball by not localizing this game for sale in North America, but thanks to the Wii’s easy hackability and the Internet’s global marketplace, anyone who speaks Japanese, English, German, French, Italian, or Spanish can – and should – buy and play this gem with a little effort. In a time when it’s nearly impossible to find new games that aren’t sequels to something or other, the fact that Nintendo and Ganbarion were able to come up with a new IP is impressive… the fact that this new IP turned out to be incredibly good is a reassurance that at least some developers still know how to make great original games and aren’t afraid to break with modern convention when necessary. Anyone who ever fell in love with a ‘Zelda’ or ‘Castlevania’ game should have no trouble finding something to love about “Pandora’s Tower.”

Presentation: 4.5/5
Story: 5/5
Gameplay: 5/5
Overall (not an average): 5/5

 

 


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