Review – Arcana of Paradise ~ The Tower
Trying to hop onto a gaming trend or element for the sake of capturing an audience that is already sick of the concept is a hubristic element about which you can’t help but almost feel pity. The nine hundredth hamfisted attempt to be a Grand Theft Auto clone back in the early 2000s, shameless jumpscare machinations that hoped to emulate Five Nights at Freddies, even sloppy, lazy Bejeweled knockoffs on every college PC at one point…it’s all a bald cash grab and lack of imagination. It hurts the soul and, in my opinion, hurts the industry in general.
But when a company makes a genuine attempt to take something that’s already played out and give it new life, it can go one of two ways. You can get something that’s managed to turn the industry on its head and inspire (look no further than Saints Row the Second for someone going in the right direction). Or you get something that’s just a very sad state of affairs, an opportunity wasted by mishandling and fanciful flights shot down too soon. That, sadly, is the result of Shueisha Games and their attempt at roguelite deckbuilding adventures with Arcana of Paradise ~ The Tower.
On paper, this should work out magnificently in multiple favors. After all, Shueisha helmed the creation of Captain Velvet Meteor, which was a magnificent love letter to Jump animation and comics while also being a sweet reflection on the creator’s own childhood AND a competent tactical game to boot. The list of roguelite card games has been burgeoning over the years, but, from Slay the Spire to Fights in Tight Spaces, there’s always been a bit of something that keeps the formula working. This one seemed very intriguing, what with the bizarre storyline of children living atop some kind of post apocalyptic tower and being called into warrior mode by a sky whale. Hell, it seemed downright exciting in the bizarre nature of it all, and I always love to give a bit to the strange and new concepts that roll out.
The artistic aspects of the game seem to give a lot of credence for this slightly strange but still beautiful title. I really enjoyed the art style of Arcana of Paradise from the very beginning, including the soft, illustrious way that everything is framed. There’s a dreamlike quality to all that unfolds, from the elements about the children (the perpetually sunny days, the ruins growing into reinvisioned successes) to the enemies themselves, which balance between an abstract sensation to a very real nightmare that’s come lumbering after children.
These visuals are only further enhanced by the soundtrack, which strikes a majestic cord as something both haunting and comforting. It’s what I imagined chamber music to be like before the advent of electronic synthesizers to alter the aural perceptions of people. These twin aspects of art and music weave a fantastic backdrop for players to get immersed in, especially if the elements of the gameplay land with them.
From the very beginning, though, something was a bit off about Arcana of Paradise. There was a disconnect immediately between what was being said and what was being felt. Usually, when it comes to a game where the story is deliberately obscure or obtuse, you either find yourself intrigued as to what is going on or, more often than not, simply uncaring about what you don’t understand because it ultimately isn’t important.
When I continued to grind for hats and stats in Mr. Sun’s Hatbox, I stopped trying to figure out the “why” almost immediately and just doubled down on chaos and excitement. But the fact that these children are all living in the tower, seemingly from nowhere, chosen to become warriors, beset by ghosts and constantly praying to a tree atop the tower for blessings felt really strange and raised so many questions. Questions that received no answers as I assembled my team and ventured forth.
Each day that passes requires you to have enough bread in reserve to feed the children in your tower home. Failure to have bread is a death sentence, so it’s important to continually find more food. While you can get passive means of bread through prayer (praying to a tree can fix an oven, apparently) the most successful and constant way to get bread is to search deeper and deeper into the tower. You can only send two children at a time, and the children will be baptized under one of several roles (warrior, healer, mage, etc.). If you don’t like their role, you can pay bread to re-baptize and see what happens. Just like in real life,
As you descend, you have various cards already in hand and, as you might imagine, new cards unlocked through different encounters throughout the tower. Some, like combat or treasure chests, are very straight forward, whereas others, like various NPCs looking for help, require you to already have certain cards on hand. The cards you find all end up in your pile, including the aforementioned bread that you’re trying to scavenge for your tribe. Bread does heal HP, so, if you’re taking a beating on the way down, you need to look at the loaf, decide that others don’t need it as much as you do, and then consume it to stave off death for another round. Does that sound fun? It doesn’t, and it isn’t: the guilt of simply trying to get through a fight weighs heavy from the very beginning.
The combat of Arcana of Paradise is very much a sore subject because of what it could and should be versus what it ultimately is. You get a handful of four cards, you use the cards, you draw more cards. Cards have various effects (hit, defend, heal, waste time) and you can force yourself to draw more cards more quickly by simply quickly discarding and drawing them. Speed isn’t usually the name of the game for a deck builder, but the combat, like other things in the game, is an active battle affair where enemies charge up and attack you regardless of what you’re doing. So while you’re trying to figure out the card effects and deciding what would be great, you’re getting beat about the head and shoulders by the enemy. Awesome!
The active battle then steps up by asking players to do timed blocks and strikes, which could be an exciting and interesting affair. You can see a filling circle for enemies attacking (minor enemies, anyways) and timing a defense just right means stunning them and allowing you to attack without repercussions. There has recently been a patch that makes it so, when you defend, the mages finally also defend (I was just watching my magical breatherin getting slaughtered before), so the defense now makes sense. However, there’s still a bit of lag, so defending can slow down your game for a moment and cause you to misclick cards, resulting in things like “needlessly defending again” or “eating bread because you hate children.”
