The announcement of the Retro Video Game System, a cartridge-based console, is the latest case study in the debate of whether gaming should continue evolving beyond its roots.
Tales From The Game Shelf: Pandora’s Tower
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Most people are probably familiar with this quote, often attributed to the Greek philosopher Aristotle. As a critic of media, my job entails the examination of all the parts that comprise the medium I’m analyzing. In the case of videogames, this often means looking at components like gameplay, story, graphics, and sound. When viewed on their own, all of the parts that make up Pandora’s Tower at first seem like a cacophonic mess.
Combat is similar to action games like God of War or Castlevania. The imagery used is an odd mix of high fantasy and body horror. Boss fights often play out like smaller scale versions of the battles against the titanic foes from Shadow of the Colossus. A major component of the game involves giving gifts and being nice to a girl, much like the mechanics in a dating sim. The voice acting is an awkward mix of exuberance and almost lifeless flatness. Perhaps the most damning mark for some, the core of the game’s narrative is a love story that centers on saving a damsel in distress.
By that brief overview, it would stand to reason that much of this game shouldn’t work. It’s a hodgepodge of gameplay styles and mechanics, wrapped in visual aesthetic that seems somewhat misguided, with a story that’s been done a thousand times before.
But it all works, and I love it all the more for it.
Few games stand as testaments to being greater than the sum of their parts more than Pandora’s Tower. It succeeds in being one of the most entertaining, engaging, and narratively engrossing games I’ve ever played. It’s that last part that I’d like to talk about more in particular. For all of the love stories in videogames, I can think of very few that have made me experience, indifference, concern, happiness, dread, remorse, and joy the way that the relationship between Aeron and Elena did.
First, let’s set the stage. In the year of 511 of the Unified Era, war has erupted between the nations of Elyria and Athos. Our story opens during Elyria’s harvest festival where one of our two protagonists, Elena, has been chosen to sing at the festival. In the crowd is Aeron, a former soldier of Athos, who Elena nursed back to health after finding him injured on the battlefield. The two have since lived together, despite being from two opposing countries, have formed a strong bond with one another. Unfortunately, during the performance Elena undergoes a sudden transformation into a monster and begins to go berserk. After the carnage settles, Aeron finds her and with the aid of the strange and goblin like Mavda, the group escapes the city, the soldiers of Elyria still in pursuit.
Mavda, a member of the ancient tribe of the Vestra, informs Aeron that Elena has been cursed and the only way to lift the affliction is for Aeron to venture to The Scar, a vast chasm in the wastelands. There Aeron will find Pandora’s Tower, a massive structure that hangs above vast abyss, which is comprised of a series of smaller towers. Each of these towers is governed by a Master, giant creatures that guard each of the elemental biomes that comprise Pandora’s Tower. To lift the curse and save Elena, Aeron must defeat the 12 Masters and bring back a portion of their flesh, the aptly named master flesh, which Elena must then devour.
It’s that last little part that I found particularly interesting. At first the story goes through the ropes of, “hero’s true love is cursed, hero must slay evil beasts to lift the curse,” but then there’s that last bit. Hero must feed his love, the flesh of monsters in order to prevent her from becoming a monster. In his quest to defeat the masters, Aeron will also have to rip the flesh from lesser foes to feed to Elena in order to delay her transformation. This adds a very important time management aspect to the game and is also part of that whole dating sim aspect I mentioned earlier. In addition to little trinkets you find in the towers and the various goods you can purchase from Mavda, who acts like the game’s main shop and weapon upgrader, you will also need to periodically return to the little house at outside of the tower, to give Elena flesh to eat. The longer you take, the worse her transformation gets.
I’ll admit, at first I didn’t care much for either Aeron or Elena. Aeron hardly speaks and when he does it sounds very stilted and awkward and Elena starts out like a pretty stock damsel in distress character. As time went on though, I started to like the two of them more and more. While Aeron isn’t a man of many words, he does show that he cares through his actions. Whether it’s as grandiose as slaying a massive beast and ripping out its flesh, or just sitting down to a nice, normal meal with Elena, Aeron shows his admiration for Elena in potent fashion that rarely needs the addition of words. Elena grows more as a character too, as we see her doing small things around the house like reading old books, cooking meals, and planting flowers outside the tower. The player watches as Elena tries to carve out a sense of normalcy for both herself and Aeron while struggling to deal with the curse.
The whole fighting monsters one moment and spending time with your girlfriend the next is a weird tonal shift in gameplay styles at first but it works surprisingly well. Little things like Elena calling out your name and waving hello or goodbye to you as you return or leave for the tower, or listening to her excitedly tell you about something she read in one of the books she discovered makes for a nice and somewhat relaxing change of pace. The game does a great job humanizing both characters and making them relatable and interesting. The things that annoyed me at first, like Aeron’s awkward and short bits of dialogue or Elena’s constant fretting over Aeron’s safety each time he goes back to the tower, soon became endearing and were things I accepted as parts of the character’s personality.
This didn’t make what comes next any less painful to watch though.
With each new piece of master flesh Aeron brings to Elena, an unusual and disturbing element comes to light. At first, Elena can barely stand the idea of eating meat in general. We learn early on that much of the Elyrian peoples’ diet consist of a vegetarian lifestyle. Elena can barely bring herself to sink her teeth into even the tiniest piece of flesh, let alone attempt to swallow the whole chunk. But, with each subsequent Master defeated and each new hunk of flesh delivered, the player begins to notice an unnerving fact. Elena not only grows accustomed to the flesh, but soon begins to actually crave it. As the last few pieces of flesh are gathered, Aeron Mavada watch as the young woman consumes the hunks of flesh with ravenous glee. This made me question my overall goal in the game.
Was I really saving the damsel or just causing her further distress? In my quest to save her, was I simply turning her into a monster? Could I really trust Mavda’s words? Was I simply slaughtering innocent creatures that I saw as monsters?
That element is what makes me enjoy this story so much. To have the game build up these characters, to make me go from not caring for them, to rooting for their success and then make me question my actions towards achieving that goal. For me, this was a brilliant turn of pace. It turns what would have otherwise been a fairly stale and common story cliché into a quest of moral ambiguity, wrapped in a veneer of body horror and fear. Pandora’s Tower soon became more than a love story set to an action RPG. It transformed to reveal its true core, a horror story steeped in fears both physical and psychological as I watched this strange but endearing tale of two lovers unfold.
Aeron and Elena’s tale is but one of the love stories present in Pandora’s Tower. As Elena consumes each piece of master flesh, visions of another couple begin to surface in her mind and as Elena and Aeron’s story continues to unfold, so too does the tale of the couple from the vision. In addition to seeing a tale of two lovers, the player also watches the story of that love’s eventual metamorphosis, the love of a family and the love of a parent for their child. I won’t say any more than that, as doing so would spoil a part of the story that I think deserves to be experienced firsthand, rather than told secondhand.
Pandora’s Tower is a game of many mismatched parts. However, when these parts are assembled into their final whole, the end result is a game that while flawed, is still a cut above the rest. While the other two games of the Operation Rainfall trio often get more praise and acclaim, and deservedly so as both are excellent titles in their own right, Pandora’s Tower ended up being my favorite of the three. It might not be as long or as aesthetically pleasing as the two that came before it, but I’d argue it had more heart. I could scarcely think of a more fitting swan song for the Wii to go out on.