Monday, February 15, 2016

Parasite Eve Retrospective: The Best and Only Video Game Novel Sequel

Ok, that's a pretty confusing title. What does that mean? Simple: the original Parasite Eve was a Japanese sci-fi horror novel. The 1998 PlayStation game is a sequel to the novel. What an intriguing concept for a game, right? The connections are subtle enough that you need no knowledge of the novel to enjoy the story of the game, but nuanced enough so that fans of the original story will appreciate the nods to its plot.

So, onto the game itself. Parasite Eve is an oddball. It was released by SquareSoft, known for its fantasy role-playing games, as a third person horror/RPG hybrid set in the real life setting of the at-the-time contemporary New York City. I don't think anybody expected this game to be made, and it was likely inspired by Capcom's very successful Resident Evil series, which kickstarted the "survival horror" genre. News Bot makes the claim that "Parasite Eve II was directed and written by Resident Evil planner/writer Kenichi Iwao, with art staff comprised of RE1 and RE2 artists. That's why it feels like a Resident Evil game. They were pretty much asked to make a competitor and did very well." The game's parallels to Resident Evil are entirely intentional, and it shows.

The game takes place in New York City, set during the Christmas holiday season in 1997.
The gameplay could best be described as turn-based horror RPG. Boy, that's a mouthful. Much like the Resident Evil games, you explore desolate, haunting locations full of mutants and monsters, and you explore them alone. Also much like the Resident Evil games, you are a mostly ordinary human being forced to defend themselves with human weapons. The protagonist of the game, Aya Brea, is a police officer, and thus uses various guns as her primary weapons, and each gun has a limited amount of ammo. Unlike the Resident Evil games, Aya can also cast "magic" in order to heal herself, remove poison, and even shoot energy blasts. As ridiculous as this sounds, there is a narratively sound reason for this, which we'll get to in a moment. Also unlike Resident Evil, combat is semi-turn based; Aya can move freely and avoid enemy attacks at all times, but can only fight back when the action gauge is full, much like the ATB system used in the Final Fantasy games.

Aya fights a monster. You can see the "AT" and "PE" gauges in the corner, as well as the limited space that Aya can attack, signified by the green wireframe. The AT gauge is the action gauge, whereas the PE gauge functions as a resource for Aya's more magical abilities.
Aya is able to customize her firearms using tools found in the overworld, as well as allocate stat points to improve her inventory space and the speed in which the action gauge fills itself. Aya's method of combat is a blend between Final Fantasy and Resident Evil, which is pretty much exactly what you'd expect of a Resident Evil inspired game made by SquareSoft. In addition to the Resident Evil-esque areas of the game, Parasite Eve also has areas that function much like towns do in a traditional RPG - the police station and museum are full of characters you can talk to and devoid of monsters or conflict. The police station even functions as a "shopping center" of sorts, where you can visit the resident firearms expert to have him help you upgrade your guns. In this sense, there are essentially "dungeons" and "towns" much like there are in an RPG, although the actual map traversal feels much more like a Resident Evil game. It sounds strange on paper, but the way that it functions in-game works surprisingly smoothly and provides a unique experience that you cannot find in any other game. Even the game's own sequels went for a different approach, leaving the original as the only game of its type even to this day.

You can customize your weapons, adding to their stats, or even adding additional effects, such as frost.
The setting and story are as unique as the gameplay. As previously stated, the game is a sequel to Japanese horror sci-fi novel Parasite Eve. The game's plot is very science oriented and relatively grounded in comparison to SquareSoft's more typical fantasy narratives. The primary focus of the plot is on the concept of mitochondria - the cell's primary source of power - and the scientific theory that mitochondria function as a parasite to the cell, based on the fact that it shares unique DNA from its host.

