In my recent write up of the putrid NanoBreaker, my opening comment was that killing robots as an end unto itself is boring and a waste of time—unless there's a hook. I stand by that statement, but I think it's cosmically ironic that immediately after wrapping up a review for a terrible robot-killing game, I'm writing a review for a good one. I guess it just goes to show that in the right hands, even the most seemingly unappealing or dreary subject matter can shine.
Rengoku: the Tower of Purgatory is a third-person action game featuring a combat android and his journey to the top of an eight-tier tower. The story's premise is that immortal automatons were created to wage war for humans, and after their purpose had been served, they were trapped inside the tower to battle amongst themselves as a source of eternal entertainment. One member of this legion has developed sentience, and struggles to reach the highest level of the prison in the hope of finding true meaning for its existence, and a way out of the tower.
On the surface, Rengoku could be most simply described as robot killing robots in randomly-generated dungeons. It might be a fair assessment technically, but there's a lot behind the game's outward appearances that resonated strongly with me, and quickly turned the Tower of Purgatory into one of my favorite PSP games to date.
To begin with, the nihilistic tone and existential theme struck a chord, and were a perfect match for the bare, lifeless environments. This mood was perfectly accented by the phenomenal artwork and android design by Japan's Jun Suemi. Raw, organic shapes meld with weaponry and sharp edges to evoke connotations of internal violence and a brutal struggle for survival.
Going further in capitalizing on the strong character visuals, Rengoku's android is customizable to an absurd degree, both graphically and functionally. This level of customization is really what sets the game apart in my opinion.
After eliminating enemies with efficiency, their dropped weapons and items can be salvaged and attached. When bonded to the android, its appearance takes on the characteristics of the weapon. For example, a sword will turn his arm into a fleshy stump sprouting a thin blade; a laser will reshape its face into pinched cannon, and so forth. The developers have packed a surprisingly huge arsenal onto the UMD, each item modifying the attack strategy and tactics necessary for minute-to-minute victory. Unused weaponry can be transformed into raw material used to increase the android's abilities and statistics. For people who like tinkering with such options (Armored Core fans take note), this aspect of Rengoku can quickly become an addiction.
Outside of the customization, the gameplay is simple and straightforward. But in both substance and form, I view Rengoku as a success. However, despite my enthusiasm it's very clear that the game won't be to most players' taste. The experience starts rough with an insufficient tutorial and an immediate need to level-up—not usually the best way to begin any game. Also, it's necessary to frequently backtrack to a save point (only one per floor) to avoid losing equipped weaponry and vertical progress upon death. Increasing the irritation, the game won't let saves be loaded after a loss without first exiting out of the entire game and restarting it. The developers know that I'll do it anyway, so why make it more difficult?
With its minimalist aesthetic and focus on customization and combat at the expense of all else, Rengoku: the Tower of Purgatory might leave a lot of curious PSP owners cold. But, for those gamers looking for something a little further afield than the latest racing or sports update, this niche experience is most definitely worth looking at.