It's always difficult for in-game critique to balance the pedestal between personal feelings and perceived objective quality. Almost akin to loving an obviously terrible film (though the comparison is an extreme one in this case), there are times when a game, despite its notable flaws, has a certain charm to its other aspects that make for an enjoyable experience outside its primary function of fun and entertainment. Towards the Pantheon has a number of issues that I feel make it a rather dull experience if one is particularly familiar with the formula, though has enough gusto to carve its name unto the crevices of my cerebral cortex.
Towards the Pantheon is available on Steam for your regional pricing.
The game's focal point is nothing to write home about. A girl in a village is sent by her village elder to defeat an oppressive evil that has gained prominence in the land by pitting every other species against one another. She will recruit friends, fight bad guys, and go against the forces of clearly evil, of whom consist of terrible soldiers without a shred of empathy and scary-looking uniforms. Point being, it's good versus evil, it's going to a town to recruit a member of the species home to that area, it's collecting various things as fetch quest items to progress. It's cliché, it's overdone, it's standard fare. There is very little about The Sworn Light that is described with acute detail, only the murmurs of various NPCs and notes randomly lying around that provide a pinch of context (I've noticed this is starting to become a popular thing to do in games). Nothing that differentiates them from other various evil organizations in other JRPG types. It feels immensely lazy, though based on other things about this game, it's better to say it just wasn't added.
The most notable aspect of this game from my experience with it is that it's incredibly small. The typical runtime for JRPG epics spanning across time is more around the forty-hour range, while I completed this game with minimal attention dedicated to sidequests in under ten hours. There's simply so little here that it's hard to find myself really recommending it because it leaves people wanting far more out of it than what it provides, and that goes for both its narrative and its gameplay content. This underlying context of a society that has fallen to the power of The Sworn Light, with note-clippings of various historical events scattered everywhere that don't mean all that much with unfamiliar names and areas and terms, is lost in just how much is present with such a short runtime. The proper pacing cannot be established and it becomes harder for players to care about what they're fighting for, though this isn't an issue for those who only wish to fight. It's a very ambitious game, which I will always applaud, but it needs to have more there, more meat to chew on and more spice to embellish what's already there.
There is one thing that saves the game from being completely forgettable narrative-wise, and such is with its characters. Freyja on her own presents an unfortunate display of loneliness and mounting expectations on the part of a young girl on her way to face an ultimate evil whose influence spreads all throughout her environment. It isn't until she meets with other characters she recruits as the game goes on that the game becomes far more appealing. Bam the cat, Mishima the "electropunk" (cyborg, basically), and Phenez the ghost all make likable and, most importantly, memorable characters who have a strong sense of camaraderie that took me by great surprise. There is a somewhat unique aspect to this game in campfire dialogues where the characters will simply sit around a campfire and talk to one another. A little detail such as this makes a world of difference in making the characters, and their situations, feel more alive. It brings a team chemistry to the game that makes the characters easier to get behind. And knowing how many different dialogues there are in the game, I've almost become tempted to read them all just to get a better glimpse into these characters. Frankly, the main characters of Towards the Pantheon trump many other characters in JRPGs I've played in my lifetime, especially in chemistry. They're all so darn cute.
One of the things the description of the game on Steam will use as an advertising tool is how they try to twist the standards of the genre in its gameplay. There are no elemental enemies/attacks, no "elves, inns, or generic love stories." This is a really pretty way of saying, "This game is pretty straightforward." And it is! Along with the lack of content involved with making the story very fleshed out, it makes the battle system feel pretty lackluster, as well. However, there is a bit of a silver lining to this, as I'm sure plenty have personal preferences towards the complexity of a battle system in JRPGs. Think of it as Paper Mario versus the Tales of franchise.
Towards the Pantheon is a turn-based JRPG system that, while uses a lot of points, isn't very complex about anything. A certain attack costs this much HP or "NP" or "EP." Certain point systems refill with each turn while others decrease through user activity. These points increase upon every level up, but a character's alternate statistics, such as Attack and Defense (two of only three statistics in the game outside the point systems), only increase through rare items. Don't think one will be able to improve their stats to oblivion. Based on my experience, Defense can only be increased to two, from one, though perhaps the sidequests provide a little extra cushion. The max I got Attack up to was five, and the same can be said for the third statistic: Accuracy.
One can learn different moves and specific quirks (such as seeing an enemy's health) through leveling up characters, which is presented through a chain-like graphic. One can activate specific boosts through a centipede-like pathway that leads to other, better upgrades such as better critical-hit ratios or better attacks. Much like the battle system, the process of leveling up is equally straightforward. Even more so, Towards the Pantheon isn't particularly hard. I died twice near the very beginning due to some unlucky crits against me and a general non-acclimation to the game's flow, but once I acquired Bam, the game was little more than a breeze during Spring. Items practically fall into your lap and with the amount of gold given to you with every battle, buying items at every major area provides every opportunity to stock up on supplies for every situation. Whether it be four enemies at once, bosses, or even the final boss, I had very little trouble after I got the hang of things.
