A game set inside a pulp movie DVD extras menu is not something you see every day, but it is a description that sums up The Deadly Tower of Monsters pretty well.
Following the adventures of Dick Starspeed, a Buck Rodgers-style spaceman fighting giant apes and dinosaurs after crash landing on a mysterious planet, the premise of the game is that you’re not actually playing a game, but watching a new DVD re-release of a movie from this classic genre. And this isn’t just some tacked on framing device, it’s a premise the devs take to its furthest possible extremes for hilarious results. While the actual game is a fairly simple if nicely-polished action-adventure romp, the genre satire is something else entirely, and a real gem for fans with any sort of nostalgia for that era of film, parodying everything from Lost in Space to King Kong and Planet of the Apes.
The game-within-a-film conceit is carried mostly by an ongoing narration in the style of a commentary track by the film’s original leading man. Endlessly talkative, the narrator comments on nearly everything in the game, from commenting on each ‘scene’ and ‘shot’ as the player moves through the map or engages in big fights, or describing the special effects techniques or props used for weapons, enemies, and special attacks. Naturally, these are all primitive or low-budget, including stop-motion dinosaurs, electric shavers for ray guys, inflatable rocks and flying monsters held up on strings. And because the game really holds tight to the idea, everything looks just as intentionally cheesy as described, jerky monster animations, visible strings and all. Even character deaths are treated as bloopers or outtakes, and pausing the game brings up VCR/DVD-player style control buttons.
And it isn’t only the intentional imitation and parody of primitive effects that makes up the joke, but the narrator’s over the top personality. With his ego on full display and lacking even a touch of self-awareness, the narrator probably hits every trope imaginable for a hammy leading man. We’re talking Shatner levels here, all delivered in a perfectly stereotypical voice and cadence. There are points where you almost feel wrong for laughing as he so casually, almost lovingly insults the people he worked with, reflecting on how a talented actor who spent all his time in costume was ‘accidentally’ left out of the credits, or even boasting of how amazingly progressive they were for including a scene where the leading lady (who serves as an alternate playable character) saves the man. Of course, he’ll turn right around and subvert any good will earned by this later, pointing out that no one would believe a woman could handle explosives, which serves as explanation for the different characters having unique abilities.
All of this really comes together to sell the concept, and I haven’t found myself laughing at a game so readily in a while. The tropes are familiar, but they’re presented with such over the top glee and in such hilariously oblivious seriousness by the narrator that you can’t help but get sucked into the idea. It should be no surprise that the game-slash-film’s storyline is itself as zany and cheesy as anything from the era it satires, complete with a cackling, mustachioed space Emperor ruling the planet full of ape slaves from the game’s namesake tower. It would work as parody humor even without the commentary track, but hits an even higher mark together with them.
On the mechanical side, because there is still a playable game underneath this giant, satire-rich framing device, most things are solid if not groundbreaking. The game’s 3D environments are colorful and varied, rich with the bizarre-looking trappings of oldschool sci-fi, and while the path through is mostly linear, the game does a good job at linking some of the areas on the vertical axis (we are climbing a big tower, after all). It’s not uncommon to end up looking down on a prior area from above as you scale a higher section, and this can sometimes help you spot solutions to puzzles or secrets you might have missed from a different vantage point, or even require you to leap down from above to access them. This is where some of the game’s more interesting movement mechanics come into play, making it a bit more than a simple brawl.
A limited-fuel jetpack enables double-jumps and short glides, or can allow the player to halt an otherwise deadly fall near the ground. There’s also a teleportation mechanic, that while mostly used as a movement shortcut between different areas of the tower, also allows the player to effectively ‘rubber-band’ a missed jump, either to save themselves from a screw-up or to snag something out of reach and then pop back. All of these make the puzzle and secret-hunting quite refreshing, as it’s rarely punishing but can involve some clever thinking. My only gripe is that sometimes the fixed cameras can make particular jumps more difficult than they should be.
The rest of the game is pretty much the combat, which involves whacking enemies with melee weapons or shooting them with a ray gun. Both major weapons have a variety of subtypes, from primitive spears and stun batons for up close work to flamethrowers and tesla-arc weapons in the ranged slot. The player can carry any two of each type at a time, and also upgrade each individual weapon using cash and tokens hidden throughout the environment. The variety here is definitely a strong point for the game, especially for the ranged weapons, and while each is optimized toward particular types of enemies, I imagine most players will quickly gravitate toward personal favorites.
The different characters also come with special abilities which work on a short cooldown timer and can be used to great effect in bigger more chaotic fights, or for the occasional puzzle related reason. I didn’t find that they were often needed, but they were still fun to play around with, particularly the push for knocking enemies around or off of things or the barrier for deflecting attacks. There’s also some mild RPG-like character progression on top of the weapon upgrades, which allows you to focus on different facets of the game (upgrading energy refresh for more ranged weapon shots, for example). I’m not sure how much they add to the game, but it does allow some further customization toward a playstyle.
Overall, this game is definitely a great pick for any sci-fi fan, providing a highly accessible and entertaining gameplay experience packed with plenty of humor and parody. While it’s far from revolutionary, the colorful environments and vertically-minded puzzles are a great ride, and the audio commentary is downright hilarious.
Platforms: PC/Steam, PS4 (coming soon) | Devloper: ACE Team Publisher: ATLUS | ESRB: Teen | Controls: Mouse/keyboard, Controller
This review copy of The Deadly Tower of Monsters was played on PC via Steam and was provided by the developer.