Version tested: Wii
No one has ever mistaken me for being gallant, but if the need for foolhardy heroics ever arose, I'd attempt what was necessary to save a loved one from a cruel or horrible fate. For instance, if a lion escaped from the local zoo, wandered into my garden and started staring at my family like they were a herd of gazelle, I'd grab the angle-grinder from the garage and do my best to look like an experienced poacher. And if my sister was ever trapped inside a burning building, I'd like to think the current hosepipe ban wouldn't put me off.
But if my significant other was suffering from a disfiguring curse that was transforming her into some shambling mutant, and the only way to save her was to butcher 13 nightmare creatures that each lived at the top of a colossal tower - while also running back and forth with fist-sized chunks of purple flesh that I had to watch her consume - I'd be tempted to take a leaf out of Simon Pegg's book and keep her safely secured in the garden shed until a more convenient solution presented itself.
Thankfully, Pandora's Tower doesn't feature a lazy option. When this curse falls upon Elena - a maiden from the nation of Elyria - the dashing Aeron does the honourable thing by setting his sights on the first tower. What follows is a soppy and yet surprisingly sinister love story that's woven around a finely crafted adventure. It makes use of engaging real-time combat, delicately implemented motion controls, progressively challenging environments and even unobtrusive dating simulation to toe the line between an action-RPG like Dark Souls and a hack-and-slasher like Onimusha - all the while retaining a unique identity.
The world you're tasked with exploring is fairly narrow in scope and has little in the way of distractions. You begin in an abandoned observatory that functions as a makeshift home for Elena, Aeron and their merchant companion Mavda. Then, once you step out the door and head for the hills, a menu pops up with a list of available towers. At first, you're limited to the Treetop Tower with its upside-down trees and wandering flowers, but as the game progresses, you'll unlock a vibrant spread of aggressive architecture that portrays the elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, water and light in their yin and yang forms.
As visually impressive as the cascading waterwheels, clockwork pistons and crystal causeways are, you won't have time to dally. Not when there's a lady back home who's about to grow more tentacles than a Japanese book store. As soon as you step into a tower's divine hallway, the clock starts ticking and you have just over half an hour to return home with an edible piece of Beast, Dripping, Pulsating or Master Flesh (no joke) to reset the timer. And how do you convince the tower fiends to share the meat with your bride to be? It's all about the brawl and chain.
Although the Classic Controller is supported, Pandora's Tower comes into its own when you use the Wii Remote and Nunchuk. Aeron starts off with a sword that can dish out some basic combos with the solitary attack button. As you scour the towers and amass a supply of upgrading materials, you can unlock more advanced flurries that favour rhythmic taps over button-mashing. It's not just about the swordsmanship either, as once the clumsy trolls and fragile wasps make way for more challenging foes like armoured ogres and savage minotaurs, you can mix up your offensive pressure with twin daggers and a scythe.
While tight and responsive, the melee combat is nowhere near as sophisticated as the current cream of the combo crop. Thankfully, Pandora's Tower is anything but a one-trick pony. By furnishing Aeron with the magical Oraclos Chain rather than a traditional shield, you can aim the onscreen crosshairs to bind an enemy's legs before twirling them around like a wrecking ball, as well as tethering two beasts together to restrict their movement while damaging them simultaneously. You can even pay your respects to Hylian technology by using the Chain Shot to harpoon airborne opponents out of the sky.
The chain also functions as a flexible tool for swinging between platforms, pulling open doors and uprooting explosive plants. But as intricately designed as the climbing frames are, the prevailing highlights are the inventive bosses that task the player with exposing the all-important Master Flesh before tearing it free with the chain. They start out with a docile forest giant that, in a moment that echoes Shadow of the Colossus, forces you to make the first move. But after a two-tower easing-in period, you'll have to tackle everything from a mechanical centaur with an overheating problem to a mobile weapons platform with a piercing tail.
The difficulty curve is fairly consistent and provides a solid challenge without ever feeling cheap. To add further sentimentality to the star-cursed lovers' relationship, developer Ganbarion has included the Affinity gauge. This can be increased by buying or making gifts that include bracelets and household furnishings; engaging in small-talk about Elena's past; and supplying her with old texts which she can then translate to reveal certain secrets. This is entirely optional if you'd rather spend your hard-earned cash on useful talismans rather than potted plants, but if you ever want to see the best possible ending, you'll need to court with currency.
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And despite the consistently innocent display of affections, you can't help but raise a true-to-life smile when - after returning to the Observatory by the skin of your teeth and handing Elena the next gruesome chunk of Master Flash - she has the audacity to say, "You left your quills lying around again, by the way. Tidy up after yourself, Aeron!" It seems that going to hell and back to safeguard your partner's future is no excuse for the occasional lapse in organisation.
One thing that remains irrefutable, though, is Pandora's place as the last great game on the Wii.
It's somewhat poetic that after five years of hit-and-miss waggling, we're only just starting to see core games that implement motion controls in seamless ways rather than being smothered by them, and this is exactly what Pandora's Tower achieves. It's a slightly old-school adventure with a vibe reminiscent of Castlevania (especially the PlayStation 2 sequels). But while those games under-delivered on a compelling world with a consistent structure, Pandora's Tower will draw you in and make you care. Maybe not enough to save it from a tiger or a burning building, but you'd probably remember its existence when it came to claiming on the house insurance.
8 / 10