Mitochondria functions as the center of the game's narrative.
The story makes the jump to science fiction by implying that mitochondria has its own intelligence, and has been shaping humanity from the very beginning to create the "ultimate being." From the wiki of the original novel: "The novel's plot supposes that mitochondria, which are inherited through the female line of descent, form the dispersed body of an intelligent conscious life-form, dubbed Eve, which has been waiting throughout history and evolution for the right conditions when mitochondrial life can achieve its true potential and take over from eukaryotic life-forms (i.e. humans and similar life) by causing a child to be born that can control its own genetic code." Of course, being horror themed, the mitochondria is malevolent in nature and very much hostile to humanity, seeking to use it only as a tool to achieve its own ends. The monsters encountered in-game are all ordinary creatures mutated by Eve. In this sense, Eve and her mitochondria are Parasite Eve's equivalent to the T-virus and its creation of zombies in Resident Evil. Where Parasite Eve differs from Resident Evil is in its protagonist; whereas Chris, Jill, and the rest of Resident Evil's leads are ordinary humans in an extraordinary environment, Aya has explicit connections to the character of Eve that I won't reveal in order to keep from spoiling the narrative. The parallels between games are apparent and even obvious, but also differ enough so that the game feels like it has its own unique identity. The game's story is very intellectual, especially by comparison to most video games, which is a treat to those looking for some depth to video game storytelling.

Aya shares a special connection with Eve. What could it be?
The game's artwork is done by SquareSoft character designer Tetsuya Nomura, perhaps best known for designing characters such as Cloud, Sephiroth, Tidus, Yuna, Lightning, and the rest of the Final Fantasy cast in many games from Final Fantasy VII and onward. The timeframe that Parasite Eve was released places this as what was arguably Nomura's prime, right around the time that he designed the characters for Final Fantasy VII, which is what put him on the map. Aya Brea and her supporting cast all evoke Nomura's signature style, and bear much resemblance to his other works of the time, which is a huge plus for fans of his original style. The character design is distinctly Nomura, but also manages to fit with the more grounded look and atmosphere of Parasite Eve, adding to the unique visual identity that the game has become known for. As an added treat for fans of the old SquareSoft team, the soundtrack was also done by Yoko Shimomura, who has since become well known for composing the Kingdom Hearts series. 

Having recently replayed this game, I took my experience to NeoGAF, where I received some interesting responses from other users who had enjoyed their time with the game.

"This is one of my favourite PSX games, I've played through it about 4-5 times. Every time, I always enjoy the blend of survival horror, action, and RPG. The plot is great, and it's really refreshing having a strong female character who isn't overly sexualized."

"Excellent story. Excellent setting. Excellent narration via the day system. Freaking New York under siege by monsters. I loved how the police precinct would be your basic town hub."

"It's a fantastic game with some refreshingly brisk pacing. That, New Game+ and the weapon and armor upgrading system help the game lend itself well to replays. And on a personal level, I loved this game a lot as a kid. I always thought it was so cool to have a JRPG take place in my home city.

Probably Shimomura's best OST behind Legend of Mana, too. Some of Nomura's best art is on display here, too."

"I loved this game and the ambience it gave off. The soundtrack was amazing.

I often just sat in the police station listening to the theme music."

"Game was enthralling, ominous as hell... I've never been able to really enjoy it a second time because the atmosphere is so dependent on its mystery, but that first time playing it back when it release was rather intense. Great environment art, especially the city buildings. Haunting soundtrack, too."

"This game gave me a head start in middle school science. My 7th grade biology teacher was amazed I was familiar with mitochondria."

"Oh wow, I had forgotten about this game, but it was amazing. Since I was still a kid at the time, it scared the shit out of me. Seeing that rat mutate gave me nightmares and forced me to put the game down. I remember spending so much time in the police station, since nothing would go wrong there and the music settled my racing heartbeat."

Parasite Eve is a gaming experience like no other. Its sequel, Parasite Eve 2, plays more like a traditional survival horror game, and the side story The Third Birthday plays like a third person shooter. One day I'll revisit those titles, but, in my personal opinion, the original Parasite Eve is the pinnacle of the series. The scientific narrative, real-life setting, unique gameplay, phenomenal soundtrack, distinctive art and haunting atmosphere all remain prominently in my mind even years after playing it for the first time all the way back in 1998. The game is currently available on the PlayStation Network for PS3, PSP, and PS Vita, so I highly suggest you check it out if you have the chance.

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