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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Parasite Eve: Survival-Horror for RPG Fanatics














I remember seeing copies of Parasite Eve on store shelves all the time back in the day. Curious, I'd pick it up, feel somewhat intrigued by the premise, but ultimately always ended up passing on it. Being a game by Squaresoft with the tagline "the cinematic RPG," I was worried the game would be all style and no substance. Since I'm in my current trend of playing old PlayStation games on my PSP when I'm away from home, and since the game is cheap enough to download, I figured now was as good a time as any to give the game a shot.

When a game describes itself as being "cinematic," I interpret that to mean the game wants to be like a movie. To me, that means a game should emphasize its visuals, its story, and its characters, to make the game's overall presentation more closely resemble that of a typical Hollywood movie. Well the bad news for Parasite Eve is that its story and characters are absolute garbage, and nearly all of the game's audio-visual aesthetics fail to impress outside out of the pre-rendered cutscenes. Thankfully the gameplay is pretty good, providing an interesting blend of RPG and survival-horror elements, but that's the game's only saving grace.

The game begins with the main character, Aya Brea, a young NYPD rookie, arriving at an opera house with her date on Christmas eve. During the opera, the lead actress Melissa performs her solo and everyone except for Aya bursts into flames. Melissa singles Aya out and comments about them having the same power, then flees backstage. Aya pursues Melissa and soon learns that their mitochondria have evolved so that they each possess supernatural powers, and that Melissa (now referring to herself as Eve) is causing other people's mitochondria to over-produce energy to the point that everyone spontaneously combusts within her presence.

The opening Opera Scene of Parasite Eve.

The entire game takes place over the course of six days as Aya and her partner, Daniel, investigate the phenomenon and try to put a stop to Eve's plan of eradicating inferior human life. The set-up is fairly interesting, but the rest of the game does little to build on the premise. The rest of the game can be safely described as a wild goose chase with Aya and Daniel racing back and forth between the district 17 police station, and wherever Eve happens to appear next. There's some kind of backstory going on that explains why Aya has the "mitochondria powers" and what her relation to Eve is, but it feels forced and doesn't add anything to the story.

The bulk of the actual story-telling happens during dialogue sequences where characters are either standing perfectly still, or sitting in a car on their way to or from the police station. During these scenes, there's no music whatsoever and none of the characters are voiced (which isn't a bad thing by itself), so you're often sitting in complete silence while these characters go back and forth with their inane dialogue. Typically while you're doing the actual gameplay, Daniel and/or Maeda (a Japanese scientist they bump into on the street) are off-screen doing research, and then they show up to dump expository diarrhea on you. 

Virtually all of the characters' explanations for what's going on in the plot is filled to the brim with biological pseudoscience, as if it was written by someone who took a biology class once in their life and decided to throw terms around without really understanding what they're talking about. Meanwhile, the writing often feels clunky and awkward. Whenever a character is explaining to Aya what he found out off-screen, she periodically repeats the last thing they said in the form of a question. It's like the whole scene was written as one long monologue, and then someone realized they had to make a dialogue or else it would be too boring, and so they just had Aya ask mindless questions to fill up space. This is an actual excerpt:
Maeda: I came across some findings... mmm... yes... First of all, there was blood serum with Maya's name labeled on it in the freezer.
Aya: ...My sister's name... And...?
Maeda: Well... the research code for it was called EVE...
Aya: EVE?! Then EVE really IS...
Maeda: It appears to have been made up of liver cells. He was culturing them in the past.
Aya: What do you mean, culturing? What for...?
Maeda: Recently, it appears he was conducting research on artificial sperm... For Eve, of course...
Aya: ...For Eve...?
Maeda: Err... yes... he wanted to exclude the mitochondria from the sperm and create new sperm... Sperm with no parasites... Sperm with only the nucleus...
Aya: Sperm without... the mitochondria...?
The awkward, tedious monotony of dialogue scenes is further accentuated by the fact that characters spend most of the time standing completely still. Every so often they make some kind of gesture, but it looks stiff and clunky. Turning in place, for example -- an animation that happens anytime a character turns to address another character -- puts the character into their normal walking animation while they slowly rotate in place. Not only does it look bad, but it slows down the flow of dialogue when you have to sit there waiting for them to get into place before the next line of dialogue actually starts. It's equally disappointing that there's no benefit in talking to people multiple times -- after getting out of a cutscene, if you try talking to someone they'll just repeat their last line of dialogue from the cutscene.

Not that you'd want to talk to anyone, anyway, since none of the characters have any real personality. They're entirely one-dimensional and never develop or evolve beyond their one, shallow trait. Daniel is the hard-assed cop, Maeda is the meek scientist, and so on. They just exist to have someone explain what's going on to Aya (and thus, the player), not because they serve any real purpose in the story. Daniel, for instance, has a divorced wife and a son who serve as his motivation, but his interactions with his son feel hollow and meaningless, and even though he feels a great deal of anguish when Lorraine dies (spoiler alert), it's impossible to sympathize with him because they never bothered to develop that relationship.

