Back for some more of that ol’ fashioned tower power!
Developer: Event Horizon
Publisher: Event Horizon
Released: April 12, 2018
Looking back at my initial thoughts on Tower of Time, I can’t help but miss those joyous honeymoon days. A relatively short chunk of an Early Access game that promised some novel new takes on various genres, merged roughly but entertainingly together into something new and exciting.
Returning to the game after it finally hit full release, I was looking forward to seeing what new ideas the game could come up with as I progressed deeper into the titular mysterious and magical tower. I can still honestly say that I enjoy the game overall, but a few nagging problems inherent with the games design wore me down well before its conclusion.
To briefly recap the story, Tower of Time puts you in the boots of a simple villager who, through luck or other mystical means, finds themselves inexorably drawn to a mysterious and terrifying stone tower, seemingly buried upside down deep into the crust of the earth. Initially, your goal is to find something in this tower that will help bring the world back from the brink of annihilation, as a mysterious cataclysm brought the world to ruin long before your time. Reasonably standard fantasy fare so far, with enough of its own twist on the tale to make me at least partially interested in the plot.
Once the game starts proper, your protagonist takes a seat on a magical crystalline throne, and you take control of a crew of powerful heroes, brought together by your leadership to help you enact your noble goals. In proper RPG tradition, your first two team members are bland humans with rudimentary personalities, but new and more intriguing characters are fairly rapidly introduced, including a jolly pragmatic dwarf and a mysterious spectral queen from a secretive culture. Your crew of loyal heroes venture through each floor of the tower, discovering strange technological and mystical artefacts, collecting powerful loot, uncovering ancient mysteries, and fighting a variety of dangerous foes.
On the surface you could look at what I’ve written here and think this sounds like a solid and decent RPG, wherein a mysterious quasi sci-fi apocalypse caused devastation and regression into a fantasy world that you must now save. And again, in all honesty, I really do enjoy just about every aspect of this game to at least some degree.
Here’s the catch though; all these enjoyable aspects don’t result in an experience greater than the sum of its parts, far from it.
Though the plot tries not to copy-paste standard fantasy tropes too heavily, you’d honestly be hard pressed to find a fantasy game that doesn’t put you in the shoes of some “chosen” being one way or another, for better or worse. I’d brought this up when I first played the game, but at the time I’d hoped there could still be space for some curveballs to bring a fresh spin on the genre. Unless the game is saving all its best reveals until the end of the story, there are other fantasy games with a far deeper and more intriguing take on “ancient technology” fantasy. Torment: Tides of Numenera, for example, creates a far more fascinating take on medieval society scrounging through the junk heaps of races so advanced that their technology is nigh-on magical to a mere peasant.
Perhaps most disappointingly, the tiringly repetitive and at times overly fiddly combat of Tower of Time rapidly drains any fun that I initially had when first attempting to master it. The combat system hasn’t changed all that much from its time in Early Access; when a fight starts, four of your adventuring heroes will be dumped into a semi-randomized arena to do battle in whatever way the encounter specifies. The simplest battle requires you to defeat a fixed number of enemies that spawn from portals scattered around the edge of the map. More complex battles can lock away some of your heroes, requiring you to first do things like break a cage they’ve been locked in before they can fight, or require you to destroy portals that will indefinitely spawn more enemies over time.
To add a layer of complexity, the game offers no way to pause the combat and organise multiple commands to your party, instead providing a “bullet-time” system to slow down everything just enough to let you prepare your orders. Using this system to move your heroes out of damaging attacks becomes practically mandatory when multiple, large area-of-effect spells start getting flung around. Although this is initially fun, allowing for some awesome clutch moments where your plan unfolds perfectly, the amount of micromanagement needed to keep your party running at maximum strength became frankly exhausting. There’s a reason why Dragon Age included a combat pause system; dealing with multiple party members all with vastly different strategic uses is not a simple prospect.
I’m still happy to say I’ve never really played another game that had any combat system like this, but I also don’t think this game was able to fully leverage the pros and cons of their no-pause tactics. It was satisfying to use your heroes’ abilities to funnel the relentless march of enemies into prepared killzones, but this died down after a dozen or so instances of doing almost the exact same thing against only slightly altered enemies. Sudden and frustratingly illogical spikes and dips in difficulty throw off any sense of progression as you pushed through each level. Sometimes it seemingly didn’t matter how careful you placed your heroes and how effectively you used their most powerful abilities, as you would be completely overrun without any chance. Ironically that exact same battle could play out entirely differently even without you changing your tactics at all, with very little tangible reason as to why.
I don’t really like doing this, but the reason I’m so harsh on Tower of Time is that I really wanted it to be great. It had so many ideas that sounded like they would merge into something new and wonderful, but that lofty goal turned out to be sadly unachievable. Any enjoyment became progressively more ephemeral as the game continued to trudge toward a goal I’d long since lost any interest in reaching.
Who knows, maybe if I have a big chunk of time free in the future, and there’s nothing else clamouring for attention, I’ll return to this game and see it through to the end. Until that time, the world will just have to hang on to the brink of annihilation.