Wednesday, 29 June 2016
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tuesday, 21 June 2016
WARNING: This article contains story spoilers.
The 1980s were an interesting time in computer RPGs. They were still in their infancy and developers puzzled over how to bring them to PCs and consoles, with such games having up until that point dwelled in the realm of pen and paper. The results were varied as were the means of getting there. How would the world be portrayed? From an overhead third person perspective? Or would first person be better? What kind of adventures would the player go on? How many people would even be needed to make the game?
During this period, a couple of games in particular began to gain a lot of traction in CRPG circles: Ultima and Wizardry. They took vastly different approaches to the genre, and became hugely influential in the direction that such games would go, with many of their mechanics slowly appearing in other titles.
This is where Squaresoft comes into the picture. The company had been around for a few years already, putting together various adventure, action, and shooting games. Unfortunately, their games just weren’t catching on and the studio was facing financial difficulty. If they didn’t produce a hit soon, they would have to close their doors.
So, during a meeting, Hironobu Sakaguchi brought up how he didn’t feel up to the task creating another action game. He felt that telling a story, making a game with a strong narrative focus, would be something much more inline with his abilities. Given his involvement with Squaresoft’s first two games, The Death Drap and Will: The Death Trap II, both adventure games, this line of reasoning certainly makes sense. With that he convinced the company that their next game should be an RPG, a genre that was quickly becoming popular, and where Sakaguchi could focus far more on story. So, just as the often told story goes, production on Final Fantasy began, a game that, if it were to fail, would spell the end of Squaresoft.
Taking a bird’s eye view of the game, in many ways it didn’t do anything all that original. From a gameplay perspective, it was a mish mash of ideas that had already appeared in RPGs before. The game had an overhead perspective similar to the likes of Ultima and Dragon Quest and the battle system was a simple, menu-driven, turn-based affair. Meanwhile, magic was a carbon copy of Wizardry’s tier and charge based approach to the arcane (mercifully with far easier to remember spell names than what Sir Tech threw at players).
These big numbers didn’t stop with bad guys either. There were tons of weapons and armor to discover as well. It added an additional level of excitement while trudging around a dungeon, opening treasure chests and coming across something like a dragon sword or zeus gauntlets. Were they any good? Who knows! But they sure sounded exciting! Then there were the spells. Final Fantasy had over 60 of them. Compared to the competition, that was an outlandishly large number. In a lot of RPGs of that time, players were lucky to have 20, but here we were with a game sporting three times that. Even in comparison to a lot of RPGs coming out today, that’s a lot of spells. So, right off that bat Squaresoft was trying to hit players with sensory overload, giving them tons of places to go and things to do. The company was aiming very high in that regard, and it’s a methodology that we would see them apply again and again in the series as the years wore on.
The second thing that the game had which helped it to stand out and was a much more fleshed out story than many had seen in a game before. Most video games had little to no narrative in them during the 80s. At best, a player would be asked to save a princess, maybe kill a crazy wizard, or go look for a long-lost magical relic. Simple, to the point, and not exactly engaging.
Final Fantasy completely did away with this by creating this large world with bustling cities, all with their own problems, as well as ancient evils running amuck. There was a sense of history to the world. Players encountered people who would tell them how things were hundreds of years in the past and that it was a lot better back then. Ruins and forgotten towns were peppered throughout the land that hint at a fallen civilization. Then there were the stories that the Circle of Sages told about the coming of the four fiends and how they rained destruction on the land. It was some pretty heavy stuff to cram into an RPG for the NES. The concept of world building is commonplace these days, but it was virtually non-existent in the realm of computer RPGs during the 1980s.
The whole point of the game was for four young adventures, each holding an orb, to fulfill their destiny as the Warriors of Light by defeating the fiends, restoring the orbs, and bringing peace to the land. These four had their work cut out for them, and players knew it.
It wasn’t just the large main quest that the game had going for it, either, as every town that the player visited had its own personality. Right from the start of the game, Final Fantasy cheekily throws one of the most cliched stories in video games at the player: rescue the princess. Marching into the closest castle available in search of quests, as was often the case in RPGs of this era, players were asked by the King of Cornelia to rescue his daughter who had been kidnapped by one of his former knights, Garland. What’s the king’s name? How about his daughter? Who cares! None of that is important, just like the quest itself. Players could pretty much run north right from the get go to rescue her if they were so inclined. It wasn’t very hard. The whole thing felt like the developers were just trying to get the quest out of the way with a wink and a nod before sending players into the great big world ahead of them.
With that, it’s impressive that the game was able to accomplish this given just how brief most conversations are in Final Fantasy. This is a game that isn’t exactly known for robust exposition. Chatting with NPCs, most of them say what’s on their mind in no more than a sentence or two, either sharing a bit about themselves or the town, or giving vague advice on what to do next usually with one word conveniently all in caps to emphasize that it’s a very important item that players should try and find.
