Wednesday, 29 June 2016

A Look Back at Parasite Eve

WARNING: This article contains story spoilers.

Parasite Eve was one of the many games Squaresoft released in the wake of Final Fantasy VII’s runaway success. It was a time when the studio began to take a lot more chances, experimenting with new ideas, and branching out into a number of new series.

What made this game special were a number of factors. For one, it took place in a contemporary setting. There were no dragons or spaceships here. Instead players were tossed into New York City on Christmas Eve 1997. It’s very rare for an RPG to take place in the present when there are so many possibilities at one’s disposal in futuristic or fantasy settings. However, to ensure that the game didn’t drift toward the mundane day to day of modern life, Parasite Eve was also a survival horror game rife with gory monsters and special abilities.

According to an interview with Tetsuya Nomura in Dorimaga about a decade ago, one of the early ideas that Hironobu Sakaguchi had planned for Final Fantasy VII was for it to be a detective story taking place in New York, starring a character dubbed Hot Blooded Detective Joe. Of course, that never happened, but with that in mind it’s easy for one to see some superficial parallels between this idea and Parasite Eve.

Final Fantasy VII had Midgard, a huge, bustling megalopolis, not all that dissimilar to New York. Moreover, similarities can be drawn between some of the two games’ main characters, in this case Cloud and Barrett versus Aya and Daniel. It’s not much, but certainly suggests that Parasite Eve was Sakaguchi’s chance to really sit down and make his detective story.

The game branded itself as a “Cinematic RPG” and right from the start it’s easy to see why. This was a time when consoles were finally becoming powerful enough to try and present games in a fashion similar to film. For better or worse, the age of sprite-based graphics shackled to either overhead or side view camera angles were coming to an end. Games were diving headlong into the age of polygons and GC cutscenes.

The likes of Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill, Legacy of Kain, and a slew of other titles were quickly changing how people looked at games, as the medium shed its 16-bit cutesy veneer for grittier fare chalk full of carefully thought out cinematics and dialog. Parasite Eve was one such game to be at the forefront of all this.

Something that really helped Squaresoft accomplish this was that they worked closely with a number of people in Hollywood. If one looks at the credits, they’ll discover a number of Western names. The game was a joint effort between Square’s Japanese studios and American filmmakers, many of whom would go on to do special effects and CG for various films of the 90s and 2000s. Also of note is how much of a team effort design was on the game. It’s not uncommon for games to be a joint effort between Japanese and Western developers, but up until this point, such projects tended to have a clear delineation of duties with the Japanese studio heading up design while their Western counterpart focused on production. A prime example of this would be the arrangement that Nintendo and Argonaut had when making Star Fox. In the case of Parasite Eve, there was much more overlap in who did what. This greatly helped to ensure that New York was represented far more authentically than how large American cities tended to be portrayed in Japanese games.

Loosely based on a book of the same name, Parasite Eve takes place several years after the events of the novel. The story centers around 25 year old NYPD detective, Aya Brea, with the premise being that throughout history mitochondria, basically the energy generating organelle in most living creatures cells, are actually sentient, and trying to rise up and become the dominant lifeform on Earth. It’s more than a little far fetched, and requires one to exercise a certain suspension of disbelief, being a reflection of film and television at the time becoming heavily reliant on pseudo science and techno babble to explain unusual story premises.

As one can probably surmise, it’s up to Aya to stop this. What quickly becomes evident while doing all of this is just how much Parasite Eve emulates a typical 90s cop drama. In this day and age, we see a lot more discussion about how story can be implemented in a videogame in such a manner that feels more at home in the medium, rather than having a clear divide between game and exposition.

During the late 90s, this conversation wasn’t really happening in any big way. As mentioned earlier, this was the early days of when games could explore storytelling in a much more in-depth manner. So, what we had more often than not were games that drew heavily upon filmmaking methods in order to push narrative. Parasite Eve is an excellent example of this, thanks in no small part to the sheer of people with experience working on movies being involved.

