Publisher: 11 bit studios
Played on: PC
Release Date: November 16, 2017
Played with: Xbox 360 Controller
Paid: $0 (Key provided for review)
I’ll be up front about this: Tower 57 is one of those games that I just didn’t quite get. Now, don’t get me wrong: I enjoy twin-stick shooters. I also quite liked the dieselpunk aesthetic of the whole thing; it’s a style that you don’t see too often, and it was a nice change of pace. Plus, the pixel art was so intricately detailed that it made me want to kiss my fingers like a chef. And yet, the game was just…there. The story seemed like it wanted to be darkly humorous, but was largely bland and generic, with characters coming and going too fast to break out of a single personality dimension. The gameplay was straightforward and made perfect sense…until it didn’t. It’s a game which I continually felt like I should enjoy, but I was never able to truly cross the threshold into legitimately finding enjoyment in it. As a result, this is going to be one of those reviews that I write as much for myself as anyone else; I just need to get my thoughts in order to see what went wrong in Tower 57.
Taking place in an authoritarian dystopia, Tower 57 places you in a world full of shady, cyberpunk-esque slums and a mysterious elite class that rules over everything unseen. Proper justice is absent, which may explain why you’re allowed to wander the streets unmolested while toting a sniper rifle. After selecting a team of three characters, you set out to infiltrate Tower 57, figure out what’s going on behind the scenes, and ultimately put an end to the tyranny of the individual known only as “Mother”.
As far as an excuse to blow things up goes, Tower 57’s narrative is perfectly serviceable. The problem is that it feels like it wants to be so much more. Specifically, the end throws in a twist that felt like it should have been a shock, but instead elicited little more than a shrug. Simply put, the game doesn’t give you much reason to care about anything that’s going on; least of all the characters. While the three members of your team each have different skills and weapons, their individuality effectively stops there. The handful of voice lines for each only serve to make them incredibly grating, to the point where I was actively wishing there was a separate slider for voice volume. Plus, while there is apparently a secret ending, I really couldn’t care less about seeking it out.
That being said, I can see why the characterization and plot development may have been lacking: Tower 57 supports co-op. In general, co-op games don’t lend themselves particularly well to thought-provoking narratives, especially in one that promotes such “shoot first, then also shoot later” gameplay as Tower 57. However, as someone who only experienced the game in single player, this issue was more pronounced.
Okay, so if the story is lacking and co-op is the focus, then how’s the gameplay? Well, it’s pretty much every twin-stick shooter ever, and your enjoyment of it will likely depend on how many titles in the genre you’ve had the pleasure of playing. Each character has two weapons (technically three, but your blaster is little more than a peashooter that’s been blessed with infinite ammo) in addition to a special move (e.g. hacking, slowing down time, etc.), a dash, and a screen-clearing Chaos attack. You can upgrade your weapons and characters to increase your damage dealing potential, but that’s about all there is when it comes to customization.
What aims to make Tower 57 unique is its augmentation system. Remember how I said that you can upgrade your characters? Well, you’re literally upgrading them with cybernetic enhancements. Those augments can also be damaged in combat, which will make the part unusable until repaired, while also resetting all upgrades. There are times in the game where you’ll find your legs blown off, only to defy the laws of physics and drag your upper torso to a repair machine where a brand-new pair awaits. It’s a great concept that adds a bit of extra zaniness to an already wacky setting.
The problem is that it rarely seems to work. Even after beating the game, I hadn’t been able to figure out whether limbs only got blown off in scripted events or if it was just that only certain enemies could remove them. The former means that the game is just unfair, since it can spontaneously nuke all your character upgrades, while the latter sees the mechanic being completely underutilized. It’d be great to force the player to choose between pushing through a tough wave of enemies at the cost of their upgrades, or resetting to a checkpoint to preserve their character’s status.
Speaking of underutilized mechanics, the point of choosing a team of three when starting the game is twofold: it allows you to swap between characters and specialize them to situations (e.g. having a designated hacker), and effectively gives you three lives. Having three lives is definitely appreciated, considering that some enemies (especially a few bosses) have ridiculously cheap attacks that come out of nowhere and eviscerate your health bar before you can blink. That is, it would be helpful, except the “revival system” is far too costly to make it all that usable. Reviving a single squadmate costs one amber orb, which is effectively a rare collectible in each level. They can also be purchased from someone in the main hub area for $500. Perhaps this was where the whole “do I continue, or should I reset?” dilemma was supposed to come into play, but if so, I picked up on it far too late. Next thing I knew, I was down to one character, no amber orbs, and some money that I effectively could either spend on getting more weak characters (who’d probably just die again), or powering up my one main character. For obvious reasons, I chose the latter, which kind of defeated the purpose of the whole mechanic.
Now, that’s a lot of ragging on Tower 57, so I want to give credit where it’s due: the game looks fantastic. Sporting detailed pixel art that dynamically changes to reflect damage from your weapons, it’s a great change of pace from the standard “flash and disappear” style of most breakable scenery. While some objects do still adhere to this, it’s nonetheless impressive to be able to walk into a pristine room, have a battle, and then survey the cracked computers and splintered panels that remain after the fact.
Your enjoyment of Tower 57 is liable to depend on two things: whether you’re playing in co-op, and how much you value fresh new ideas. I think what really bothered me about it was that it felt like it tried to do some things differently, but everything new was implemented so haphazardly that it never had a significant impact on my experience with the game. It got to the point where, upon accidentally stumbling across a glitch that let me walk where I wasn’t supposed to be able to and sequence-break the game, I simply took advantage of the game’s failing to power through the final levels and be done with it. Plus, other exploits like attacking enemies while outside of their aggression range make sections painfully easy, but in a way that feels cheap, rather than satisfying.
Tower 57 isn’t a bad game. Hell, depending on who you are, it may not even be an average one. Yet as far as I’m concerned, one trip up the tower was more than enough, and even that felt a bit excessive.