As much as they have grown technically and matured in terms of subject matter, video games don’t always abound with new ideas. If something works well for one game, developers are all too happy to iterate on it ad nauseum, hence the dreary catalogue of games with numbers in their titles. It’s rare when Something Different comes along, and it should be celebrated. The Deadly Tower of Monsters is Something Different. Not entirely, or entirely successfully, but enough that it made me glad I was playing it instead of the reboot of the third sequel to something else.
It starts with a nice little surprising splash: over the opening credits we hear the voice of Dan Smith, the director of a low-low budget sci fi potboiler movie, The Deadly Tower of Monsters, who is recording the DVD commentary for the re-release of the film. Smith in fact narrates the entire game as if it were a movie commentary, giving us inside information on the stars, the production, the cheesy monsters, the on-set accidents, all the things that went horribly awry, and the scenes of which he’s actually sort of proud. This central conceit is genuinely Something Different, and although it doesn’t always work perfectly to move the game forward, it provides many moments of sly humor and satire throughout the experience.
As a game, The Deadly Tower of Monsters is an action RPG that takes place -- as did the movie, of course -- on an immense tower with ramps, elevators, platforms, hidden rooms, moving stairs, and rickety walkways. Instead of moving through a series of connected levels the action is vertical and includes some platforming elements. Three cliche sci-fi heroes -- handsome Dick Starspeed (who looks a little like a young Alec Baldwin), buxom space siren Scarlett Nova, and mechanical sidekick The Robot -- ascend the tower to defeat evil mastermind The Emperor and his henchman Dr. Peculiar. While the three playable characters share the ability to use any discovered or upgraded weapon, they each have unique special abilities. The Robot can slow time, for example, and Starspeed can use landmines. Characters can be swapped at stations along the route, and their special abilities used to solve and move through each level’s environmental puzzles.
According to the game’s fiction, the movie was supposedly filmed in the early 1970s, and its saturated yet slightly faded color palette certainly reminded me of that era cheapie horror films. On the other hand, a lot of the monsters and purposely bad special effects -- the visible fishing line that holds up the alien spacecraft or the choppy stop-motion animation of the big boss creatures -- seem to spring more from the 1950s.
A purist or even casual film buff would certainly take note of the mixed up chronology and inconsistencies, but it didn’t bother me too much. I took it in the spirit which was intended, as a send up of all bad science fiction films and the egotistical directors who made them. And it’s entirely possible that a director of Dan Smith’s “talents” would still be mining thirty year old techniques, if they were cheap and useful.
Something Different premise aside, does the game work as a third person action shooter/RPG? In general, it does. The Deadly Tower of Monsters takes fewer risks when it comes to combat. There are interesting weapons -- ray guns, lasers, space whips, etc -- and most of them feel like they are more or less inspired by classic 1950s sci fi.-- but the action shooter mechanics are very familiar. Some weapons have cooldowns and need to recharge. There are temporary dome shields and force fields and lots of breakables filled with gold. Gears found along the way are used to upgrade weapons and characters. Progression through The Deadly Tower of Monsters might seem to suggest a steady upward climb, but in fact the game requires a fair bit of backtracking and free exploration to recover some of the gears or open previously closed areas with new abilities. Checkpoints are pretty frequent but even on PC, there is no ability to save anywhere. Because the game is so vertical and the chance of falling off a narrow platform is great, the game has a handy “immediate rewind” feature that teleports the character to the last location before their fall. The game can be quite difficult in those moments when there are lots of enemies onscreen or if you’ve picked the wrong character to take into battle. The camera, too, can feel like a enemy, especially in those situations when the character is aiming over the edge of a platform.
Developed for PC and PS4, the game looks great, with textures that look appropriately movie-fake when needed. The “movie’s” cut scenes are grainy and there are lot of little touches like accidental fingerprints on the lens and obvious zippers on the ape suits, all pointed out by the ironic and apparently not entirely bright director. Most of the time, the humor works, and all the voice acting is entertaining. The musical score by Patricio Menesis is outstanding, appropriately highlighting the sonically iconic theremin and cues that would have sounded perfectly at home in those low-budget features.
Chilean developer ACE Team has released several quirky and well-received games, including Zeno Clash and Abyss Odyssey. They seem to specialize in Something Different, and The Deadly Tower of Monsters falls squarely in that camp. As an action game, it’s streamlined and not terribly deep, but the labyrinthine tower itself is an inspired setting and the premise of the game and its excellent execution are fresh enough to fill in the gaps when the combat starts to disappoint.