Reviews

The Deadly Tower of Monsters – So Bad, So Awesome

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Platforms: PS4 and PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: ACE Team
Publisher: Atlus
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

Review code provided free of charge by the publisher.

There’s a special place in my heart reserved for corn sci-fi B-movies and their unique brand of insane humor that stems from how awful they are, and yet how utterly brilliant they are as well. There’s a certain zaniness that makes them  lovable and special, the beloved project of mad,  directors with eclectic visions that inevitably seem to involve scantily clad women and aliens clearly made on a budget. They were made by amateur writers, involved terrible actors and a budget that could afford the very best of utter tat. Of course you still get sci-fi B-movies today, but they lack the same level of charm. Plus, what passes for the new breed of sci-fi B-movies tends to be horrible found-footage affairs, which is hardly the same thing.

The Deadly Tower of Monsters sets out with a simple goal in mind; create a top-down beat ’em up game in the vein of classic 70’s B-movies with heavy lashings of comedy provided through the idea that what you’re playing is actually a movie created by director Dan Smith that is getting re-released on DVD for modern audiences to enjoy. It’s actually a rather fun framing device, and  what follows is a strangely meta experience as a play your way through what is supposed to be a movie being commentated on by the original director who manages to not only provide funny behind-the-scenes looks at his masterpiece but that also manages to poke fun at videogames along the way. Why is the lead character smashing every box he comes across in the movie? Not because that’s the player’s will, but because the director told him to do it in order to make things more exciting, of course!

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The intro  manages to quickly establish the tone that the developers are aiming for as a rather befuddled director attempts to provide a commentary track for a DVD re-release of his clearly impressive “movie” The Deadly Tower of Monsters, starring none other than the fantastically named Dick Starspeed. He’s quickly shushed, however, as the studio’s representative who is helping guide the director explains that the game’s  main menu is just the “DVD” menu. Never mind, though, as the director gets distracted by the movie posted used for the menu, which features female lead Scarlet Nova carrying the prone body of Dick Starspeed, or possibly even a Robot carrying Scarlet. Questioning why the original poster isn’t there (it does get used, but they swap it around) the assistant explains that the studio is simply trying to broaden the potential audience, and that the robot carrying Scarlet is actually a forward-thinking idea to appeal to a robotic audience in the future.  This is the main schtick of the game; the director stays with you throughout the entire adventure, boldly explaining his radical vision behind the giant space monsters, robots and evil overlords that make up his masterpiece. He chats about how one of his team overreacted at him touching the camera lenses, just as a massive thumb print appears on the screen, or how a few random scenes where shot in black and white to save money. He comments about how angry he got when people pointed out his misconceptions about dinosaurs, the various injuries that occurred on set through negligence and the apparent ineptitude of his entire crew. He rambles about how hard it is to direct useless actors or children dressed as squids. He even mentions that there was once a scene explaining that Dick Starspeed was teleporting all the gold he collects back to his ship, but it got cut from the movie and he always finds it funny that nobody questions how Dick can seemingly carry around a massive amount of pure gold. He even explains away the player dying, proudly stating that they shot additional scenes of actors being killed in order to fool the press, although he has no idea why they’ve got full special effects because he left that kind of stuff to his assistant. Hell, there’s even a great story about how in one scene they subvert the norm by having the woman doing the rescuing, before making plenty of comments about women being unable to do certain things later in the movie.

As Dick Starspeed you find yourself stranded on an alien planet controlled by an evil emperor, complete with the traditional tyrant moustache that indicates true villainy. Your job is to free the enslaved ape species by defeating the evil emperor, a task that can only be accomplished by navigating the titular Deadly Tower of Monsters, a huge structure that looms over the planet’s surface and that was built because of reasons. Very good reasons, I’m sure, but also rather vague ones.  Aiding the emperor is the classical maniacal doctor whose sole purpose in life, it seems, is to breed all sorts of bloody stupid creatures, from semi-sensible dinosaurs to giant squad, colossal apes, yeti-looking things and whatever the hell that was you just killed. Helping Dick Starspeed (best name ever) is his loyal robot companion, cleverly named Robot, and Scarlet Nova, a human woman. This intrepid trio set out to save the planet, done almost entirely smacking and zapping things, because as the director explains there is no such genre of movie as dialogue, and the audience paid to see action!

The story is utter crap. Which is fine because it’s supposed to be. The voice actors brilliantly capture the feel of schlocky of those glorious sci-fi flicks, with Dick Starspeed even channeling a little William Shatner here and there to bring some extra hammy goodness to the role. Likewise the writing successfully replicates the stilted, crummy lines of dialogue that make the classics so fun to watch.  And yet it’s really director Dan Smith who steals the show, regaling us with all the trials and tribulations of making a corny flick on a budget. He’s hilarious, largely because he was clearly useless at his job and yet somehow still managed to muddle through and produce a complete film. The actor that voices him is brilliant, too, one minute coming across and enthusiastic filmmaker and the next spitefully jabbing at his crew and actors. Since the director is a near constant presence he could have easily turned into an annoyance, one to be begrudgingly put up with, but Ace have managed to create a narrator that is arguably right up there with the deep tones of Bastion or the elegance of The Stanley Parable. Of course this does mean that a second playthrough of the game means having to listen to the same lines of spoken dialogue, so an option to turn him off would have been nice.

