Swords & Zippers: Dear Elena

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In case you’ve somehow missed my enthusing about it, the long-awaited Pandora’s Tower is now available in North America. If you have no idea what Pandora’s Tower is, it’s the third of the three “Operation Rainfall” JRPGs that have been gradually making their way to English-speaking Wii owners across the globe, each of which has well and truly shaken up what people understand by the term “JRPG.”

We last talked about Pandora’s Tower in this column quite a while back, but now it’s officially out for North Americans, I figured it was probably worth revisiting while it’s relevant. So let’s talk about it a bit.

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Lest you’re unfamiliar with the details, Pandora’s Tower is an interesting game in a number of different ways. Firstly, despite technically being a JRPG at its core — there’s exploration, levelling up, collecting items and crafting coupled with a linear, unfolding narrative — it is, in many ways, also a spiritual successor to Team Ico’s Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. You have your environment traversal puzzles of the former, and your epic boss fights of the latter. There’s lots of exploring and working out the best way to get to places that initially appear to be inaccessible, it’s immensely satisfying when you work out a particularly tricky problem and even more satisfying when you single-handedly take down an opponent roughly the size of a small house.

Secondly, it’s one of the best examples of how the Wii’s unique control scheme can be used to make an experience surprisingly immersive through its physicality. While the game can be played with the Classic Controller, you’re missing out if you do so; this is a game obviously built for the Wii Remote and Nunchuk combo. A lot of Pandora’s Tower’s gameplay involves making creative use of an extending “chain” weapon you have — this is aimed with the Wii Remote simply by pointing at the screen, and can be manipulated through a combination of using the Nunchuk’s analog stick and shaking the remote. For example, you can fire the chain at a monster to entangle it, then walk slowly backwards to pull the chain as tight as possible before shaking the remote to “whip” it off the creature, often inflicting some serious damage and/or yanking out some chunks of yummy monster meat in the process. Even in battle against normal enemies, there’s a wonderful sense of actually physically “pulling” on things, but none of the flailing around that accompanies something like the Wii’s Zelda games — the only real “motion” you need to do here is a satisfying snap of the wrist to whip the chain back into your hand.

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Thirdly, and most interestingly for my money, is the fact that the game bucks all the usual JRPG trends of having a large, expansive and/or well-realized world and a huge cast of characters, and instead makes the majority of the experience into what people in the theater business like to call a “two-hander.” That is to say, the vast majority of the game’s narrative unfolds in a single room between just two characters — the player character Aeron, and Elena, the beautiful, cursed girl he’s on a quest to save.

The relationship between Aeron and Elena is just as important — if not more so — than all the leaping around stone pillars and swinging off tree branches that Aeron does in the Thirteen Towers. In fact, the game’s ending is entirely determined by how much time and effort the player has invested into keeping Elena happy over the course of the whole story — bringing her gifts, offering her reassurance and appreciating the things she does for you make her happier; presenting her with a shard of jagged, rusty metal or bottle of dirty water rather than a nice bunch of flowers makes her like you a bit less. Spending too long in the Thirteen Towers without coming back and consequently allowing Elena to get “a bit tentacly” from her curse also makes her like you a bit less, too, because she — understandably — really doesn’t like turning purple and gooey or sprouting additional appendages.

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It’s easy to focus on the overarching plot of Pandora’s Tower – largely because it’s interesting and presented in an unconventional manner — but for me, one of the most compelling things about the whole game is the day-to-day interactions between Aeron and Elena. Their relationship is left deliberately somewhat ambiguous throughout the game, though it’s obvious that they care for one another to a certain degree, otherwise Aeron wouldn’t be risking his life to bring back the curse-reversing monster flesh from the Thirteen Towers, and Elena wouldn’t be spending her time prettying up the abandoned observatory that serves as their base of operations. (She’s a homely girl at heart, is our Elena, though to the game’s credit she manages to come across convincingly “normal” and “non-heroic” most of the time without devolving into “damsel in distress,” despite her unfortunate personal circumstances.)

What isn’t immediately obvious, however, is quite how deep these feelings run — and this is entirely deliberate for two reasons. Firstly, it keeps things open for the various endings and how they relate to the affection level between the two characters. But more importantly, it allows the player to put themselves in the shoes of Aeron and, to a certain extent, “role-play” the relationship. Does Aeron care enough to race back from the Towers before Elena is due to be “on the turn,” or does he focus on getting as far as possible regardless of the pain she might be in? Is Aeron “all business” when it comes to finding, crafting and buying items, or does he have the time (and money) to show his affection for Elena through thoughtful gifts?

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Further evidence of the game very much wanting the player to “be” Aeron in these sequences comes from the fact that all interactions with Elena tend to be from a first-person perspective, and that any time Aeron speaks outside of a cutscene, his dialog is not voiced. This is a little presentational trick more commonly often seen in visual novels, where the protagonist is often not voiced, usually for two reasons: firstly, the amount of dialog a typical visual novel protagonist has would sometimes be prohibitively expensive or impractical to record; secondly — and probably more importantly — keeping the protagonist unvoiced allows the player to “project” themselves onto the character and imagine that it is them taking part in the story rather than a third-person participant narrator. There’s no “narration” in Pandora’s Tower as such, but the principle is the same — by keeping Aeron unvoiced for the most part (and he doesn’t speak much in cutscenes, either), the player is encouraged to think of themselves as “being” Aeron rather than just controlling and/or watching him. In a game whose engagement is so dependent on how much the player cares for the character they are trying to help, this is a sensible idea — by doing this, the player can decide themselves how they feel about Elena, and how hard they want to fight to ease her suffering.

Pandora’s Tower is an eminently noteworthy game, then, and one which all Wii owners (and JRPG fans, for that matter) should really make sure they pick up as soon as possible. As this column frequently demonstrates, the JRPG is alive, well and more than willing to continually take risks when it comes to presentation, storytelling and gameplay, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Pandora’s Tower.

Now get moving. Elena needs you.

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Swords and Zippers is our weekly JRPG column in which we explore the best, worst and most interesting of this diverse and long-standing genre that has fallen somewhat from grace in recent years.

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