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Pandora's Tower review: Chained blades

Heidi Kemps

It's hard to say for certain what a platform's last game will be, but it's pretty easy to guess what a platform's last noteworthy release will be. I'm sure the endless parade of impulse-buy, waggletastic Wii shovelware will continue to trickle out for a while yet, but the last significant Wii release for North America looks to be Pandora's Tower.

As the last of the three Operation Rainfall games brought over from Europe (via Japan), it was bound to garner plenty of attention, regardless of its quality. The good news is that Pandora's Tower deserves it.

Gallery: Pandora's Tower: Until I Return to Your Side | 33 Photos

Elena is a bright and happy young girl with a very serious problem: she's been cursed to gradually transform into a hideous monster. A strange old woman offers her and her lover, Aeron, a solution: by eating the flesh of beasts that live within the kingdom's legendary towers, Elena can stave off her transformation. This is abhorrent to them, as the land's religion forbids consumption of meat, but the pair is left with little choice. The flesh of each tower's run-of-the-mill beasts, unfortunately, will only hold the curse at bay for a brief time. In order to truly lift the curse, Elena must consume the meat of the legendary Master Beasts sealed within each tower. It's up to Aeron to retrieve this flesh, but while he's away, Elena slowly loses her humanity.

To aid him in his quest, the old lady Mavda gives Aeron an artifact of her people: a magical chain capable of performing many different feats, including the convenient ability to connect him to Elena and track her condition from afar. With this chain, Aeron can not only navigate the towers and restrain the foul beasts that lurk within, but also constantly monitor Elena and keep tabs on her transformation. If the curse grows too strong, he must return and feed her beast meat to stabilize her. Essentially, that saddles Aeron's questing with a time limit. It's pretty harsh, occasionally forcing him to drop everything and rush back to Elena to deliver some freshly chopped demon tripe. Failing to do so spells game over. This is bound to drive some players up the wall, though personally I felt it added an interesting nuance to the gameplay.

The balance between dungeon exploration/puzzle solving and caring for Elena is what lies at the heart of Pandora's Tower. Just feeding her periodically isn't enough – you'll need to encourage and care for her by making small talk, asking her for help in various tasks, and giving her gifts. Doing so raises the strength of the bond between the lovers, directly affecting the game's ending. I found this element of Pandora's Tower very engaging – caring for a suffering person often involves simply spending time with them and encouraging them, something games tend to gloss over in favor of collecting curative MacGuffins.

But doting on Elena day and night isn't going to cure her, either – you must leave her and attempt to explore as much of the towers as you can while observing her condition via an onscreen gauge. The Master Beasts who must be slain lie sealed within the heart of each tower, chained away for reasons (initially) unknown. Using his weapons and magical chain, Aeron must find and break these magical seals.

The chain is the big thing here – its uses are varied, from latching on to hooks and ledges to moving objects or tying down the limbs of monsters. The numerous puzzles and obstacles require constant use of the chain, and new techniques for the artifact are taught throughout the game.

You control the chain's targeting reticle with either the Wii Remote or the right thumbstick on the Classic Controller. Both input methods have their advantages and drawbacks. The Classic Controller is ideal for movement and combat but lacks the swift aiming precision for the chain. The remote/nunchuk setup, meanwhile, is great for searching for targets and aiming the chain, but feels awkward and cumbersome in combat. As someone with unsteady arms, I found the Classic Controller Pro to be more to my liking, but your mileage may vary.

While the chain mechanic might not be completely novel, it's implemented well enough to feel fresh. The game will sometimes misread your target, or refuse to target something without pixel-perfect precision, but the chain-swinging shenanigans are plenty of fun, allowing Aeron to manipulate the environment to create pathways or drag a monster kicking and crying to its death.

The same can't be said for the weapon combat, which is the game's weakest link. It's extremely basic: press A multiple times for a combo, hold A to charge for a stronger attack and press A again with good timing to add hits. Aeron can't jump – he can only guard and roll – so your movement and attack options are very limited.

Furthermore, you only receive a handful of weapons throughout the game, and while they can be upgraded with more strength and higher charge levels, controls for each of them are generally the same. Some affect your overall mobility and stats, but there's not much point in strategizing over weapon choice when your basic sword works A-OK. The chain, at least, can be used for some more stylish grab, throw and pull attacks, but those require considerably more effort to be effective. The lack of melee targeting and fixed, sometimes inconveniently placed camera angles don't help matters, either.

It's frustrating that the combat is so limited because many of the game's enemies – particularly the Master Beasts – are incredibly clever. Encounters with the Master Beasts do a fantastic job of simultaneously highlighting the highs and lows of the game's design. Every one of the bosses has a unique "gimmick" that you must discover and exploit, leading to some very memorable and challenging battles. One of my favorite bosses is an immobile chunk of fish-like flesh that constantly moves its weak point in snaking patterns around its body, all while blasting you with powerful water shots. Sometimes, unfortunately, the boss is only half the challenge. You'll also have to struggle with finicky chain targeting, limited mobility, drawn out healing animations, and annoying camera placement.

Apart from its combat issues, Pandora's Tower still has a lot going for it. The design of the characters and environments is superb, proving beautiful despite the Wii's technical limitations. Side elements like crafting and upgrading items and collecting texts add some enjoyable extra goals for players to work toward. The story presentation is another exceptional element. You have little information about these two lovebirds at the beginning, but as the game progresses and you uncover more information both in and out of the towers, you learn about the pair's past, their unusual circumstances, and the truth behind Elena's condition. Multiple endings also play a part in how the story ties itself together: you won't grasp the full scope of the backstory unless you raise Elena and Aeron's relationship to its maximum level.

Compared to the other Operation Rainfall games, Pandora's Tower lacks the fine-tuned design of Xenoblade Chronicles and the ambition of The Last Story. What it does offer, though, is enough to warrant a recommendation, namely its fun dungeons, great bosses, an enjoyable chain-flinging gimmick, and emotional warmth in the relationship between Aeron and Elena. Pandora's Tower may or may not be the Wii's swan song, but if it is, at least it ended on a high note.

This review is based on a retail copy of Pandora's Tower, provided by XSEED.

Heidi Kemps is an intrepid freelancer living in the lap of luxury in Daly City. Her work has been seen on G4, GamesRadar, GamePro, @Gamer, GameSpot, and a wealth of international publications, some of which do not start with the letter G. You can follow her ongoing freelance adventures at @zerochan

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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