We see this most clearly in the members of NYPD Precinct 17 as the player gets to know them better. First, there’s Daniel, Aya’s partner, who is recently divorced and trying to find a way to balancing his time as a cop and being a father to his son, Ben. Next, there’s Wayne, who helps with weapon maintenance in the basement. He’s a bit of a gun nut, and the game doesn’t shy away from letting the player know. However, he’s offset by Torres, who is in charge of distributing firearms to officers. While Wayne is extremely enthusiastic about guns, Torres refuses to use them since his daughter died in an accident while playing with one.

So, as one can see, it’s pretty standard subject matter that often gets explored in television programs of this sort. The question, though, is whether this is actual, heartfelt social commentary, or is it deserving of a more cynical eye, as backstories added in a paint by numbers fashion, since they’re such frequently visited tropes in police dramas. There’s no real way to know. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to be overly hard on Parasite Eve for having them. Social commentary was still in its infancy in games during this time, so the mere fact the ideas of gun control or work / life balance were being hinted at were most welcome, and an important step in games trying to veer away from being so heavily focused on saving princesses and the like.

From there the game steadily marches forward as Aya chases after Eve, coaxed by her nemesis to join her rather than resist. Players are introduced to another character along the way, Kunihiko Maeda, a sharp if somewhat awkward Japanese scientist with a thorough knowledge of the Eve mitochondria and how it wants to take over the world. He’s largely here as a means of making sense of the main crux of Parasite Eve’s plot, although Maeda does this in typical 90s sci-fi horror movie style, bombarding the viewer with arcane jargon that doesn’t make a lot of sense. He’s also a useful mechanism in tying together the events of the novel with the game, as he explains much of what happened in the book and how Aya and her family are connected to it.

Despite the fact Aya is a female lead, something fairly rare in games even today, the Parasite Eve doesn't really play it up. She comes off as a serious police officer, focused on sorting out the whole Eve conundrum, but the game doesn't really go beyond that. At most, we see glimpses into her past that explain her whole connection to the events of the game as well as what her dead sister has to do with it. Other than that, it's all business. Granted, some of the advertisement and art to come out with the game sexes up Aya quite a bit, but in-game she's just a cop out to stop rampaging mitochondria. The main character could have been named Alan Brea and it wouldn't have made a difference.

Oddly, despite some effort being put into fleshing out many of Aya’s colleagues, the game’s villains feel one dimensional by comparison. Dr. Klamp is portrayed as little more than an obnoxious, driven scientist that is there to explain how Eve came to be and tie her more closely to Aya. Then Eve herself comes off as simply being bent of world domination while sporting a superiority complex. There just isn’t much too them other than the understanding that they’re both evil and will need to be dealt with at some point.

Whether it was dealing with mitochondria bent on ruling the Earth, or touching on the backgrounds of Daniel and the gang, one could see a strong focus on pacing for much of the game. Parasite Eve doesn’t waste any time dropping Aya into the thick of things. There’s no slow ramp up, hinting at what’s to come. Right from the first scene, Aya is at the opera on Christmas Eve when suddenly Eve, a woman who has been taken over by mitochondria and the game’s main antagonist, uses her powers to cause most of the audience to simultaneously burst into flames.

All the way through the narrative, this swift pacing is easy to see. If anything, it comes as a stark contrast to a lot of other RPGs to come out at this time. Often times, with developers attempting to create more cinematic experiences in their games, many titles wound up being inundated with melodrama. What could have been said in a couple of minutes and been much more powerful got drawn out into much more meandering cutscenes.

By comparison, Parasite Eve cut a lot of this out. Exposition was quick and to the point. The main plot said what it had to say in a quick, concise manner and we got glimpses into many of the characters’ lives without the game waxing on ad nauseum about them. There was a less is more attitude behind the storytelling here.

That being said, the pacing really took a hit towards the end of the game. As it stands, Parasite Eve isn’t very long. For most people, a playthrough on normal mode will only take about 10-12 hours. That is extremely short for an RPG, especially one of Parasite Eve’s caliber. At this point, people were used to games in the genre clocking in at 25 hours or so, with the latest generation of JRPGs flirting with 50+ hour titles.

