I’m not sure there’s a more appropriate theme for a small-team-developed videogame than the B-movie, the iconic film genre that leverages market demand with quick and cheap productions. A genre fostered over decades, B-movies can be (but not always) especially fun films: typically light-hearted or tongue-in-cheek (or not), filled with endearing (or not) moments of amateur and/or rushed and/or cheap production and moments of probably-accidental brilliance.
Obviously they range hugely in every way, but their limited means is something they all share. They’re ragged, rapscallion-y flicks that punch above their weight with a minuscule budget, and can lead to some admirable efforts.
With The Deadly Tower of Monsters, the developers at ACE Team wear their love for these sorts of films on their sleeves.
In The Deadly Tower of Monsters, you play through an action-adventure sci-fi B-movie of the same name, one of those movies filled with cheap costumes and cheap effects, nonsensical monster designs and disastrous writing. Meanwhile, the film’s dim director records the DVD commentary track, narrating the game with behind-the-scenes trivia, meat-headed quips and a parallel tale of the (fictional) film’s messy production.
The player themselves control one of the film’s three heroes as they adventure up the titular tower of the alien planet of Whatever It’s Called (I don’t remember but it doesn’t really matter), a spire that reaches far into the sky, through the atmosphere and eventually into space, in their brave efforts to defeat the planet’s evil king. Players jump, shoot and smash their way up with laser guns and chrome-neon swords and clubs, through a handful of bosses, until the ‘film’ is over and the credits roll. Aside from a handful of secret areas, it’s an otherwise standard linear action-adventure that’s over in a short four-ish hours.
But it’s the B-movie theme that makes the game worth playing.
Deadly Tower’s writing is shaky but endearing, both in the overarching commentary track and the writing of the B-movie itself. Rarely laugh-out-loud funny, with jokes that fall flat as often as they land, its rapid sitcom-like pace and wealth of charm keep it fun and light-hearted. Being set inside a terrible and cheap sci-fi pulp, these weaker moments tend to work in its favour anyway.
The story itself channels that mix of ambition, (usually) good intention and laughable production values that defines the B-movie. It keeps things restrained and focused with a clear and consistent love for the B-movie genre. Meanwhile, the adorable models and visuals are as silly as they are ‘real’, moving with a stop-motion stutter with designs that are universally cheap-looking (in a good way). As an homage to the B-movie, The Deadly Tower of Monsters is wonderful.
Though hardly a failure, Deadly Tower is less successful as a videogame.
Ironically, as a videogame, Deadly Tower harkens back to the early 2000s era of gaming, a combo platter of platforming and combat variety we really don’t see many of anymore. With an isometric-ish perspective, it plays like something between Ratchet & Clank, Diablo and a basic twin-stick shooter. Players can freely use a variety of ranged and melee weapons – ranged weapons are slightly limited with their cooldowns while melee weapons lack cooldowns and can deflect attacks. Both have their strengths, as do enemies, but otherwise you’re free to use whatever you want throughout the game. Outside a few moments of confusion, the platforming in Deadly Tower is generally good, too, easy to understand and follow despite the fixed camera.
But verticality makes it more distinct and surprisingly open for a game that’s otherwise archaic by today’s standards.
At any point, you can lean over the edge of wherever you are on the tower to shoot at enemies flying up towards you, or just jump right off the tower and land wherever you can see, using a jetpack to slow your fall. With the press of a button, you can return to the last time you were on solid ground, so that if you slip off a ledge or just make a bad jump, you can Trek-warp back to safety without penalty. Lastly, you can teleport across the map between checkpoints, again without cost.
Which brings me to the difficulty, which is interesting in itself.
The Deadly Tower of Monsters is absolutely drowning in mechanics for the kind of game it is. Each of the three characters have a handful of distinct combat skills and skill trees, there’s a couple dozen weapons (with unknown damage numbers), and the player is constantly picking up ‘resources’ to upgrade these weapons into (apparently) stronger weapons. They’re the kind of mechanics you would see in a rather difficult and demanding title.
But strangely, Deadly Tower is a very easy and simple game. You climb the tower, without any sort of timer, while the game’s enemies and encounters remain the same difficulty the entire time. There aren’t even any difficulty levels to choose from. It almost reminds me of a Mario title, where the fun comes from the straight-forward gameplay and levels, but the lowered difficulty seems like it was meant to gloss over the game’s original faults, where they didn’t have the time to cut (or didn’t want to waste) all these unnecessary mechanics.
The choice between three characters is another oddity. Though each is needed at certain points to continue (like using the robot’s slow-motion power), changing characters otherwise is useless. Differences between the three are marginal and make no real impact on how you play. They can use the same weapons and their unique abilities are flat-out forgotten since the game is so easy. They make for some funny cutscenes, where your character is suddenly switched from the lady to the robot for no reason, but ultimately they’re just tedious B-movie costumes.
Short and succinct, The Deadly Tower of Monsters is an homage that’s as rough and unpolished a game as a (good) B-movie is a film. A mellow experience where all the weapons and upgrades are somewhat pointless, but lead to this open and experimental feel. Because the game isn’t difficult or punishing at all, you use whichever weapons you want and upgrade however you want and play whoever you want – it feels something like something of a playground. It’s dedicated to the fantasy of a B-movie, the fantasy of playing through one of those dumb-ass 50’s sci-fi knock-offs that pop up on late TV.
Even if it wasn’t ACE Team’s exact intention, The Deadly Tower of Monsters does a remarkable job as a playable homage to the B-movie. If you have a fondness for the genre, it’s worth a playthrough.