TBT REVIEW: Towards the Pantheon

Thursday, February 21st, 2019

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Towards The Pantheon | boxart
Title Towards the Pantheon
Developer Connor O.R.T. Linning
Publisher Connor O.R.T. Linning
Release Date May 16th, 2018
Genre RPG
Platform PC

When I first heard about Towards the Pantheon, it wasn’t so much the coverage about the game that caught my attention, but rather its developer. Despite my being an avid fan of classic RPGs, especially those that draw inspiration from the SNES and that golden age of RPGs, what ended up sticking with me enough to try this game was the man behind it; Connor Linning. A writer, musician, and game developer, spending just a few minutes on Connor’s blog made me realize the passion and drive this man possesses. I think it’s his ambition in the face of complacency attitude that sparked my interest in his project, Towards the Pantheon. 16-bit graphics, original sound score, narrative and gameplay that draws influence from classic RPG tropes, Towards the Pantheon is a game that honors some of the best this genre has to offer.

Towards the Pantheon drops you into a world in which four quarreling groups are pitted against one another by the Sworn Light, a militaristic entity using divide and conquer tactics to take control of the world. Immediately, we meet Freyja, a young warrior tasked to journey to the Pantheon, the headquarters of the Sworn Light, to deliver a fatal blow to their organization. Advised by Wuotan, an elder of her village, she first sets off to find a willing companion, Bam the cat. From there, she will venture into the four civilizations and interact with their people, learning of their struggles and the oppression by the Sworn Light. Freyja will meet new companions, explore the vast lands, and discover the depth of tyranny and evil the Sworn Light have instilled in the world.

Towards The Pantheon | plot

The story of Towards the Pantheon is fairly straightforward, in that you have four isolated populations further turned against one another by an all-influential puppet master. Themes of prejudice, intolerance, and misinformation make up the core of the story, but there is plenty more to spark initial interest. The lore and the individual details of the four types of beings in this world are intriguing and are a pleasure to discover. I also like how equal attention is provided to both a grand scale and an individual level in terms of how the Sworn Light is oppressing the world. Hearing about how individuals, ranging from children, business owners, students, etc., are impacted is a nice touch, as it demonstrates how a world event influences the individual on a personal scale. I found these personal perspectives well written and was motivated to learn as much as I could about this world and its people.

Towards The Pantheon | plot2

The plot has its shortcomings, however, as one of my biggest gripes is with the strength and pacing of the plot. Simply put, the plot starts slow and remains more a framework than a fleshed out story. After Freyja is tasked with her quest, it takes quite some time before the plot picks up again. In between, we see Freyja and her growing party reduced to errand runners. Yes, plot details do get filled in, but it’s not enough, both in quantity and quality. Bland may be too strong of a word, but at times I definitely felt like saving the world was more an excuse than a purpose, as I was forced around the world on fetch quests and meet ups. Another element that concerns me is with the Pantheon itself. The game is Towards the Pantheon, yet the Pantheon ends up as just a place that houses the final boss. There is a dire need of lore or some unseen importance to this keyword. Give me something. Imagine if Ocarina of Time were instead called The Legend of Zelda – That Room atop that Flight of Stairs. Nobody cares about that room, it’s the Ocarina that’s central to the plot, receiving appropriate lore and significance. Yet here, the Pantheon really is just a place; a feeble finish line.

Towards The Pantheon | camp

And finally, there is the horror element of the plot, which doesn’t actually show itself until the last stretch of the game. I am referring to the segment right before the Pantheon in which you have to unlock and cut through an old mansion/ hotel. It feels completely like a tangent, just thrown in at the end. As for the events within, I believe they do occur to the characters in their reality and it’s not some screwed up dream sequence, yet it came out of nowhere and didn’t fit the tone of the previous 3/4 of the game. Although it does make you think about who or what those soldiers really are, with the hints and notes on disappearances, kidnappings, and the electropunk culture of replacing body parts, I wouldn’t consider the game a “horror game” just because of a portion of play. It also fails to add significant depth to its characters, as I believe this segment is supposed to explore the individual characters’ inner struggles, whether it’s regret, loss, powerlessness, or what have you. But again, just throwing it in at the end doesn’t do any justice and it falls flat. Lack of pacing and plot strength make the plot an overall underwhelming experience.

