Review: Tower of Heaven
by RmcD (1)
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June 20th 2012


Tower of Heaven: A Descent Into Hell

"May heaven grant you fortune." This is a common phrase repeated in various forums throughout Tower of Heaven. At first it is seemingly random, but as the game goes on you start to realize how much divine intervention you’re going to need to get through it. Tower of Heaven is centered around retro mechanics that dominated the 2D platforming era. Mario would be proud of the spot-on controls, chiptune music, and monochromatic green visuals that help create a retro Game Boy vibe. The controls are just as old school, with only two directions and jumping.  However, Tower of Heaven's main hook is not the retro vibe, but rather how the game differentiates itself from the rest of the platformers out there with its unique rule set.

To quickly summarize the story (more depth later), the main protagonist is trying to climb the Tower of Heaven, but a deity at the top prevents him from doing so by creating laws which the protagonist must abide to while within the walls of the tower. If any of them are broken, the protagonist will be "smitten." Your job is to platform up the tower while following the rules of the so called god as he builds them up one at a time. The final book of laws eventually becomes:


(Not in the lawbook, but each level must be finished within a time limit)

1. Thou shalt not touch golden blocks.

2. Thou shalt not touch blocks or walls from the side.

3. Thou shalt not walk left.

4. Thou shalt not touch a living thing.

5. Thou shalt no longer check the rules.

The first rule gives the feel of how the game will dish out laws.  Strewn throughout the levels are spikes and buzz saws which are already deadly, so this rule just gives the player something else to worry about. Mastery of most other platformers involves the ability to control the character, and Tower of Heaven forces this upon the player quite early.  The second rule only reinforces this, requiring a whole new degree of precision.  Rule three is when things start getting interesting.

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Well, crap.  Of course, there is a way around this rule, but what it does is add a level of frustration to the game.  Most of the levels after this rule is introduced do not have a bunch of leftward movement, so it’s easy to forget that pressing the left arrow key to reposition the protagonist before a jump will cause death.  Law four is pretty interesting as well, because now all the grass and butterflies that were just background eye candy before will kill you.  The final rule doesn’t really change much in terms of gameplay, since you’ll probably die so much that it’ll be impossible to forget what the laws are, but it is a bit of a smack in the face if you end up accidentally pressing the [SHIFT] key and explode.

Something very interesting about the laws introduced in this game is that they are all tropes that gamers may have seen before, albeit in a different context.  Deadly blocks are around in most platformers, but hitting the sides of blocks is oftentimes seen in side-scrolling shooters, where hitting walls meant crashing a spaceship.  Walking left can also be attributed to automatic side-scrollers, and avoiding living things is something we see in tons of games, including Super Mario Bros.  But, in this game the butterflies don’t kill you because they are evil, they kill you because the deity says they do.  These laws in combination give Tower of Heaven a pretty unique and difficult gameplay experience.  

Though these rules reflect many aspects of classic two dimensional games from the late 80s, they do so in a satirical manner. Because of the influx of ‘retro revival’ in indie games, Tower of Heaven decides to be different by taking these respected video game tropes and forcing the player to become aware of how arbitrary they can be. It leads them to think, “Why am I following these rules? Am I voluntarily following the rules or am I being forced?” And with these inquiries, the player breaks away from the any hard wired gaming ideas they may have. The game has both nostalgic and ameliorating qualities. Because of this, there so many things the player has to be careful of, that the precision platforming almost takes the backseat.  In the end, this game gets hard.  And you will die.  A lot.

As frustrating as the game can be, there are a lot of things that it does right which help make it less grating.  For one, the controls are great.  When playing a lot of Flash games, sluggish and clunky controls are almost expected, but this game has none of that.  It’s extremely easy to land jumps because of how tight the controls feel, which is necessary because of the type of precision the game demands in its platforming.  Each level is very short, and when you die you come back very quickly.  Any frustration is quickly relieved since you can get enough tries in on a particular level to finish it just as things start getting really irritating.  On top of that, the game itself is very short, so the player doesn’t have to endure that kind of torture for too long.  The speed run time above shows how short the game can be for a seasoned player, but the game will probably be around ten times longer the first time through because of how common death is.  Also, there were only eight deaths in that speed run, but a first play though can easily tally up over 200.  There is frustration abound in Tower of Heaven, but the game does everything it can to keep things feeling fair.


