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Animal rights campaigners PETA are becoming (in)famous for targeting what they believe to be unethical videogames. Cooking Mama's pro-meat agenda came under fire in their 'Mama Kills Animals' spoof, while Mario earned their ire for allegedly promoting fur by wearing his raccoon suit. But nothing PETA cook up (so to speak) can put us off the flesh like Pandora's Tower. Meat isn't murder in Ganbarion's hack-and-slasher. Meat is disgusting.
The synopsis reads like one of David Cronenberg's body horrors: branded with the 'Mark of the Beast', a young girl must scoff raw monster hearts to suppress her own demonic mutation into a... slug... thing. When we first meet Elena she's already peckish, as evidenced by the slurping tendrils growing from her back. It's an unusually grotesque setup for a Nintendo-published title. We're used to games kicking off with stolen cakes, not disfigured ladies. At least it gives the game dramatic impetus from the outset.
We get to play best friend/impromptu butcher Aeron. He delivers monster organs harvested from inside the titular tower. Very much the hunter-gatherer. Or should that be hunter-gatherer-puker? Watching Elena chew on raw entrails is grim stuff. She chokes, retches and weeps gloopy tears as she gulps down blubbery mouthfuls. Where's Mary Poppins and her spoonful of sugar when you need her? It helps the medicine go down, you know. And failing that, Aeron could easily harvest the batty nanny's entrails.
Murdering a cherished children's icon? The fact we'd go to such hypothetical extremes is down to Pandora's Tower's manipulative hook: the longer Aeron spends finding a cure, the further Elena descends into illness. The entire game is played to a ticking clock - that circular meter in the left-hand corner of the screen. The further it fills, the more slugified Elena becomes. Spend all day larking about in the tower and she begins to resemble the melting man at the end of Robocop. And you don't want to come home to that after a busy day of towering.
It's here that Ganbarion's nifty RPG element kicks in. Limited inventory space asks Aeron to balance power against defence, and weigh both against the space available for carrying stuff. A healthy Aeron is no good if he can't fit meat in his bag. Do you try and push through the towers in one epic dash or retreat back to the base to upgrade items with a strange goblin trainer, Graiai? Popping back home lets you dose Elena with scraps torn from minor enemy fodder, but only a boss heart can eliminate the disease for good. It's surprisingly thoughtful stuff for a hack-and-slash actioner.
Surprisingly tender stuff, too. Pandora's Tower depends largely on us investing in the relationship between Elena and Aeron. In the first few hours it's a chaste affair, more brotherly than romantic. The fact Elena resembles a Turkey Twizzler probably factors into that. Aeron keeps Elena's spirits high by buying gifts from Graiai. Shopping at a time like this? It's worth doing - their affinity decides which of five endings you get. What good is curing Elena if she's going to be all mardy about that Die Hard DVD boxset you got her? Hell hath no fury like a slug woman scorned.