I found the threat of Eve especially difficult to care about, which made the entire game an obligatory chore of getting to the end just to be done with it. For starters, Eve isn't characterized as anything more than your stereotypical monstrous villain who wants to destroy life because they're superior. She's not exactly unique or memorable. Secondly, aside from two 30-second cutscenes where opera audiences are set on fire, you don't get to see her actually doing anything to anyone or anything. There's no tension and nothing's at stake, except for something Eve might theoretically do. New York gets completely evacuated halfway through the game, and at that point there's literally no one around for Eve to pose any threat towards. So it just feels like an arbitrarily forced conflict between heroine and villain.

The police car: where 50% of the story is told.

Fortunately, the gameplay makes up for most of the story's shortcomings, and makes the game somewhat worthwhile. Parasite Eve is commonly described as a mixture between Resident Evil and Final Fantasy VII, in the sense that it's a survival-horror game with a leveling system, stats, and quasi-turn-based combat. The game is divided between story segments and gameplay segments; when you're not watching a cutscene or cycling through dialogue, you're typically alone in one of Manhattan Island's various locales fighting strange, mutated monsters, collecting loot, and managing a limited inventory, while collecting keys and finding other ways to advance to the desired location.

Parasite Eve has all of the essential ingredients of a survival-horror game, but it doesn't go all the way with those elements. As with any survival-horror game, you're all alone in desolate environments fighting grotesque monsters, but it's tough to feel on-edge walking around ordinary Manhattan, especially considering the monsters always feel like a random encounter from a JRPG. You have to collect ammunition for your weapons, but there's an over-abundance of ammo so there's never any risk of running out. You can collect items to restore your health, but these items are plentiful as well and you can even heal yourself using "parasite energy," which periodically recharges on its own. You can only save in designated areas, but unlike Resident Evil, you don't also need a consumable item to save your game.

The RPG elements are there as well, in an equally subtle fashion. Battles are fought using a modified "active time" system from Chrono Trigger or FFVII. After every battle you gain experience points that go towards leveling up, which increases your character's stats in various ways. At each level-up you're awarded a variable amount of "bonus points" (which decreases the more damage you take) that you can allocate into different stats. Weapons and armor have different stats and effects, and you can upgrade them using bonus points or other consumable items. Much of your success in combat is based on your character's skills and stats. But a lot of this is loosely comparable to the upgradeable equipment stats in Resident Evil 4, which no one would ever consider an RPG. 

Combat is Parasite Eve's most interesting aspect and is perhaps the most compelling reason to play the game. Combat is quasi-turn-based and uses the same mechanics as the active time system from previous Squaresoft games, meaning you have to wait for a gauge to fill up before you can execute commands. The key difference in PE is that you're free to move around while the gauge charges. This is essential for dodging enemy attacks and making sure you're within range to hit an enemy when the gauge fills up. The camera typically assumes an overhead angle with enemies using melee and ranged attacks, requiring that you learn their patterns so you know where to stand or how to move.

An example boss fight in Parasite Eve.

When the action gauge fills up you can enter a command to shoot an enemy by selecting them. A gun's stats affect its efficacy in battle, but one of the most important stats is its range -- when you select the attack option, a wire-frame dome appears around you, indicating your accurate range. Enemies within the dome are likely to be hit, enemies outside will be missed. You're also more likely to score critical hits at close range. So combat has this fun nuance of trying to stay far enough away from enemies to avoid being hit, while also staying close enough to fire accurately, as well as finding the right moment to attack. Getting up close to an enemy is a high-risk behavior because you're more likely to get hit, but it also comes with a high reward of scoring critical hits. 

Besides conventional arms, you also have special mitochondria powers that function similarly to magic spells in a fantasy RPG. Instead of consuming mana, you consume parasite energy, a meter that regenerates on its own, but regenerates more slowly the more magic you use. As you level-up you unlock more skills, including basic healing spells, buffs, debuffs, and special attacks. These special skills are nice for the sake of variety, but buffs and debuffs don't last nearly long enough to feel worthwhile, since they only seem to last two rounds and then you're stuck recasting it. Other skills like "Liberate" border on being game-breaking, and the "Scan" skill (which displays an enemy's health and weaknesses) is totally useless against bosses, the only enemies for whom you'd actually want to know that information. As a result, I used magic primarily for healing. 

The combat system balances the strategic appeal of certain turn-based RPGs while providing some of the fun, engaging qualities of an action game. The main reason I wanted to play Parasite Eve was just to try out of the combat, because I don't think I've ever played anything like it. It feels pretty unique, and that alone makes the game worth playing. Unfortunately, the game doesn't always give you easy camera angles to work with, sometimes making it very difficult to perceive depth and thus making it harder to dodge attacks, and basic actions like reloading a gun takes five or six button presses across three different sub-menus. 

