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PlayStation Network Review: Parasite Eve

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Parasite Eve has sold some 1.9 million copies for Square-Enix since its original 1998 release for the PlayStation. That’s relative lightweight compared to Square’s Final Fantasy titles, but the game has gained a unique place in the company’s history, and a loyal enough fan following to justify two sequels — the latest of which becomes available for the PSP in less than one week. In anticipation of this long-awaited third title, Square-Enix confirmed this past fall that both Parasite Eve and Parasite Eve 2 would be re-released via the PlayStation Network, and they have fulfilled the first half of that promise now.

I still remember my first glimpse of this magnificent game. I had finally gotten a PlayStation console of my very own, and played every game and video on the accompanying demo disc at least half a dozen times. I was absolutely enthralled with everything. Three-dimensional gameplay for the first time, polygonal rather than pixelated graphics. Videogames would never be the same.

But there were two items on that disc I just kept going back to, over and over and over. One was a playable demo of a game-in-progress, the voice dialogue still in its original Japanese. Some action game called Metal Gear Solid. The other was just a promo video, with no gameplay shown. The so-called “cinematic RPG”, Parasite Eve.

Thinking on it now, I realize there’s a lot we take for granted. As true lovers of videogames — at the time, still a relatively niche market — we were used to applying a certain degree of imagination, seeing the characters and not the individual pixels, feeling the emotion in a conversation comprised only of text. Suddenly, at least in small bursts, we were immersed in a game world with all our senses. The best FMV of the day allowed us to see our real characters, not crude renderings, accompanied by full, emotional upwellings of music.

In a select few games, for the first time, characters actually spoke. Game developers found themselves hiring actors, utilizing a skill set they had never required before. Immersive sound and graphics are the standard now, but at the time, the quantum leap from the capabilities of the previous console generation was something to boggle at.

It’s almost 13 years later, but this game has stayed with me. I’ve replayed it several times in the intervening years. I tracked down the original sheet music for piano and learned the main theme by heart. I pre-ordered the sequel. When I stumbled across a little known J-horror film in a shop, loosely related to the game, I went home with a copy. And, truthfully, maybe I’ve always been a little in love with Aya Brea. So this week, I experience it all one more time.

It’s not fair to judge a PS1 game by PS3 standards, but it should be made clear that this is a PS1 game. If it’s been awhile since you’ve played an older-gen game, you may be shocked at your ability to literally count the polygons. You may wonder why the game relies on text rather than voice actors. I have a friend who is a graphics snob and absolutely cannot play PS1 titles (with the exception of sprite-based art styles). His nostalgia cannot overcome the lack of graphical quality he has come to expect.

I remember being blown away by the cut-scenes in Final Fantasy VII, but when I replayed it recently after finishing Crisis Core, I was surprised at what I saw. Without realizing it, my memories had received software upgrades over the years; in my mind, somehow the remembered scenes always kept pace with the visual quality of contemporary CG.

Parasite Eve was, and still is, unique among RPGs. It’s been described after the fact as an RPG with survival horror elements, the latter being a genre that was just beginning to coalesce at the time Parasite Eve came out. In reality, though the setting and storyline do somewhat follow the mood and pacing of a sci-fi horror film, labeling the game itself as survival horror is an error that could only have been made by later commentators.

It becomes clear early in the game that our hero, Aya Brea, is the only one that can stop the mysterious events that are unfolding in her native New York. An entire theatre full of people burst into flames, in an apparent mass case of spontaneous combustion. An actress, Melissa, seems behind it all, though when confronted, she calls herself an ancient Eve. And since Aya is the only one who seems immune to the mysterious powers of this woman, she must face the threat alone.

The real-world setting, the internal nature of the enemy, and the grittiness of the story give the game a very different feel from traditional RPGs, though a very compelling one. The mood is both existential and paranoiac, but it’s a slow psychological burn. The game is not designed around monsters jumping out at you in the dark, as in Resident Evil, but with a slow build-up of tension.

In terms of gameplay, Aya’s mostly fighting alone does mean that the usual complementary character types of other RPGs do not apply. Aya must be responsible for both dealing damage and healing herself, and there is no one to revive her if her life drops to zero. As an NYPD cop a traditional turn-based battle system, with our hero patiently waiting for her chance to fire off a few shots at the monsters, would seem incongruous. More fitting for both character and setting, the player has free movement during battle, though there remains an action gauge that must fill before Aya can perform a (non-movement) command. At the time, some described it as an action-RPG, but the game is quite a bit different from action-RPGs today.

Equipment is basic. Aya has one weapon and one piece of armour equipped at a time. Her main weapon is a handgun or other firearm, and for defense she can strap on a Kevlar jacket. As Aya gains experience she increases her basic stats and unlocks new parasite powers, like “healing”, or “energy shot”. Bonus points may be earned by avoiding damage in battle, or beating a chapter without saving, and these can be poured into Aya’s stats, or the stats of a weapon or piece of armour. Weapons and armour can be customized using tools found throughout the game, either by transferring stats or using special effects, both offensive and defensive.

Parasite Eve takes place in modern New York, with levels set in an NYPD precinct, the American Museum of Natural History, and Central Park. It also has a hidden ending, accessible via an EX Game mode, where players must battle their way up the Chrysler Building, floor by floor. The developers at least partially based the levels on their research of these locations, and it’s pretty cool to be able to visit these real-life places in the game.

This is a straight port of the original with no changes. It’s been over a decade since the game was first published and it can’t be denied that some aspects are dated. The pre-rendered backgrounds were great at the time but can’t compare to graphics now. The score is deserving of praise, but it’s unfortunate it couldn’t have been recorded with live instruments, particularly given the synthesized voice used for Eve’s aria.

But Parasite Eve can’t be faulted for being developed in the late ’90s instead of 2011. The story, if nothing else, still resonates today. If you missed it the first time around, I honestly think that’s a deficiency that should be remedied. For a mere $6 — which allows you to download the game both to your PS3 and PSP — you really can’t go wrong.

Parasite Eve is rated M (mature) by the ESRB for Sexual Themes, and Violence.

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About J.J.S. Boyce

  • eric

    Pixels are related to polygonal graphics. You were thinking of sprites.