Plan 9 from Outer ACE
It would take a soulless person indeed to deny the magic of cheesy classic horror movies. From well-loved classics like Planet of the Apes to “good because they’re bad” B-movies like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Creature from the Black Lagoon, there’s a certain type of goofy “horror” that can sometimes be more entertaining than the real thing. Sometimes if you try hard enough with limited resources, you still wind up with a quality product; just not in the ways you may have intended. Rich in style but somewhat flawed in mechanics, The Deadly Tower of Monsters is just that: an okay game, but a marvelous love letter to the B-movies of days long past.
The Deadly Tower of Monsters charms from the first second. Set up like a DVD re-release of a cult classic science fiction movie from the 1970s, the game is narrated with a full commentary track by its fictional director, Dan Smith. Dan is every bit as inept as he is egotistical, and his commentary throughout the film never ceases to be one of the game’s biggest high points. He has something to say about how each and every monster was created, and how the “actors” (three playable characters) behaved during filming. Despite the trio of lead characters, Dan himself wastes no time in asserting himself as the true main character of the game. His stories of stuffing puppies into vacuum cleaners and crew members getting high on set never cease to amuse throughout the game’s 6-hour playtime.
Dick Starspeed is a spacefaring adventurer, crash-landed on the mysterious and hostile planet of Gravoria. Having lost his spaceship and his co-pilot Robot (yes, a robot named Robot), Dick soon finds himself teaming up with Scarlet Nova, the daughter of the planet’s cruel emperor, to take down the tyranny that plagues the planet and find a way home. Once united, the trio of heroes begins the task of ascending the titular deadly tower of monsters, thus beginning the game’s long climb to the stars. The way is laden with stop-motion dinosaurs, giant sock puppet monsters, and a mad scientist and his animatronic automatons.
As its title and setting would imply, The Deadly Tower of Monsters sends players on a mission to scale a giant tower full of prop-bucket terrors. Each character comes armed with melee and ranged weapons, unlocking more throughout the game. Melee armaments range from Scarlet Nova’s spear and Robot’s tuning fork to more technical fare. My personal favorites included a knife that hits as fast as the player can hit the button, and a whip that has some really useful range capabilities. Ranged weapons have some creative variety as well, from lazer guns to rocket launchers, and eventually a blaster that shoots black holes. Each character also has multiple rechargeable special attacks, most of which are character-specific. Dick Starspeed has proximity mines, for example, while Scarlet can paralyze enemies, and Robot can throw down a bubble that slows down time.
The three-pronged combat system is complemented by a dodge button, creating a fight system reminiscent of something like Bastion (the example I personally come back to as a near-perfect example of the system). Where Bastion‘s system worked due to the quick-reflex speed and agility of its player character, though, The Tower of Deadly Monsters falters. All of the characters are sluggish when it comes to moving through a dodge roll or getting back up after being hit. This wouldn’t be the worst news in the world on its own, and for the most part enemy speed accommodates the speed decently well. Unfortunately, some foes will be just fast or persistent enough to create a divide in reaction time that feels unfair towards the player. It’s not a constant issue, but when it does surface it can do so glaringly, leading to a couple encounters frustrating enough to warrant a controller hurled away in furious disgust. Both helpful and frustrating is the fact that one of the three characters is inexplicably a bit faster than the other two. If speed is giving you problems, just play through the whole game as Scarlet, and you should have a better time.
The game’s semi-sluggish combat is made up for by some features that add a stroke of uniqueness to the synthetic sci-fi experience. The towering (ha!) nature of the game’s level design means that foes can come after you from anywhere; even down below. One of The Deadly Tower of Monsters‘ most unique features is a gun that shoots vertically. When monsters are climbing or floating up towards you from lower parts of the tower, getting near the edge and pressing a button will allow you to aim down the side of the tower, to begin taking shots at your attackers from above. It’s a fun mechanic that plays well on the tower aesthetic, and breaks up the combat loop at a regular clip. The game also features a level system based on how much gold you’ve collected through your journey. Each level offers perks like faster recharge for special attacks, more health, and other small tweaks. One run of the game got me up to level 7, barely even a third of what I potentially could have reached. This is only perplexing due to the lack of any kind of new game plus option upon beating the game, making most of the higher experience levels useless to anyone not playing on the hardest difficulty.
Perhaps The Deadly Tower of Monsters’ biggest accomplishment is its ability to commit to the bit. The soundtrack is a perfect specimen of 1970s science fiction nostalgia, and just generally quite catchy to boot. Every piece of the tower looks like something from the era, and the whole game has a camera filter running to show bits of film grain that blend in perfectly. At one point, Dan Smith makes a comment about the cameramen not letting him touch the camera, right as the player enters a torchlit area that highlights giant thumbprints on the camera. It’s little details like these that truly sell the game as a complete sci-fi schlock experience. The game is self-aware, too, unafraid to break the fourth wall and make fun of itself in increasingly-inventive ways. There are even bits of writing that are self-aware about the game being a game; the evil emperor ruling Gravoria is taking advantage of the fact that enemies turn into collectible gold upon death, using the creatures as assets. We see what you did there, ACE Team.
For the most part, The Deadly Tower of Monsters’ level design works. Falling off the edge of the tower doesn’t mean a grueling climb back up. Characters in freefall can be back where they leapt from at the click of a button, and can teleport to spots anywhere previously visited on the tower at will. The tower itself starts off as a great and complex temple, and then becomes more like a lavish mansion, and then a complex space station, as the heroes make their way farther up. Fun and inventive platforming designs are present all the way up the tower, culminating in players leaping onto slowly-rotating space satellites to make their way further up. The one drawback is that the game suffers from some wacky performance issues at times; there were a couple points where the game would freeze for a solid eight or nine seconds as I broke a pot or turned a corner, and quicker skips in animation were common throughout the game’s first half.
The Deadly Tower of Monsters is worth scaling for presentation alone, and the mechanics that work only help matters. Anyone with a love of low-budget sci-fi flicks of any era, from 1950s classics like Target Earth and Bride of the Monster to the 1970s flair such as Planet of Dinosaurs and The Island of Doctor Moreau, will find something to love in ACE Team’s faux-opus (fauxpus?). The combat has some flaws, with sluggish reaction times and unfair enemy placements here and there. When it works, though, it’s a ton of fun, and plays in clever ways on the tower itself. The Deadly Tower of Monsters is a great love letter to a very particular type of science, fiction; funnily enough, its quality as a game is quite similar to that very type of flicks.
Final verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), Playstation 4; Publisher: ATLUS; Developer: ACE Team; Players: 1; Released: January 19th, 2016; Genre: Action Adventure; MSRP: $14.99
Full disclosure: This review was written based on review code supplied by the game’s publisher, ATLUS.