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Having said that there’s no a whole lot of reason to venture back into the game for a second time. The entire adventure spans a short three hours. I’ll probably get hate sent my way for saying this, but frankly three hours is fine; it’s just lone enough for the premise to stay fun. Any longer and it would have become drawn out and stale, and would of course have destroyed the entire movie premise. The only reason to consider giving the game a second run is to acquire all the various weapon upgrades, which need you to hunt down the elusive Golden Gears, something which Dan Smith states was included in the movie to justify how the heroes were constantly upgrading their weapons. But we’ll get back to that later when we have a chat about combat.

The ending, meanwhile, is praiseworthy for being very interesting, a satisfying reward for completing the game that veers wildly out from the initial premise to deliver something unusual, if perhaps a tad confusing.

The dedication to the B-movie theme is impressive, small details that draw you into the game present almost everywhere you look, from the wonderful animations to the way you can make out how all the film’s props and creatures were made. The game proper opens with a model space ship that’s clearly on wires clumsily crashed into a pile of containers, the wonky physics perfectly recreating what you’d see in the classic movies.  The monsters, meanwhile, is a who’s who of foes from the across the years that perfectly encapsulate the design style of the B-movie genre, pitting the player against all sorts of weird bugs, fantastic stop-motion creatures, mutant plants, beings of pure energy and odd vacuum looking things that the director admits were simply dogs in bad costumes. It’s so easy to admire how the enemies were clearly created by a movie crew working on a budget of about £1 and a bag of sweets, grinning in delight as you spy all the little details scattered around the environment. Take, for instance, the “concrete” blocks that deflate when destroyed, while the director curses a member of his crew who promised it would be fine, or the obviously fake trees.  Second only to the director himself it’s the menagerie of monsters inhabiting the evil tower that impresses the most. There’s no cohesion to them, either; it’s a hodge-podge of stuff from robe-wearing alligators to clones in spandex to giant apes that clamber up the tower and even bigger squid, but Dan Smith doesn’t seem to care so why should we? From the graphical artifacts to one of the laser weapons being a shaver The Deadly Towers of Monsters is clearly made by people who love the source material and want to do it justice, while never being afraid to make fun of it or modern filmmaking.

Considering that the movies The Deadly Tower of Monsters is so in love with are some 60-years old, however, the developer’s knew that for modern audiences to appreciate the game they’d need to modernize things a little, and as such you really don’t need to have any knowledge of classic sci-fi B-movies to enjoy the game. Everyone can appreciate the joy of a stop-motion monster jerking its way toward you or laugh at the clumsy dialogue which has all the grace of a large man bellyflopping into a children’s padding pool from a great height. The writers manage to cram in a lot of gags through the dialogue of Dan Smith, some of which veer into poking gentle fun at videgames and the state of Hollywood today, while others are simply about lovingly mocking the game’s inspirations. It’s a love letter to terrible movies.

We must also consider the tower itself, a vast structure that is a more important character than Dick Starspeed, Scarlet and Robot, all of whom may be charmingly stupid in their own way but don’t impact the game anywhere near as much as the tower itself. Rarely do you find yourself stuck indoors when navigating the tower, rather most of the action takes place outside on relatively small areas where you can clearly take in the sheer height. To emphasis this vertigo there’s even a mechanic where you can lean over the edge and combat enemies coming up from below, plus fun freefall segments where you plummet to the ground while doing battle with some big beastie. It’s a visually striking construction as well, rendered with beautiful colors and that attention to detail that we’ve already talked about. Theremin-heavy music is used as well, again all for the benefit of the movie premise, with the score ramping up for combat and becoming more energised. It’s both heavily reminiscent of the source material while also retaining a more modern vibe that fits the game well.

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It’s good that the theme is so powerful because beneath it The Tower of Deadly Monsters is a pretty straightforward top-down adventure,  entirely competent and therefore rather, but also devoid of originality and of any mechanics done better than the competition. There are three characters available that can be swapped between at certain points, each offering some special abilities but otherwise behave exactly the same in combat, able to wield the same weapons and boasting the same stats. Speaking of weapons you can use carry two melee and two ranged weapon at any given time, spanning lifghtsabers and broadswords to tesla guns and laser rifles. To attack you use the left and right mouse buttons, and that’s really all you need to know. Sure, there’s a slightly slow dodge and even the ability to counterattack, but both of those get trumped by simply spamming attacks until everything is dead. The highest difficulty manages to mitigate this to a degree, yet even the increased challenge isn’t quite enough to bring counterattacking to the fore. There’s also the occasional platforming section chucked in for good measure, but the top-down perspective can make them feel clumsy, especially one stage involving two satellites where depth perception goes to hell.

Along the way you can also upgrade your small arsenal of weapons using various colored Cogs collected from dead enemies or hidden around the epic tower. Likewise you can also upgrade your stats, too, with any improvements to weapons or stats carrying across to all three characters. Interestingly the game’s designed so that in all likelihood a typical player will only max out a few weapons along the way and be pretty far off fully upgrading their skills. It’s not really a good enough reason to come back for a second playthrough, though. A New Game+ would really have worked in the game’s favor, I think.

As isometric duff ’em ups go The Deadly Tower of Monsters doesn’t particularly impress, but it comes bundled in a fantastic sci-fi B-movie theme that elevates it into the realm of being something special. The combat may be typical fare, but when you’re hacking away at a veritable zoo of corny sci-if beasts and baddies it’s becomes a riot, and director Dan Smith’s DVD commentary is truly funny from start to finish. Quite honestly not a single joke fell flat for me, which is impressive. If you don’t mind paying the price for a short adventure then this is well worth picking up.

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