This concept just doesn’t work in Arcana of Paradise until you get a much wider collection of cards later in the tower because, initially, all you’re doing is just waiting to block, successfully stunning the enemies and then quickly rifling through hand after hand to throw oversized fireballs and hopefully do a two hit chain, then sitting and waiting to stun block again. Since the timing on the circle is massively generous, you never really feel like you’re a keen vagabond of fighting prowess. Instead, you feel like a guy who can tell the difference between gray and red and knows to hit the button when the color changes. Or to hit the button when someone moves their arm, or their bird flaps its wings or whatever. “Boss” tells aren’t exactly subtle.
To try and prevent cards from becoming overpowered or over utilized, there is a “tearing” effect that can make a card you’ve acquired disappear permanently. This tearing effect should absolutely be in place for cards that are OP or massive game changers, that makes sense. Having it affect cards in your starting hand, like the goddamn torch, feels wildly unfair, especially since the torch is necessary for several encounter moments. Or the hang man card, which flips the cards around in your hand to change effects.
Great if you have a sword/shield card, changing it from offense to defense (wow, strategy!). Terrible if you have one of several cards that are USELESS if they flip upside down and then remain useless until the heat death of the universe. These moments feel more like a punishment to the player than the game trying to create any sort of balance for the world at large.
Or how about when you encounter a fountain for the first time and you scoop up water, and, while you’re trying to see what a water card even does before you accept it, the timer runs out and you just drop the water? Perhaps when you encounter an NPC for the first time and are desperately rifling through your cards to guess which one MIGHT be the right one to trigger what’s needed for them to reward you in some way? I ran across a woman gathering herbs and didn’t have any, so I offered her a healing spell. No dice.
Later, when I found her again, I offered her my sword, which meant I killed her (as children are wont to do) and just took her herbs myself, which is apparently what should have happened??? There’s something really dark happening in the throughlines of Arcana of Paradise in which you are trying to protect the children while also willfully doing horrible things to them and with them, and that just constantly felt like a popcorn kernel stuck in my teeth: irritating, uncomfortable, and not supposed to be there.
But all of these minor things pale in comparison to the overall problem that its just a totally entangled, backwards mess. A roguelike game, by its very nature, should be something where runs are in and out and you’re able to do so much in such a short amount of time. Instead, I was forced to continue a run into the tower long after I wanted to, having used my bucket card early on and needed to just plow ahead instead.
I wasn’t unlocking anything new, and, at one point, I just put down my Switch, purposely trying to die. The game rewarded me by having the children do auto combat better than I could, perpetually rolling saving throws to stay above zero HP and actually winning two fights in a row before I was granted the merciful release of death. You know what you should never look for in a game? A way to stop playing faster, and yet here I was.
Eventually I stopped going down into the tower because it felt pointless and frustrating. If I was lucky, I’d get enough bread to continue for the next day and I prayed the delay in my controller wouldn’t force me to accidentally consume it when I was trying to click on another card. I had already had the game lock up and crash on me once and I had no desire to repeat that, so I peacefully protested my own progress and just let starvation take its course. The whale reminded me that I would remember some of these things for a subsequent run, so at least there’s clear cumulative progression, but it comes at a maddening pace.
You meander and grind at a painfully slow rate, you hopefully get cards, the arbitrary nature of it all seems to promise no tomorrows in terms of what cards you’ll get next, and you have to be on your toes in combat for QTE button reactions that, ultimately, you don’t really care about. It’s like being stuck on a treadmill on top of a moving sidewalk. You have to keep running on the damn machine in order not to fall off, but, no matter how fast you go, you’re still slogging along at the pace the city council decided is safe enough to move the populous through your local shopping mall.
All the while, you can look at beautiful paintings and listen to a captivating soundtrack and just, for a moment, think longingly of doing anything else. But you have to ride till the end, because stepping off early means forfeiting everything you’ve already done, even if you’ve now realized you don’t want to do it.
I leave you with this: Elfen Lied is an anime with a gorgeous art direction and amazing soundtrack. Despite being nearly twenty years old, the coloring and shading are outstanding, and the opening has a chilling effect that I have yet to properly find in another series. I recommend anyone and everyone to watch the OP and enjoy the ideas of it all, and then walk away. The series is hot, existential garbage that relies on violence, nudity and pointless gothic overtures to distract from the lack of substance within.
That is my feeling, my awful, heavy feeling about Arcana of Paradise ~ The Tower. If I had gotten exceedingly lucky with my first roll of characters, maybe I would have been hooked by the grindloop and joyfully gotten bread for my fellow kids. Instead, I just felt disappointment and disinterest grow like a fungus in my heart. I kept trying to play so I could find more, figure out what it is that makes it tick, and I found nothing. This isn’t worth my time, and I can’t say, with any confidence, that it’s worth yours.
Excellent designs and coloring to give an ethereal quality to all that’s happening, I felt like I was inside of a painting that wanted to evoke innocence and cruelty under the same sun.
Wait and slog to unlock something, don’t get to use what you unlock, react quickly but not too quickly, pair up characters based on perceptions and then have those pairings mean nothing, and the game plays itself when you refuse to participate.
An otherworldly soundtrack to match the dreamlike, almost religious tone of the game’s design and ideals. Sincerely great music that you have to, unfortunately, play the game in order to listen to.
Fun Factor: 1.0
It became a chore just to see if there was more, and, alas, there was not. I dreaded opening the software to see what else might happen or could be done. I was sad, and I still had to try. It was not the highlight of my week.
Final Verdict: 3.0
Arcana of Paradise ~ The Tower is available now on Nintendo Switch and Steam.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of Arcana of Paradise ~ The Tower was provided by the publisher.