The Deadly Tower of Monsters
Developer: ACE Team (Zeno Clash, Abyss Odyssey, Rock of Ages)
Publisher: Atlus USA
Available on: PC, PS4 (reviewed)
Exclusive features: 4-player co-op feature is exclusive to PC. PS4 version is apparently prettier to look at.
Forbidden Planet. Plan 9 From Outer Space. The Blob. Long before Mega Shark battled Giant Octopus, or willing viewers subjected themselves to another unnecessary Sharknado sequel and its irrelevant cast, humanity explored the universe from a string, battled paper mache monsters, and went to war with dudes in giant rubber lizard costumes. If you’ve ever purchased a cheap DVD compilation at Wal-Mart, you know the type. And while filmmakers like Lloyd Kaufman, Chris Seaver, and Roger Corman fight the good fight in keeping the tradition alive today, b-movies are rarely an inspiration in the realm of modern video games.
Enter ACE Team’s The Deadly Tower of Monsters.
Pulling from just about every so-bad-they’re-good sci-fi film from the 1930’s onward, The Deadly Tower of Monsters is an interactive love letter that suffers from many of the same issues as its source material–small budget, noticeably lower production value in comparison to larger AAA games, laughable effects–and it’s fucking awesome. It’s just a shame that it has all the makings of a game that’ll no doubt get swept under the rug or lost in an overcrowded e-shop by many a consumer.
The Deadly Tower of Monsters is getting a DVD release, and the framing here is the in-game film’s director recording audio commentary (acting as a form of meta narrative, a tutorial, and genuinely funny dialog source) while you play out the “film.” This largely consists of mashing the melee and shoot buttons, bludgeoning and blasting your way through stop-motion dinosaurs, walking brains, and invisible men, while you ascend the (wait for it) deadly tower of monsters.
Campy cutscenes abound as you make your way up, with solid sound work and voice acting, courtesy of the game’s trio of heroes. The director’s commentary is often comedic and portrays what I imagine to be a social justice warrior’s worst nightmare. He’s blatantly sexist, snickers at his drastically unsafe working conditions and unpaid labor, and plays the part of an oblivious, self-righteous asshole that’s a sign of the times.
Games that typically rely on their comedic value tend to fall flat almost immediately, but The Deadly Tower of Monsters avoided this mess by keeping it interesting throughout. Whether it’s the director pointing out fingerprints on the screen, cracking on Zack Snyder’s penchant for lens flare, or explaining cliche video game things (why the hero is breaking boxes, collecting things, etc.), he holds it together quite well and really assists in driving the campy narrative home. There’s even a cool fourth-wall breaking moment in the latter portion of the game that I didn’t see coming, just when I thought I’d seen it all.
Like I touched on earlier, combat is pretty lax. Enemies pour out of doors a-la Gauntlet and you’ll either whale on them with rapid melee attacks or pew pew from afar with your raygun. Each of the three heroes have their own special abilities as well, like Robot’s ability to slow down time (which I used all of one time), Dick’s landminds, and Scarlet’s fast dash. You also get a basic dodge roll, which doubles as a parry button with a well-timed press. With so much going on, I usually found myself rolling around like a maniac over strategically parrying attacks. And when I actually tried to parry, I’d end up rolling anyway–sometimes off the side of the tower. While the combat itself isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel, it’s fine for the game and, as the director explains, is due to the lack of formal training on behalf of the in-game movie stars. Clever.
One part of the action that I never enjoyed, however, is the reverse Space Invader moments when you’re forced to peer over a ledge and fire upon incoming monsters. This could have been a great way to break up the button mashing, but it just isn’t executed well. The crosshair is ridiculously small, making it near impossible to see where I was aiming. You’re also contending with monsters spawning and attacking you from behind while you aim down the tower, which is more frustrating (but not deal-breaking) than challenging. It definitely could have benefited from a bit more polish.
As you make your way up the tower, you’ll collect a variety of melee and ranged weapons, like a scimitar (Sinbad), a lightsaber (Star Wars), and a frog that spews a swarm of angry flies. Each can be upgraded by collecting gears scattered about the tower, or dropped by enemies, but I didn’t notice any sort of base stats to determine which did more damage. It just boiled down to personal preference. This is a campy sci-fi power trip, so I was fine without the micromanagement of stats. I picked up whatever I found, assigned an upgrade if I had the materials, and dove in headfirst; swinging madly at dogs wrapped in Christmas lights, “nukular” ants, and living plants, as if the fate of humanity depended on it.
For being a deadly tower of monsters though, I didn’t find it very challenging. Although you can die from impact damage, there’s plenty of ways to avoid that unfortunate fate and absolutely no penalty for plunging off the side. Your jetpack allows you to safely land from any height, and our heroes have the ability to teleport back to their last known location in mid-air using the L1 button. Should you find yourself on a lower floor, you can fast travel to any checkpoint you’ve unlocked with a simple press of the DualShock 4’s touchpad. This is handy if you’re the trophy hunting type, and it’s not as if I would have enjoyed the game any more if I had to make my way back up the hard way. To be honest, I’m not sure how they could have made the game any more challenging without making it unnecessarily frustrating.
Overall, The Deadly Tower of Monsters could have used a bit more time in the development chamber, but that’s part of what I enjoyed about it. The VHS film grain effect, the shockingly accurate soundtrack, the hokey (and well done) voice acting, all being carried along by the director’s ignorant commentary, delivers with gravitas. Watching it pull from classic films like The Fly, War of the Worlds, and King Kong scratched an itch that I didn’t even know I had, because I’ve learned to live without b-movie influence in video games. It exists, sure, but it’s rare. This is a business, after all, and just like the films it so proudly uses as an intergalactic road map, it only caters to a niche audience. That’s not how you make money. So I applaud ACE Team for taking a risk and turning their obvious passion of camp films in to something fun. Something memorable. Different. It’s a special game, and one that I hope becomes more than a simple cult classic.
*So where’s the final score? There isn’t one. I did spend a lot of time conveying my opinion in the above text, and I hope that’s worth more to you than some arbitrary number or a sequence of shaded-in star shapes. Basically, I’m not a fan of scores so I no longer use them. Read the review and judge for yourself if it’s worth playing.
Full disclosure: This review was done using a Playstation 4 copy of The Deadly Tower of Monsters provided by the game’s developer, ACE Team. I pride myself on providing unbiased reviews to fellow consumers and constructive feedback to hard working developers. Whether or not I pay for the game is completely irrelevant.