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Pandora's Tower review: It's Zelda against the clock in Wii's last great RPG

It's kept us chained to our television sets...

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Urgency. For most RPGs, it's a four-letter word.

If you don't believe us, look back over your past heroic exploits - how many times have you idled away hours fishing, playing cards or betting on Chocobos while the world burns around you? Exactly. RPG heroes are gaming's equivalent of the surly cowboy plumbers who sip coffee in your kitchen while your cistern spews toxic waste.

But Pandora's Tower isn't most RPGs. Time isn't a luxury that its hero, Aeron, has to play with. Instead, he's locked into a constant battle with a timer. A timer that runs faster than a New York cab meter. A timer that causes the screen to pulse and the remote to shudder as doomsday approaches. A timer that transforms a serviceable-but-shoddy Zelda clone into something a bit special.

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The timer in question represents the welfare of Elena, a young songstress you've just met who's been having a bad few days. Although the story is initially coy about the details, the opening sequence gives a rough outline of events: a horde of monsters have gatecrashed a village party aund tattooed a mark onto Elena's back, cursing her to slowly transform into a slug-beast thing.

Since her villagers have a history of tracking down and slaughtering said slug-beast things, Elena decides the best course of action is to abscond with two strangers - Aeron (AKA spiky-haired RPG hero generic template #3) and Madva, a withered old crone who lugs a skeleton in a cooking pot around on her hunched back.

It's not entirely clear why Madva is helping you or whether she can be trusted, but on matters of the curse she seems to know her onions, so the pair follow her to a disused military outpost which they use as a base. Left untreated, Elena's sluggified state will swiftly become permanent, so Madva sends Aeron packing to the location of the only known cure - the titular Pandora's Tower...

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Slug Life

Pandora's Tower is a vast structure consisting of 12 spires, each containing a Master Beast. According to Madva's hypothesis, if Elena chows down on flesh from all 12 beasties, the tattoo will fade, freeing her from her curse.

A test run proves successful (a bittersweet victory for the vegan Elena, who gobbles it down with all the enthusiasm of a man forced to consume his own reproductive organs), so it falls upon Aeron to gut the rest of the beasts and remove Elena's Tramp Stamp Of Doom once and for all.

Each level, then, is a race against the clock; a sprint to get in and get the Master's guts out before the timer runs out and your gal pal is condemned to a diet of lettuce leaves. If the clock strikes zero it's an instant game over, but you should be aiming to arrive back waaay before that becomes a possibility.

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The longer you're away, the more sluggified Elena will be when you get back. Return in good time and she'll be in high spirits, but drag your heels and you'll find her miserably scrubbing her mucus trail off the floor. Cut it finer still and she'll be almost entirely be-slugged and cowering in the basement.

But who cares, right? Elena is fully restored every time she chomps down on beast flesh, regardless of how gloopy you let her get in between. Well, perhaps, but taking liberties with the time limit will lower her opinion of you - in turn condemning you to one of the game's less glorious end sequences. You can curry favour with her by buying her gifts (the opportunistic Madva also moonlights as a merchant), but that's money that could be better spent on potions and upgrades.

So Aeron's orders couldn't be clearer: no faffing about between meals. Only problem is, the Tower architects didn't get the memo. The dungeons themselves are short (if you know what you're doing, you can power through them in minutes) but their geography is designed to disorientate, confuse and generally suck up your time.

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This just makes it all the more rewarding when you do finally find your way to the boss room. Although you shouldn't go in expecting anything nearly as fiendish as Zelda's puzzles, Pandora's Tower's levels gradually unfold in the same way. Lateral thinking sees opportunities where conventional thinking sees dead-ends; playful experimentation transforms impassable obstacles into stepping stones to bigger and better things.

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