Instead of sobbing in a corner over the game’s difficulty, take a moment to take in the atmosphere of this game.  It’s well worth it.  The graphics have the same greenish hues to them as classic Game Boy titles did and some scenes have quite a bit of detail, and look amazing. The Megaman games released on the Game Boy had a very similar style, with a fairly large character compared to the world around them. This simple graphical style is also a great contrast to the gameplay, where much more is happening at once than the typical Game Boy platformer.  The music too, is comprised of old school beeps and bops, but it still takes tone and ambiance into account.  When platforming, a cheery (ironic), exciting tune plays.  When exploring the hidden parts of the tower, there’ s great background noise and no music.  Even though this kind of stuff is expected in games, the fact the the game is otherwise so simple really helps to set the mood.  Of course the graphics are more than just for nostalgia, they also help to set the tone.

The artists did a lot with such a simple artstyle, and it is extremely impressive.  There are eerie moments where the protagonist is exploring the shadowy, untouched areas of the tower, and the more bright but dangerous platforming sections.  Including grass and butterflies does more than introduce a gameplay mechanic later on, it also makes the tower feel like it has been on earth for an eternity.  Finally, the game runs these graphics very smoothly, which is also not always expected in a Flash game but makes Tower of Heaven a delight to look at and to play.

It is unfortunate that the story is not quite as fleshed out as the gameplay, art, and music.  As was mentioned before, the protagonist is a traveller seeking to get to the top of the Tower of Heaven, a tower which is so tall it seemed to be, “...an open seam before heaven and earth that eluded the eye of God”.  When the traveller enters the tower he is spoken to by some kind of deity, which thinks that the traveller is just another young adventurer seeking the tower’s reward.  Classically, the deity gets angrier and angrier as the protagonist ascends the tower against all odds.  Moreover, the deity has the power to alter the fundamental laws of the physical world in a single second. This authoritative relationship is similar to the interaction between the GLaDOS and Chell seen in the Portal games, and it works just as well here as it did there.

Most of this exposition is gathered from textboxes (seen in the majority of screenshots so far) of the deity talking to the protagonist. The gameplay also has a unique role in the narrative in that it both helps, and hurts it.  Dying so much in the journey up the Tower of Heaven acts as a trial, and rising up through the deity’s torment and disapproval can represent the protagonist’s faith in the heavens above. The deity says, “May heaven grant you fortune”, before almost every level starts. Ironically, the game is about the struggles of climbing the tower through trial and error... very little fortune is involved. The difficulty symbolizes the intense struggles which fill the lives of every human being, and the Tower of Heaven is a manifestation of them.  However, the narrative starts to break down because of all the death and difficulty.  You die a whole bunch in this game, so when the deity starts fuming over why the protagonist is still alive it’s pretty inconsistent.  Hundreds of deaths have already been tallied up, so why is the deity so angry?  It’s pretty strange, and would make a bit more sense if the deity were talking directly to the player - asking them why they’re still playing such a masochistic game.  Though, that concept isn’t ever expanded on in the storytelling, so it is hard to believe that it was what the writers were going for.

Another place where the narrative falls apart is the ending.  Plenty of games have multiple endings, but most serve as a ‘true’ ending and a ‘normal’ ending.  One is generally more satisfying than the other, but requires much more effort to obtain.  Tower of Heaven is a bit different.  There are two different endings depending on whether a secret was collected or not, and each ending gives the story a different meaning.  The ending where the protagonist has collected some secrets is fairly straightforward, while the ‘normal’ ending is much more philosophical.  This inconsistency is very irritating because it makes it hard to recognize what the unknown traveller’s motives really are.  Though there are some contradicting qualities, the narrative still gives an interesting tale about the struggles of the protagonist, and it is much more than what is expected from a short platformer.

Tower of Heaven an outstanding game for what it is.  Though it is often seen as a simple platformer, it has many hidden quirks that make it quite charming, and a difficulty that is unforgiving and addictive. But in the end, the game challenges many preconceived notions that push the player to question the nature of games while also giving difficulties that portrays the very idea of a tower to heaven.  Overall, this game is too good to pass up.  The gameplay is great, the art fantastic, the music addicting, and a story that will... make you think about it at least.  Thanks for reading, and may heaven grant you fortune in your adventure through akiisoft’s Tower of Heaven.
 



Tower of Heaven is an indie game made in 2009 by askiisoft, and re-released in Flash in 2010.   The Flash version of the game can be found on Newgrounds here:
http://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/544332


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