April 12, 2016 12 Comments
Growing up the daughter of a cinephile (that’s someone who loves movies, not someone who has to stay 1,000 yards away from schools), I’ve seen my share of 1950s B movies and exploitation flicks. And I don’t mean in the form of Mystery Science Theater riffs. I mean sitting there, actually watching the original film with someone so deluded that he sees the movie as a work of art instead of a cheap, quick, badly acted, horribly scripted, cynical piece of shit created by and starring people who wished they were dead. Which is not to say *every* movie of that era was without merit, but there’s nothing inherently sacred about B movies. To be frank, sometimes I don’t even like Mystery Science Theater that much, because it’s the low-hanging fruit. Fish in a barrel. “Oh come on, they’re campy! Camp is charming! Old B movies are camp!” Bullshit. Being old doesn’t necessarily mean being charming. Fred Phelps was pretty old before he was dead, and he had all the charm of a backed-up toilet.
So yea, old movies aren’t my thing. Yet, I’ve always wondered why that era of films haven’t been used as source material for more video games. Sure, you have Destroy All Humans, It Came from the Desert, and Zombies Ate my Neighbors. But, no hit games, except maybe Destroy All Humans and even that got ruined with the sequel. I’m guessing you can add The Deadly Tower of Monsters to that list, since its ceiling is probably “cult hit” at best. That’s a shame, because it’s one of the most clever games in years. You’ve played games like it, like Gauntlet Legends or the Dark Alliance series: a (mostly) top-down sword and gun button masher. DToM should be tired and tedious right out of the gate. However, a novel framing device immediately freshens it up and keeps things interesting from start to finish.
The idea is, you’re actually listening to a DVD audio commentary from the director of the “movie” that you’re playing. The director is a hilariously out-of-touch sexist prick with passive-aggressive disdain for every person who he’s ever worked with. The gimmick works, making this a rare example of a comedic video game where the joke doesn’t become stale before the credits roll. The B-Movie setting works too, with bad “special effects” such as clearly visible strings on cheesy enemies. The “actors” are talentless hacks that have no charisma and deliver every line without any sense of emotion. The “plot” is laughably thin and random (apes! dinosaurs! brain creatures!). The trees look plastic. Deadly Tower of Monsters was clearly made by a team with actual fondness for 50s Sci-Fi movies. And a big twist at the end of the game that I didn’t see coming at all works wonderfully.
The setting feels almost authentic, but there are a couple of things that take me out of it. The director sounds too young, for one thing. I don’t mean in terms of vocabulary, but literally he has too young sounding of a voice. I sort of wish they had hired an actual B-director like Lloyd Kaufman or Roger Corman. I mean, come on. Those guys would have taken one look at the script and asked how soon they could do it. I also wish the game had focused more on really bad stereotypes of those cheap films. Flubbed lines, actors bumping into the set, props falling over, etc. There are a couple of gags like those, but not nearly enough. Heck, even the game’s attempt at cheap stop-motion animation with some of the creatures wasn’t close to right. The movement was too fluid and not jerky enough, though I appreciated the effort. Finally, while I hate to bust on this in any game, the graphics are not really that good at all. The theme doesn’t cover-up for that either, because the issues that ruined my immersion were decidedly “video gamey” instead of failing the spirit of the B-Movie angle. UPDATE: The PS4 version has much sharper graphics and a better sense of vertigo, though at a trade-off of some minor slowdown issues that I didn’t experience on Steam.
As for the game, it’s a lot of fun. For the most part. While combat and shooting feels button-mashy (again, it reminded me of Gauntlet Legends in feel, not quality. Because this game is fun, and Gauntlet Legends sucks), there’s a wide enough variety of weapons (both short and long distant) and upgrades to keep things relatively fresh throughout. I do wish the game had a wider variety of moves though. What’s here is certainly not perfect. Deadly Tower of Monsters often relies too much on spamming the screen with enemies, and with no block-system beyond an awful rolling move, you’ll be subjected to more cheap shots than a $5 bottle of off-brand whiskey. Meanwhile, enemies can be too spongy, upgrades can require too much trinket-collecting to unlock, I really wish you could switch between the three-characters and their different moves on the fly instead finding pods to do it in, and boss battles can drag on too long without checkpoints. There’s also an AWFUL mechanic where you have to lean on a ledge and shoot down at enemies coming at you from below. The cursor is too small, too hard to see (and I can’t imagine how colorblind gamers will be able to use it), too loose, and staying “glued” to the mode is hard because even slight movements can pull you back to the normal mode of the game. Even when it seemed like I was only moving left and right, sometimes the shooting would end and I would go back to the normal game mode. This mechanic alone was the fatal flaw that prevented Deadly Tower of Monsters from becoming a top-five game on my leaderboard. It’s clunky, it’s ill-advised, it’s frustrating when combined with enemies in “normal” view that you can’t really defend yourself against while shooting at the “ledge-enemies.” It pissed me off so bad because Deadly Tower of Monsters is really fun, but I guess it had to include it’s legally-mandated percentage of indie badness.
Hopefully nobody stopped and said “sounds like a shitty game” after that last paragraph, because Deadly Tower of Monsters is genuinely fun. One of my favorite indies ever, in fact. While the combat is nothing special, the pace of acquiring new weapons is damn near perfect, and there’s so much hidden stuff to do that it never becomes a slog to progress through. Plus, the script is very funny. It’s what I call a “snicker ‘n smirk” game because while none of the gags are roll-on-the-floor funny, the jokes hit consistently enough that the smirk and the sound of a faint snicker will never fade throughout the game. And the creativity isn’t limited to just the concept. The gameplay centers around climbing a gigantic tower. While I was disappointed by the lack of a sense of vertigo, I was very satisfied with a neato play mechanic that allows you to BASE jump from the tower and fall to the bottom. This stuff reminded me of Pilotwings 64, in a good way. It’s the Yin to the ledge-shooting’s yang, with the only sour point being the same issues with the crosshairs in the ledge-shooting are present for the free-falling. I actually might go back and jump off the tower more, just for kicks. It’s that fun.
The Deadly Tower of Monsters now holds a rare distinction in my gaming history book: it joins Portal 1 & 2 as the only comedy-centric games that stayed funny after multiple hours. There are so many wonderful gags here that complaining about the lack of other B-movie tropes seems nit-picky. I only did it because ACE Team (the studio behind Rock of Ages, an unsung multiplayer favorite of mine) clearly has the talent to pull it off. Yea, I’m sure budget limitations played into some of the nits I picked here until they were scabby. I also didn’t get to play it with multiple players, which I think probably would have taken the sting out of some of the more annoying aspects of combat. But, make no mistake, Deadly Tower of Monsters is a damn good game. Original, inspired, and hilarious. Do you know what annoys me most? It should have been a contender for the top spot on the IGC Leaderboard, but the flaws piled up so high that it instead barely missed the top 10. Regardless, it’s worth your purchase. Ironic, isn’t it? This tribute to B-movies is an A-quality title. Now, someone get cracking on a Robot Monster game. Hey, it’s in the public domain!
$9.98 (normally $14.99) said “Simon is from the 70s, not the 50s you fucking numbskulls” in the making of this review.
The Deadly Tower of Monsters is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.