My experience of South American indie development is almost entirely encompassed by ACE Team’s first-person sci-fi/fantasy fighters (Zen Clash), as well as the alcoholic father analogy Papo & Yo. As a result, my mental image of South American indie games leans towards the surreal. After finishing Tower– an action-adventure title from new Brazilian developer Swordtales – that image hasn’t changed.
At first glance, the game actually seems to have more in common with the classic Japanese adventure I o. You play a young girl, armed with a sword and a flailing understanding of how to use it, as she climbs the titular tower, Toren.
Very occasionally you’ll come across mischievous beasts that need to be taken out in some way, but the protagonist’s weapon is largely for show. Most of your time climbing the dingy column is spent on light platforming and puzzle solving. Even that is minimal during the game’s short running time: about 100 minutes on my first play.
You’ll probably spend more time considering the squiggly similarities of Tower than actually playing. The plot is delivered in fits and starts, both through a heavily metaphorical narrator and bits of pseudo-mythological screed that are unlocked when you complete side puzzles. By the end I had what I call a pretty good one feeling of what the story wanted to convey – if not a full understanding of the beginning, middle and end.
In the beginning, your young girl protagonist is decked out in warrior garb, facing a dragon breathing shadow on the top of the citadel. Things don’t go well and you get knocked to the bottom of the tower to start the game right from the beginning – as a toddler. Our hero matures as she ascends, and together we learn more about Toren’s origins and the nature of his climber.
There are pretty clear images suggesting it’s all a metaphor for the emergence of femininity, its inherent cycles and its connections to astronomy, of all things. I won’t go into too much detail though, because arriving at your own answers seems at least part of the point. All in all it was a thematic busy 100 minutes, and it would benefit from multiple play-throughs to get a better understanding of how the story unfolds.
Build on what came before
Some of the game’s puzzles play on the overall theme of repetition. One of the tower’s most clever stages, for instance, turns your character to stone seconds after stepping out of cover. You’ll respawn soon enough, but the statue of your former self will remain as a new cover point to use on your path through the petrified walkway. It’s a short, clever twist on a mechanic that’s taken for granted in pretty much every game. The problem is that there are only a few of these clever twists in play. TowerThe recursive nature of the game means you’ll see quite a lot of each mechanic over the game’s very short running time too, meaning some of them outsmart their welcome and quickly go from smart to annoyingly familiar.
And it’s a bit surprising how much of it Tower‘s tight running time feels like busy work. You repeatedly draw glyphs in chalk, push statues around on rails, and light braziers to clear paths up the length of the tower.
What’s worse, none of it feels particularly polished. The protagonist’s movement is loose and slow. Jumping between platforms feels like falling through custard, and the few times you actually swing a sword it’s hard to tell if you’re actually making contact with the target. None of this is helped by the fact that, at least in the pre-release version, the game seems poorly optimized. The game ran well below 30 frames per second in the PC build I played, despite a lack of graphical prowess that seems particularly taxing on my hardware.
See what’s there
These issues don’t really interfere with the gameplay, which doesn’t require much in the way of reflexes or jittery reactions. Tower is very much about exploring the environments and the fiction within them, rather than moment-to-moment conflict. Even the puzzles, as repetitive as they are, won’t really strain your problem-solving skills.
That should give you time to appreciate the look of the game. Tower may not be an engineering marvel, but the tower’s faded and sandblasted architecture is pleasant enough to look at, in the tradition of South American compatriots Zen Clash games and Papo & Yo. Tower gives off a slightly more western, medieval fantasy vibe than those other titles, complete with dragons, swords, and a large spire to house them. These nods to common fantasy tropes make the game feel a little less unique than it otherwise would have been, but the surreal story and visuals are enough to make exploration worthwhile.
Once that initial exploration is done, the repetitive, dead-simple puzzles and visceral control issues certainly won’t keep you from coming back. But those ethereal environments, the suggested alternate ending, and a desire to capture more of the game’s dense storylines could keep you coming back.
I have my own ideas about what Tower tried to tell me with those beats. What I’m not sure about is whether it was worth coming to those conclusions, the short time I put into it. If you decide to take a chance on this strange game, just understand the price you have to pay for that same uncertainty.
- The game’s unique look may distract you from its shortcomings.
- The twisting, metaphorical story can be fun to unravel.
- A few puzzles build on repetition in surprising and entertaining ways.
- A poor frame rate and loose controls make it a chore.
- Puzzles can drag on or be repeated too many times.
- The gameplay skews just a little too easily to warrant a second play-through, as the game encourages.
The ugly one
- Tower tries to tackle some intoxicating concepts of gender and youth. It’s unclear how well it succeeds, given that the game’s story is so very murky towards the end.
Pronunciation: If you’re curious about the plot and the technical difficulties haven’t daunted you, it’s probably worth giving Tower it’s a $10, 90 minute shot.