Towards The Pantheon | now with cats

In terms of its implementation, the story unfolds mainly through conversations between party members, NPC interactions, and scattered fragments of books or journal entries found throughout the world. Not a whole lot of the plot is unveiled through the main characters themselves and their interactions with each other, as is common for the genre. Rather, much of the plot is left for the player to discover. Speaking with NPCs multiple times throughout the game, completing side quests and requests, and reading through all the fragments will color in the plot. From history and the origins of the Sworn Light’s threat, to the current desolation and impact, most of these details and the depth they bring require the player’s willingness to discover them.

Towards The Pantheon | plot3

While I can appreciate this unorthodox method of delivering a story, I felt the narrative overall suffered from it. Typically, this method is used as a support, providing backstory and anything else that fills in the history and lore of a central narrative. Here though, I don’t appreciate this method at the cost of a robust story building effort. I would have preferred a stronger, more directly conveyed story that details unfolding events, rather than the fragments we collect along the way. I understand the intent of this choice; to let us discover the plot ourselves, however, this method lacks the immersion I was seeking during play. The conversations and fragments we come across are not substantial enough to draw you in and keep you immersed. Instead, they only provide just enough to eventually string a story together. Again, I acknowledge the attempt at something different, and while the plot has plenty of intrigue in and of itself, the potency and impact just wasn’t there, failing to consistently trigger immersion or draw my emotional investment.

Towards The Pantheon | details

I’ll admit, there are plenty of helpful hints too

As for its characters, Towards the Pantheon does an adequate job of presenting a set of characters that are easy to care for, instilling a want for seeing their journey through. There are plenty of personal details and friendship building elements to be had throughout and they stand out nicely. The campfire scenes that occur in save locations provide the most character development, allowing the group to recap, unwind, and interact with each other. Their sharing of their personal struggles, past pains, future goals, but also their good natures, humor, and uplifting encouragements to one another, all help to provide much needed depth. I especially like the expressiveness of the characters’ portraits during dialogues, as they help add a nice emotional element to their conversations. Since Freyja is mute, these expressions she shows really help convey her youthful and kindhearted personality without words. My only complaint would be that I wish there were more growth or transformation. The characters we see at the start are pretty much what we end up with. Besides that one point, I enjoyed journeying with this group.

Towards The Pantheon | expressions

*Heart melts

Towards the Pantheon also follows a traditional RPG style for its gameplay, as exploration and combat make up the majority of play. The world is made up of expansive maps with plenty to discover. Whether it’s finding hidden caves and secret caches for extra items or locations hiding fragments of plot lore, exploration is key to unveiling everything this game has to offer. Exploration is further enhanced by the unique traits each character possesses while on the world map. Although Freyja’s unique skill is climbing ladders, Bam the cat can fit within small openings, Mishima can hack through locked doors, and Phenez can turn invisible, bypassing guards to enter restricted areas. As the team grows, revisiting previous towns and areas is always a good move. Lastly, since exploration and, to a degree, backtracking are encouraged, the game also features a fast-travel system from the start. In typical fashion, once you’ve reached the town a first time, you can fast-travel to and fro.

Towards The Pantheon | traits2

For the most, combat is your traditional turn-based style, but there are specifics to using each character. With Freyja, each of her attacks requires Stamina Points (SP), which regenerate during every turn. Bam’s skills use EP, the SP equivalent, but they do not regenerate, requiring Bam to rely on EP regenerating skills during the fight. Mishima uses CPU and GPU points, her HP and SP equivalents, meaning that every attack she unleashes also does harm to her. Finally, Phenez uses NP, his HP, so again his attacks also do self-harm. It makes combat far more engaging, as you need to plan your actions accordingly. I found that having a particular strategy for each character’s usage helps greatly. Not having a sound strategy or being able to adapt it during a tough battle will have consequences. Something I do appreciate, even if a party member is incapacitated during battle, they will still receive the same amount of experience points, which is especially helpful for newly joined members, as they all start at Lv 1. With every level gained, a point is rewarded to be used for that character’s specific skill tree. Increases in health, power, recovery and more can be unlocked, so leveling is key. Finally, there are extra combo skills that are unlocked as you collect cards throughout your journey. These help immensely during tougher fights and can be found or purchased in packs throughout the game.