It feels as though the game’s designers realized that Parasite Eve was going to be quite short and started to pad the game toward the end. By the time one gets to the sewers beneath Chinatown, they start to encounter much larger maps and a big uptick in the number of enemy encounters. This is exacerbated even further at the museum, which is easily the biggest level of the game and teeming with monsters.

The whole thing feels like Squaresoft suddenly noticed that the game wouldn’t even crack 10 hours with the way things were going, so just tossed in a bunch more content at the end to make it feel at least a little bit larger. It makes one wonder if it would have been better to include the Chrysler Building as optional content in the normal mode of the game, rather than gating it behind Game+ mode as a means of providing additional content instead. At least then, it could have helped to avoid this noticeable shift in pacing while still providing the player with additional, albeit optional, content. Granted, the building would have to be seriously retooled in this context, but it could have been a better option for padding content in the long run.

Not only was pacing extremely noticeable in the game, but tone was as well. Given that Parasite Eve is very much a survival horror title, this is to be expected. Unlike other games in the genre, this one doesn’t go for any sort of jump scares. Instead, it sets a creepy, unsettling atmosphere and maintains it throughout the game.

Most of the environments are dark with much of PE taking place at night. Even daytime scenes aren’t all that well lit under the dreary overcast skies of New York in December. All the while, the music slowly flows from the speakers. What’s particularly nice about the score is that it avoids the temptation to default to a typical ambient soundtrack to create a mood, instead having much more pronounced melodies and instrumentation while at the same time complimenting what Aya was dealing with at any given time.

The strongest projection of horror in Parasite Eve came from the use of gore and biological monstrosities. There’s one scene in particular where Eve attacks a group of concert goers in Central Park by making their bio matter melt and coalesce in one massive, shapeshifting blob of an entity. For the time, this game’s CG scenes were very impressive, and this really drove home the gore elements. This was by no means the only time we saw stuff like this either, as on more than one occasion players witnessed various animals mutate before their eyes, skin tearing open, appendages thrusting out, blood, gore, and teeth everywhere. These scenes were often reminiscent of horror classic The Thing with the grotesque monsters it had lumbering about.

Helping add to the tone of the game is how alone Aya feels and how limited her resources are. There is no party system here. Players aren’t controlling a group with, for example, Aya, Daniel, and Maeda in it. It’s just Aya all by herself with no back up. She’s the only person immune to the abilities of these rogue mitochondria, so everyone else has to wait outside while she deals with them.

Because of this, there’s a greater sense of tension. If Aya goes down, that’s it. There won’t be anyone who can resuscitate her. It’s straight back to the title screen to load a save file. So, not only are players in situations where they may be fighting a particularly nasty, scary looking monster, they also have to worry about learning it’s attack patterns on the fly and making sure to not screw up.

Also, Aya can’t carry very many items on her. Her inventory does expand over time but the challenge comes in the fact that outside of ammunition, items don’t stack. Each medicine, each gun, each body armor, each key, and so forth take up their own slot. As a result, it doesn’t take very long before she can’t carry any more, leaving players to make tough decisions. There could be some very difficult enemies in the next room, causing one to agonize over whether to get rid of a Medicine 3 for a new tool or weapon upgrade. Thankfully, it is possible to swap an item from one’s inventory, taking whatever goodie a lock box might have, then coming back for it later, but there’s always that underlying threat of danger that the player has to contend with often making these decisions tough, and once more thing amplifying the pressure.

One nice touch that the game does in maintaining the mood is how battles begin. In a lot of JRPGs, when a battle ensued there would be pronounced transition to a different screen, usually something like a flash with a loud noise, perhaps with the image twirling in a circle, before fading to one’s party facing off against a horde of monsters.

