Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Parasite Eve retrospective review
Welcome to a retrospective review of what was often overlooked by the gaming press during its time but has since been recognised by many as a classic. Parasite Eve is a survival horror title with role-playing elements that I recently replayed for only the second time, and the first for many many years. It never saw release in PAL regions, but my advise is to do whatever you can to play this gem.
Released in 1998, during a time when Square was at the top of their game with titles like Final Fantasy VII, Xenogears and Final Fantasy Tactics conquering all, Parasite Eve was a breath of fresh air, especially with its modern day setting and its take on survival horror. Its likely inspiration was probably the rise of the genre made popular by Resident Evil just two years earlier. While the storyline, environmental setting, flawed science, fixed perspective and even the FMVs were created to evoke games like Resident Evil and Alone in the Dark, the gameplay is still largely RPG-centric with experience points and turn-based battles taking centre point when it comes to combat. Despite that Parasite Eve's main call to fame is its concise storyline, often told via a then unprecedented cinematic sequences.
The story revolves around Aya Brea, a feisty NYPD newbie copper who while attending an opera on Christmas Eve in modern day Manhattan, witnesses her fellow audience goers bursting into flames due to some unexplained supernatural occurrence. The only people unaffected are Aya, her companion (whom she knocks down in the most comical fashion) and an actress on the stage, Melissa Pearce. Confronting Melissa, who seems to be behind the phenomenon, Aya is told cryptically that her own mitochondria (a micro-organism capable of gaining control of their human host) is awakening. Melissa then escapes, not before tuning into a beast called Eve. Questions are also asked as Aya realises that she is immunised from Eve's power as well as the mysterious apparition of her dead sister Maya.
Parasite Eve is divided into six chapters over six days. During these six days, you are taken through various scenic and famous New York backdrops such as Central Park, the American Museum of Natural History, Liberty Island etc. as Aya and her allies attempts to uncover the mystery of why Melissa's mitochondria has gained control over its host as well as the reason behind Aya's own supernatural power and her relation with Melissa. As you progress, Eve will start unleashing her power on the residents of New York, forcing an evacuation of the city as Aya and her allies race to battle the creatures that are spawning through Eve's vengeful powers. To make matters worse, a Japanese scientist has also theorise that Eve is attempting to give birth to the 'Ultimate Being', forcing a determined Aya to defeat her and save the human race from the rebelling mitochondria. The science is a load of nonsense, but nothing you would not expect from a video game or other form of entertainment media.
Like many survival horror games during the time period, as well as Square's own PSone Final Fantasy games, Parasite Eve features a fixed perspective landscape. As Aya, you walk around the environment and investigate searching for key items. Navigating the field map is bearable though the collision detection system can prove annoying. The fact that Aya seems to be the slowest character ever created, makes matter worse. Fortunately because battle isn't action-based, these are minor concern particularly when battling with multiple enemies. Battles are triggered randomly, though only when you enter certain areas. Battles takes place on the field map, similar to the modern title Crisis Core, though invisible barriers/walls exists to prevent you from running away easily.
The battle system is a unique mixture of real-time and turn-based. An Active Time Bar (ATB) indicates when it is possible to attack, but in between you can move around almost freely dodging the enemies attack in real time as well as positioning yourself for the next attack. Every time you choose to attack, a wire frame dome appears highlighting the range of the weapon equipped. Spells can be cast if you have enough Parasite Energy, which recharges over time. Bonus Points, gained when levelling-up, can be distributed however you see fit, for example you can augment your weapons stats or reduce the ATB recharge time. Weapons and armours can also be 'tuned-up', by transferring key attributes (parameters) or effects to the weapons/armours of your choice via tools. With Bonus Points and tools, you won't ever find any problems customising Aya to your heart's content.
Polygonal games from the time period has not aged particularly well, but playing this recently I found the title to be still extremely playable. Obviously it doesn't fair well with today's modern titles, but I wouldn't call it ugly. The use of fixed perspective pre-rendered background obviously helped, and the FMVs are still pretty enough to be still watchable with proportional polygonal models used, no doubt gained from Hironobu Sakaguchi's aspiration for film like cinematography (which led to Square's doomed Spirits Within project). Unfortunately the use of proportional models during gameplay meant that you will spend most of the time watching some pretty clumsy animation of Aya, whose lack of facial expression can be off-putting. To be honest, it could probably be better if they have used some form of super deformed characters, but the atmosphere might not be the same.
The soundtrack was composed by Yoko Shimomura (Front Mission, Kingdom Hearts) giving Parasite Eve a unique sound of its own with a mixture of electronica, piano and opera inspired pieces. But while giving the game an atmospheric sound, the music are not terribly catchy, therefore unmemorable. There are no voice acting in this title, which isn't surprising considering the year of release. Sound effects are above average, certainly nothing to write home about. But they do lend credibility to a game where creating an atmospheric setting for the player is very important. Often during exploration there would be no other audio except for Aya's footsteps, creating an eerie echo as you investigate a quiet New York backdrop.
Parasite Eve isn't a particularly long game. In fact one of the downside often cited by detractors is its lack of length. Experience RPG gamers will likely complete this under 8 hours easily - perfect for a weekend run, though newbies will likely stretch it a little bit, and even then the on-rails linearity and B-movie vibe may put some off. The game features a New Game+ mode, called the EX mode which allows you to replay the game with higher difficulty while retaining your equipments, as well as a bonus endurance mission at the famous Chrysler building. However despite being first released ten years ago, the character driven story still holds up well as being both unique and fresh - perhaps a testament to the decent enough source material, as well as having the scenario writer of Final Fantasy IV and/or the current JRPG staleness. It is a fun and engaging game and despite it cheap scares, is well worth hunting down or for PAL gamers - getting dirty with CFW.
Parasite Eve is no longer in print. You could however read the Japanese novel in which the game is the sequel to, available in both hardback and paperback. The game has since spawned a direct sequel (which scrapped any traces of RPG elements), and a forthcoming spin-off for FOMA-powered phones entitled The Third Birthday.