There was a long while where Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was the enduring standard of 2D games. Developers were focused on making 3D work, which meant that progress in the pixel space went into hibernation. Things didn’t really kick back into gear until the Xbox Live Arcade days when a market for small games created by small teams popped up overnight. The rise of Steam and the dominance of digital games came soon after. Creators suddenly had the freedom to perfect sprites and crunchy pixels once again. If none of that had happened, an arcadey top-down shooter like Tower 57 wouldn’t have seen the light of day, and we’d all be worse off for it.
Fittingly enough, Tower 57 takes place in and around a “dieselpunk megatower”. This top-down twin stick shooter takes one or two players up and down the elevators through floors of mutants, guards and other targets of ill repute. You can choose three playable characters from a host of eccentric mercenaries, ranging from an Abe Lincoln cosplayer with a flamethrower to a female scientist wielding a lightning gun. If that wasn’t enough, the weaponry and tools at your disposal only get more off the wall from there.
If you think that ripping the top off of an automated turret and then wearing it as a hat/weapon combo seems sensible, then Tower 57 might be the game for you. Once you find a worthy tool of destruction, the game lets you loose in its playground. Levels are highly interactive, with destructible environments and secret rooms ready to be found. Guns have a punch to them and enemies explode into a mess of glibs and coins. If you find yourself in trouble, you can call in a screen-clearing super move that corresponds with your chosen mercenary. It’s all pretty straightforward, but the gameplay is fun, at least to start out.
You see, if all this sounds up your alley, you’ll really want to bring a friend. Tower 57 technically works as a single player experience, but the game was clearly designed with co-op in mind and doesn’t do a great job of rebalancing to accommodate lone wolves. Each of the three characters you choose represents the three lives you have at any given time. If a character dies, they’re dead for good unless you can manage to grab some rare items on your travels. There are spots you can switch out if you take some heavy damage, but it feels as if the game is way harder than intended when you don’t have another character covering you during the more hectic fights.
Another thing that might defy your expectations of Tower 57 is that it isn’t a roguelike. Every level is handcrafted with secrets to discover and specific groups of enemies to fight. On the surface, this seems like a good change of pace, but I’m not sure it works out in the long run. No matter if you’re alone or with a friend, the way the lives system works ensures that you’ll be in some tight jams before long. With the way the difficulty ramped even in my few hours with the game, it seems more than likely that some players will end up trapped with unwinnable saves. At that point, the only option the game gives you is to start all the way back at the tutorial. Poor play is punished with repeated and lengthy dialogue moments that don’t really hit their mark the second time around.
I get it. Procedural levels aren’t for everyone, and games were fine just as they were in the Super Nintendo days. However, there’s a reason that everyone remembers the opening levels of their favorite retro titles, and that’s because 1-UPs and limited continues caused players to play those sections over and over. Many never got to the end, and I’ve always found that procedural games solved that problem amicably. Tower 57 invites the comparison by presenting its handcrafted levels as a major selling point, but I don’t feel like it justifies why going backwards is the best way forward in this case.
If you are all in for a throwback, you will be rewarded by Tower 57‘s amazing graphical style. Another entry in the “modern 16-bit” camp alongside games like Dead Cells, Tower 57 looks like what we all like to imagine a SNES game looked like. Intricate sprites are paired with fast action that never slows down and presentational tricks that have to be seen to be believed. Just as I stopped in my tracks and played around with the reflective mirrors in Duke Nukem 3D, I couldn’t help but walk in circles as I emerged on a second story balcony only to see pieces of the floor I had just visited still visible over a railing. After factoring in all that and an engaging synth soundtrack, Tower 57 became a game where I enjoyed walking around more than playing.
So, unless you have a retro-loving co-op buddy willing to play through hours of battles, I can’t really recommend Tower 57. It’s a gorgeous game with an old-school heart and absurd sensibilities, but it fails to put its best foot forward when you go in blind and alone. The game locks weapon combination mechanics and a reasonable difficulty behind a second player, which will be agreeable to a lot of folks, but was offputting to me. Bring a friend, know what you’re getting into, and you’ll have a great time.
Tower 57 was played on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.