In Parasite Eve, when combat starts it’s much more subtle. The screen simply blurs around the edge a bit accompanied by the sound of a heartbeat. From there, enemies spawn and battle begins. It’s interesting, as the fight will take place right where Aya is in a given level. There’s no formal shift to a battle screen. As a result, it keeps players in the moment thanks to the environment remaining the same and a minimum of fanfare preceding combat. A traditional transition to battle would be far too jarring, yanking the player out of the experience whereas this gently nudges them into battle in a way that doesn’t break immersion.

While we’re on the subject of combat, it’s interesting how real-time and turn-based elements are combined in the game. There’s an active time bar that slowly fills, dictating when Aya can take an action. However, while waiting for this, players don’t simply twiddle their thumbs politely waiting their turn, as they can move Aya around the field during this time, avoiding attacks by enemies.

It’s very basic as one just has to run out of the way from projectile weapons and try to coax out melee attacks before dodging them, but it adds an entirely new layer to combat that we weren’t really seeing in RPGs. Most games in the genre much more strictly adhered to traditional turn-based or active time systems, so what Parasite Eve was doing came as a breath of fresh air.

Given the claustrophobic hallways and somewhat slow manner in which Aya ran, the battles could be pretty tense. It almost felt like when having a bad dream where monsters are chasing after a person, but they can’t seem to escape fast enough with everything happening in slow motion. As such, even this helped to add a certain degree of tension to the game.

Revisiting the game today, it’s easy to see that much of its visual style is quite dated, but for its time Parasite Eve’s graphics were top notch. What may look like extremely simple cutscenes now were cutting edge for their time, not just in terms of fidelity but also with regards to cinematography. Playing the game, it quickly becomes apparent that careful thought went into camera placement. Shots like when Aya and Daniel are driving to a new location and some of the angles used when Eve is talking to Aya are prime examples of this. It’s easy to see people with actual filmmaking experience were involved with making the game, which was nice given that this was an age where fighting the camera was the norm in many titles.

It also helped that PE used pre-rendered backgrounds with polygonal characters placed on top. This was a very common practice at the time with titles like Resident Evil and Final Fantasy VII being other examples of prominent games to utilize this technique. Because of this, characters stand out quite noticeably from their environments. It’s one of the drawbacks of this method. Nonetheless, it does provide for very specific scenery. Every area that Aya visits feels like a painstakingly created set piece. If anything, levels feel vaguely reminiscent of what one may find in a point and click adventure where each scene has all sorts of little details within it, like the set of a movie.

Before closing, it’s also worth touching upon how much the game allowed players to customize their equipment. Through the use of tools or paying a visit to the weapons depot at the precinct, it was possible to combine weapons, carrying over stats and special abilities to a new gun. This could lead to all sorts of different combinations of firearms. As a result, it gave the player a lot of options for how they could deal with combat. Did they want a machine gun that could poison enemies? Maybe a shotgun with a slow effect? The sky was the limit. If they had enough inventory space, they could even carry around more than one modified gun, giving themselves the choice of switching loadouts when necessary.

All in all, Parasite Eve marks a time when Squaresoft really started to spread its wings. During the 8 and 16-bit era, the company spent a lot of time on a trio of franchises: Final Fantasy, SaGa, and Seikin Densetsu. There were a few one-offs like Live A Live, Treasure of the Rudras, and Chrono Trigger, but the company wasn’t really experimenting all that often.

After the success of Final Fantasy VII, the studio’s developers took this opportunity to try something different, and on the whole Parasite Eve was a very good attempt at this. It’s not often that a compelling RPG comes along that takes place in a contemporary setting. Moreover, it managed to marrying role-playing with survival horror quite well through careful control of tone and pacing. From its approach to storytelling to how it tried to tackle the RPG genre in a new way, Parasite Eve turned a lot of heads and was a fine example of  just what Squaresoft was capable of when they experimented and broke away from the Final Fantasy formula that they were known for.

It was a time when the company entered a golden age in JRPGs. While they still brought out new entries in their bread and butter series like Final Fantasy and Saga, we also saw such releases as Xenogears, Vagrant Story, Brave Fencer Musashi, and a host of others. It was a prolific time in Squaresoft’s history, and Parasite Eve was one of the standouts of this period.