Towards The Pantheon | skill tree (FFX anyone)

Combat isn’t perfect however, as I found the difficulty level is a touch higher than convention, especially early on. Fortunately, with some grinding, the campaign is very much doable and the grinding required is within a reasonable level. Yet, my issue is with the time it takes. The number of battles needed to maintain an acceptable challenge level is a bit high, taking a bit more time than I would have preferred. Also, combat can drag on, especially with multiple enemies on-screen using their own sets of skills during battle. While enemy encounters are visible and avoidable, they are very much a necessity, so quicker battles would have been ideal.

A final note on gameplay, throughout the game you will encounter event specific items used to solve puzzles, complete subquests, or access new areas. Instead of an auto-use style, you are required to open the item menu and search for the specific item you wish to use for interaction. At first, this is a non-issue, but as your inventory grows, this can become an inconvenience. I prefer auto-use, as most of the time choosing the right item to use, give, or place is fairly predictable. Again, a minor inconvenience, yet it springs up often enough for me to comment on.

Towards The Pantheon | mute

Now we move to what I believe are the strongest points of Towards the Pantheon; its aesthetic appeal. This game looks and feels perfectly like a golden era RPG. Visually, the 16-bit graphics are fantastic, capturing the magic of the SNES styling. Everything is custom designed, from sprites to tilesets and the results are amazing. The portrait art showing the expressions of our heroes during their conversations is also incredible, providing an ample boost to the moods and tones of these scenes. Especially for Freyja, I love these changes of facial expressions, as they bring a feeling of genuine life. Humor, thought, and reactions to each other are made so much more lifelike with these simple changes to their faces. I can’t praise that level of detail enough. My only complaints are that, first, there were concept drawing and other artwork that never made it into the game. I would have liked to have seen them incorporated during cutscenes or in-between snippets because they further depicted our heroes in an appealing light. Secondly, the layouts of some maps are a bit jarring. For example, when you leave a forest and enter an electropunk town, the contrast is far too sharp. Better transitions from forest to urban are needed badly, as it looks like a rushed effort on map design.

Towards the Pantheon | Freyja

I would have loved this in-game

The audio efforts are equally impressive and are some of the most impressive I’ve experienced in the genre. As a musician, Connor Linning does an incredible job of adding energy and life through his compositions. Every track fit its area or event perfectly. Plus, there’s plenty of music to enjoy. I love that he incorporated various dungeon themes, multiple battle themes, and an assortment of tracks for almost every location, all in that classic chiptune style. This is easily the game’s highest point and worth a playthrough to experience. Overall, the aesthetics of Towards the Pantheon are brilliant, perfectly capturing the look and feel of that classic RPG style.

Towards the Pantheon | Mishima

Again, inclusion of art would have taken the aesthetics to another level

As a first offering, Towards the Pantheon is impressive, hitting many of the major RPG notes that makes a game of this genre outstanding. For RPG fans, many of the gameplay tropes are there; party based combat, unique skillsets, and traits and peculiarities both in and outside of battle, yet it all comes together and it works. While the ball was dropped in terms of story development and gameplay has its flaws, it was still very much a pleasure to play. I would recommend Towards the Pantheon to anyone looking for a solid 10+ hours of classic RPG to lose themselves in. Like me, it will take closer to 12-13 hours to complete your first run, and with a price tag as low as $1.99 during a Steam sale, there’s no reason to miss out. And finally, although the game is a far cry from perfection, I hope we see more from Connor Linning in the near future, for as he says, “If you fear failure, then consider that it is better to fail creating something that fulfills you than to fail creating something that is heartless.”

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Review Score
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About Drew D.

Drew has been an avid gamer most of his life, favoring single-player campaigns. For him, a worthwhile game is one that immerses you; it envelops you and draws out an array of emotions that produce those memorable moments we live for as gamers.