Tower of Time makes an incredibly strong case for itself in its first few hours. It opens with a young boy in an apocalyptic fantasy world stumbling upon an ancient and forbidden tower and naturally deciding to explore. After meeting the mysterious presence that rules the tower, he is sent away but imprinted with a desire to return someday. The story picks back up when he returns, now a fairly important military figure, to lead an expedition into the tower’s depths. Narrated from a strange split of present and past tense, this intro sets up the mysteries that will drive the game’s story: What is the tower, who is the being that inhabits it, and why did it mark your character? It carries an air of somber tension on an epic scale, and it’s clear is that you’ll eventually decide the fate of the world. There seems to be a good chance that you’ll even doom it.
You don’t actually control the game’s main character, who spends most of the game lounging in an extremely uncomfortable looking throne in the tower’s foyer. For reasons left to you to discover, this lets him highjack his party’s senses and influence their decisions. In gameplay terms, that means you occasionally step in as the protagonist to solve disputes, but mostly you play as the party for all intents and purposes. At the start, that party consists of Kane, the duty-bound knight, and Maeve, the kleptomaniac archer. They are as one-dimensional as those descriptions make them sound, but in the first level they’re charming enough, and their utter bewilderment about the whole tower makes them seem pretty relatable. At set points in the game, you’ll also recruit a handful of other heroes drawn from the game’s cookie-cutter fantasy races.
So far, so good, and things only get better once you take control of them. You explore the tower with standard click-to-move controls, à la Diablo or Baldur’s Gate. The first environment is chock-full of items to find and little tableaus that you can click for a short text description. At first, I was blown away by how much detail there was in the environment. Little bits of set dressing helped tell the story of the tower, and there were even a few clever environmental puzzles set out. You’re rewarded for examining every room, uncovering clues, and using everything you find to solve puzzles with your wits rather than by following quest markers.
Things change once you get into combat. Tower of Time looks a lot like a standard cRPG in combat at first, as you give orders to your party members in real time or slow time down for more control. It diverges from genre tradition by placing combat in an arena with a loading screen separating it from the map. You start with just your characters on screen, and enemies soon start spawning in waves. Some encounters have additional objectives, like freeing an ally from a cage, destroying portals, or protecting structures. None of this makes any narrative sense, and the layout of the arenas is completely divorced from the world map.
I can’t see a single way in which it’s an improvement over traditional cRPG combat. Having enemies spawn in waves prevents you from positioning strategically before the fight. There are terrain features in the arenas that you can use to your advantage, but the setup makes it feel more like an elaborate American Gladiators course than a fight taking place in the game’s world. I also found combat incredibly slow paced and wished there was an option to speed up the action. You can activate “Story mode,” which makes battles trivially easy, but they still drag on and on. It’s almost more tedious to play this way, since fights then become mostly about waiting for enemies to spawn and break themselves against your heroes.
Each of your party members can only take four skills into battle, and they often have long cooldowns, creating long stretches of the battle where you basically have nothing to do. That’s really unfortunate, because a lot of abilities are interesting and fun to use. Many of them revolve around positioning, allowing you to either move swiftly around the battlefield or halt your enemies’ progress. But by the time I unlocked the more intriguing strategic options, I had lost any interest in combat. These encounters were so often so packed full of enemies that the strategy was less about using abilities intelligently and more about just not getting overrun. There are lots of big boss battles, but they rarely felt different from regular combat. The first few are interesting, but most simply resort to spawning tons of enemies and spamming AOE, making positioning a nightmare and strategy a joke.
Oddly, you don’t even gain experience from combat. Throughout the tower, you’ll find blueprints for buildings. With one of these, you can upgrade class buildings in a city menu accessible outside of the tower, then use a separate training building to upgrade your heroes. It feels unnecessarily complicated, but it’s at least an original idea. Unfortunately, this all makes combat even more of a pain, since fighting enemies never actually makes you stronger. Once I realized this, I began to dread each combat encounter more and more. What’s more, it also means that your heroes can level up very unevenly, if you happen to find an upgrade for one class building but not another.
Exploration is the real high point of the game, and it remains its strongest asset even when its shine rather quickly fades. Floors two and three have you running around flipping lots of levers to open passages, and the puzzles start to feel much less original. Still, the levels remain packed with things to do. On each floor you’ll find optional bosses, hidden rooms, and rare equipment. You can skip entire wings of each level if you want. And if you look carefully, you’ll frequently find letters scattered around that can direct you toward more secrets.
While the levels are packed with rewards for exploration, there’s nothing compelling about their design. The early levels are built on floating platforms, giving you a clear view of the floors below you. It’s oddly disorienting, giving the impression that the space you’re navigating is floating in the ether rather than built into a tower. There’s also no cohesion between levels. You’ll explore flooded passages, followed by brass and steel machineworks, followed by crystalline caverns, followed by full-on sci-fi military installations. The game seems to want to be everything at once, a problem that eventually killed the experience for me.
Similarly, the characters grated on me the longer I was exposed to them. They’re fairly stereotypical to start, but there was some energy to the early game’s writing, and their relationships were somewhat engaging. But eventually they just keep having the same conversations, reacting in the same way to different events. The dutiful knight is dutiful. The greedy rogue is greedy. The weird elf is a weird elf. Occasionally one will share their own insight on what’s going on, which often clued me in to different ways of thinking about the game, the only good trick the writing had. There are also rare instances where you can intervene in their conversations, swaying decisions for one character or another. This results in a simple disposition shift; the folks you sided with will like you more, and the others will dislike you, adding buffs or debuffs to the party accordingly. It’s very simplistic and seems like a waste of what could be an interesting system.
The main thing driving me to play was finding out what was going on with the tower. The mystery set up at the beginning is legitimately compelling, and the game keeps sprinkling seeds of stories to come. I wanted to know the true nature of the tower, of magic, of “the void” introduced early on. You also learn what happened to turn the world into a wasteland as you go deeper, and I was invested in finding out. But each floor gets caught up in its own story too much, often losing sight of the throughline. I got bored of this cycle resetting with every level and presenting me with these micro-dramas rather than focusing on the much more interesting overarching story of the mysterious voice in the tower and the dark forces that brought doom upon the world.
This game’s biggest downfall is bloat in every aspect. It just has too many systems, too many items, too many enemies in each battle and too many battles to begin with. Too many floors to this explore with too many different themes, too much pointless dialog (and too little of substance). On a narrative level, the temptation to make this story into an epic journey robs it of interest. Learning that a corrupt scholar led a group of people into the tower and slowly turned on them is interesting. Learning that he summoned monsters from another realm to build an army is interesting. Repeating and expanding on that (ultimately unimportant) storyline for half a dozen hours is not. Learning that a powerful mage used the tower to study a dangerous fifth element (not love, sadly) is interesting. Learning this by spending hours running around a level to collect crystals from random locations is not. Tower of Time has maybe 12 hours worth of good ideas in it, stretched out to several times that. There really is a lot to like in this game, from inventive art design to a compelling backstory, which made it all the more disappointing that ends up buried under hours upon hours of boredom.