One other thing I'll mention about the battle system is the use of combos, which are little reward boosts or attacks that require specific cards that are found throughout the land to use. They are essentially useless. Again, the game's short runtime makes them little more than a side thing that makes the game, even more, easier than it already is, and they're very skimmed over in terms of how or why the player should feel inclined to use them. I used maybe three combos throughout the entire stretch of the game, with one of those times only testing to see if I could do it. With how minimally one needs to grind and how much gold one can acquire without using combos, the only useful are ones that are used as attacks, which are nice, but ultimately unnecessary. I batted my eyes at whenever I found a random card in a treasure chest.
Much of the game requires running around, puzzle-solving, fetching items for quests, and using characters' out-of-battle abilities to access new areas. These things are nice on their own, though usually situational. Some of the puzzle solving elements were neat—I could've gone for some better variety of them. The requirement of using other characters to progress was another neat system that I felt could've been amplified more. Would've been nice to know that one character has to use a button I never used previously to activate his ability, though. Would've saved me an hour of running around aimlessly—perhaps I should note that in my total runtime: Under ten hours, plus an hour of running around because I wasn't sure what to do. Towards the Pantheon can lay claim to one thing (as far as my knowledge goes), however: enemy encounters not being random. To access a battle, one has to run into sporadically-appearing symbols on the map that hover in one place for a few seconds. This is a godsend because having to run around constantly being warped into battle while trying to realize what to do in a specific area is very annoying. This is one less thing to deal with. For those who also feel they've done enough grinding to go through comfortably can skip ahead to all the narrative-driven sequences and events without having to battle once (excluding bosses). It's nice to have that option.
In the most unfortunate events, a more general complaint is that the game is fairly unpolished. I was triggering dialogues with characters over walls, I walked into a tree and triggered an unending walking animation, despite getting an ability that caused more point generation per specific move it always defaulted to the base amount, every battle triggers an animation that has two waves of black meet in the middle only to immediately show a battle (it just feels off), many areas just have really long ladders to climb instead of actual environment to traverse, and perhaps most painfully, a game-crashing bug that occured while fighting the final boss. Things like this make a game even harder to recommend because it'd be like recommending a nice shirt with little holes in it. Most games I've played per review by indie developers have had a few bugs here and there, but this case had a notable number of bugs that made the general experience suffer more than an occasional shrug.
Graphics and Audio
I adore pixel graphics. I've made that known in prior reviews here. Towards the Pantheon features pixel graphics, so my praise of the game may sound somewhat biased. Nevertheless, I'm not overly fond of the way the characters' designs are in this game. They look a little too bug-eyed, a little too simplified for the overall more gaudy look of the game. Not to say the game looks self-important, but the level of quality in the pixel art is much more notable in the environments and architecture. The art of the campfire dialogues involving the main characters is also really nice, though it'd be nicer if they moved, or emoted, or did anything.
Another notable thing from the Steam description of the game is that the development of the game wanted to incorporate horror elements into a JRPG game. There is one sequence in the game where the party explores an eerie house of horrors (my personal favorite part of the game, minus jump scares), and the level of detail in general aesthetic is so much more involved than many other parts of the game that it's a shame the developer didn't just make a horror game. So many visual tricks and spooky foreshadowing was exemplified by the uncanniness of the pixel animation depicting realistically horrible situations. Generally, I enjoyed the look of the game, though in this specific case it went way over the top and I was thrilled with the effort shown.
On the basis of sound, it's more of a mixed bag of semi-catchy tunes and atmospheric hums. I will note that playing the game while wearing headphones makes the sound quality diminish somewhat, which only makes the generally unpolished portions of the game all the more scathing. Some tracks were genuinely great, with the little snippet of music accompanying fast-travel devices (in the form of riding on giant hamsters) being an easy favorite. There's a general tone of the game's soundtrack that makes the journey more memorable, but not so much that one wishes to track down the original soundtrack through other means. Essentially, it's good, though not great.
With a heavy heart, I have to commend the game for doing just enough for me to give this a rather subpar score, despite how invested I was with the characters by the end. The generally unpolished aspects regarding the level design and coding elements of the game are a hard sin to forgive, with the incredibly straightforward narrative and combat system being extra weights to drag along. Even so, the ambition and effort placed on the game is more than admirable, and my thoughts with it were positive more than otherwise in the end. The case may have been overambition; I've found it's better to shoot high than to not shoot at all.
|+ Characters are fun and have great chemistry||– In need of serious polishing gameplay-wise|
|+ Pixel art is impressive in most cases||– Big world, little content|
|+ The game has a lot of heart||– Narrative and battle system too simple|