The joys of sewer levels. 

Furthermore, Parasite Eve commits the cardinal sin of featuring a sewer level, complete with repetitive, labyrinthine corridors and the most obnoxious status-inducing enemies in the entire game. All of the corridors are literally carbon copies of one another, so it's hard to wrap your head around where you are relative to other corridors if you're trying to explore everywhere for hidden loot, and the enemies all have a tendency to inflict poison and blindness on you. Enemies always spawn in groups of four or five, and the moment you stop to shoot one of them you're basically guaranteed to become blinded by an enemy because your feet are rooted to the floor during the shooting animation. Sewer levels seem to suck in every game ever, and this game is one of the worst offenders. 

The game's overall difficulty was somewhat sporadic. I made it through the entire game with relative ease, never once using any of the equipment upgrade items I'd collected. I just didn't see the point in upgrading a gun or armor that would inevitably become obsolete the moment I found a better one, so I just stockpiled them. When I got to the final boss, I found myself getting my ass kicked and finally had to use all of those upgrades and customize my equipment. I ended up dying 4-5 times against a multi-stage final boss that can basically one-shot you at numerous points, after only dying a couple of times in the entire game. I wish the main gameplay emphasized the survival elements more, and that final boss were a little less cheap.

That mannish figure.

Visually, Parasite Eve gets by with adequacy but doesn't impress very much. Most of the character models look pretty good for the time (especially compared to FF7's models), but Aya in particular looked incredibly mannish with her broad shoulders and narrow waist. Most of the animations, though, look stiff and clunky. The pre-rendered 2D backgrounds all look decent, but ultimately feel a bit grainier than similar games of the time. Musically, Parasite Eve is bit of a disappointment. It often feels like there's no music in the game, with the same few themes repeating ad nauseam. Sound effects for things like gunshots always sound tinny and unsatisfying. In general, there's just not much sound in the game.

Parasite Eve uniquely blends survival-horror and RPG elements together, and despite not being especially great in either category, the combination works well enough to be a satisfying gameplay experience. The overall experience could be greatly improved, however, by enhancing both the survival-horror and RPG mechanics. The combat feels totally unique and is reason enough to play the game. It's just disappointing that, for a game describing itself as "the cinematic RPG," the story, characters, and general presentation are all rubbish. I'll probably be playing Parasite Eve 2 sometime in the near future; hopefully they'll have improved on my criticisms of the original. 

6 comments:

  1. This is why you avoid Square games.

    Also, Parasite Eve 2 is garbage. It has typical survival horror mechanics, except without the horror. I don't know why they trashed the combat system. They were moving in the right direction with it and Vagrant Story, but Square just loves to play in the muck, I guess. Also, the story is even stupider and spends ten hours going nowhere. Please don't waste your time on it. You have better things to play and better things to write about.

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  2. A list of worthwhile turn-based Jap games:
    Fire Emblem
    Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance
    Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn
    Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon
    Fire Emblem: Heroes of Light and Shadow (only obtainable through illegitimate means, sadly)
    Stop wasting your time with Squareshit and just play the good stuff.

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    1. The first bit of bad news is that I'm already working my way through FF6, so that's going to be one of my next reviews. The second bit of bad news is that none of the Fire Emblem games appear to be available on PSP, and I don't currently own a DS. The third bit of bad news is that 90% of the RPGs in the downloadable PSOne Classics genre are Squaresoft games.

      From the PSN, the only non-Square RPGs (that look at least halfway decent / reputable) I see are Legend of Dragoon, Wild Arms, Grandia, Arc the Lad, Breath of Fire, and Persona 2.

      Otherwise, I've had my own on some actual PSP RPGs like Jeanne D'Arc, Brave Story, Persona 3, and Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure, but those are generally more expensive than a $5-10 download. Of course, I might also make Metal Gear Solid next on my to-do list, since that's available as a PSN download and I've somehow never played it.

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    2. Fire Emblem is a franchise from Nintendo, so obviously there's no game for PSP.

      Something say to me this Anonymous isn't new. i don't know why.

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    3. The fact that you say you're "working your way through" FF6 already shows what kind of game it is.

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  3. You know, a common flaw with most game critics is that they move too far out of their area of expertise. There are plenty of reasons why Parasite Eve and Final Fantasy VII are bad games that you haven't really touched upon. This is because, quite simply, you don't know much about JRPGs. I wouldn't call this a bad thing - in fact, knowing a lot about JRPGs is, to me, a very negative trait.
    Put simply, I'd say that due to your relative inexperience with JRPGs, you should just play a few of the genre's iconic games and do a larger post on the genre in general. It's a rather simple and mostly horrible genre, and you seem very intelligent, certainly intelligent enough to identify real role-playing and identify the flaws with this stagnant shitpile of a genre.

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