The ending itself was a shocker. Players eventually have to travel back in time to stop the fiends, which is all very exciting when one remembers that they’re going to the period when this ancient civilization that’s been hinted at for much of the game still thrived (though at the same time a bit gauling that it wasn’t actually possible to explore it as players were hurried along to the last castle of the game for their final battle). Fighting through hordes of particularly nasty enemies and having to re-fight the fiends was challenge enough, but then the game dropped a bomb on players when it turned out that Garland was the last boss of the game. That the guy we beat in that trite little Save the Princess quest at the very start of the game was actually the final boss was quite the surprise for a lot of people. Nowadays, something like this would likely be viewed more as a slightly annoying deus ex machina moment, but gamers hadn’t been beaten over the head by this sort of thing yet so it was rather unexpected at the time.
The whole journey from saving the princess to saving the world was quite the challenge too. Final Fantasy wasn’t a game to hold players hands. As was mentioned earlier, many NPCs would give cryptic hints about important places to visit and key items to search for. This resulted in players needing to systematically talk to each and every person in each and every town just to make sure that they’d gathered enough information to piece together what they’d need to do in order to complete the game. It usually wasn’t much to go on, but this was vital for progressing in a timely manner. Moreover, some NPCs would change what they had to say after players completed certain tasks, so it was important to talk with them fairly regular in case they had any further nuggets of wisdom to share. It was a laborious process, and often not very much to go on, but does help to illustrate how players had to figure things out on their own while playing.
Once players unlock the airship, the game busts the doors wide open when it comes to exploration. First of all, airships were something that just didn’t happen in RPGs at this time. The notion of taking to the skies to visit new lands, namely the isolated northern continents of the game, was very appealing. There wasn’t much to go on here either in terms of where to visit first. The peoples of the south hadn’t really been in contact with these towns for centuries, so didn’t have much advice on whom to visit, leaving players to fly around, trying to find a place to safely land their airship, and trek overland to this or that village they happened to spot nestled in a cops of trees, often learning the hard way that the creatures of these new lands were significantly more powerful than anything that they had fought up till now.
It wasn’t just the overworld that was big and mysterious either. Final Fantasy’s dungeons were sprawling, labyrinthine affairs with long meandering corridors, dead ends, and very dangerous enemies. Nonetheless, players explored every nook and cranny of these places in search of powerful weapons and important items, all while steeling themselves for the inevitable boss fight that would ensue in their deepest levels.
It’s also worth noting that the game was quite a looker for the time. Development on the NES was always about making the most out of very limited hardware. There were only so many colors and so much detail that could be smattered on the screen at once. Squaresoft did a fantastic job with Final Fantasy. Enemies were varied and detailed, party members had nice little touches like swinging their weapons when it was their turn to fight, and the variety of tiles adding life to the levels was impressive. The game’s aesthetic also leaned far more towards fantasy than latter games in the series which often blended this with liberal portions of sci-fi, steampunk, and whatever else the developers felt like tossing in. This game was far more about imps, dragons, giants and the like, with only the occasional hint of science fiction thanks to robotic enemies like Warmech. These all may look incredibly simplistic in today's terms, but for the time, these visuals were amazing. The same can be said for the soundtrack, which sported countless memorable melodies, some of which have become staples of the series like its prelude and victory fanfare.
However, there’s a lot of stuff that is synonymous with the series that hadn’t been established yet. There were no chocobos, no moogles, and no sign of Cid, with him only being mentioned briefly in the later remakes of the game as the inventor of the airship that the warriors of light would use. A number of the touchstones that have become part and parcel with Final Fantasy had still not been dreamt up when the first game in the series came along.
The characters that players controlled also weren’t predetermined. There were no Clouds, Zidanes, Tiduses, or Squalls. No Terras, Cecils, or Balthiers. Nothing of the sort. Instead, players created their party of four adventurers from scratch, choosing which of the six jobs each of them would have, then proceeding to name them. They never spoke a word, simply doing their best to defeat the fiends and restore their orbs. As such, it was much easier for players to project a bit of themselves into these characters rather than them being far more strictly defined.
Meanwhile, combat was very rudimentary, very much a product of the RPGs that preceded Final Fantasy with its simple menu system where players selected between Fight, Magic, Items, Drinking a Potion, or running away. For all intents and purpose, it was quite functional, but a far cry from the more involved systems that the series would eventually see with its active time battles, limit breaks, and the like. There wasn’t even the ability to summon beings to fight alongside the party yet. On top of this, the game had the infuriating quirk of not defaulting to the next available enemy when one was defeated. So, if you had two characters attacking the same monster, and the first one killed it, the second would just attack an empty space instead of looking for another enemy to go after. Combat was very barebones with its saving grace being the size of the encounters players could find themselves embroiled in. Suddenly being set upon by nine cocktrices was guaranteed to be a nerve wracking affair.
With that, not only did Final Fantasy save Squaresoft from oblivion, but it also lit a fire under every other RPG developer out there as they quickly realized that this title had changed everything, and they would really have to up their game if they wanted to compete. Since its original release, we’ve seen the game get a makeover and appear on both the GBA and PSP sporting improved visuals more akin to what one may expect to find in an SNES title (such as detailed sprite work, scaling, enhanced music, and the like). The game also received a number of quality of life improvements. For one, mana points replaced the tiered and charge-based magic system of the original. Bugged spells like Temper were fixed so that they actually worked. Also, prices were reduced on a number of items and enemy strength scaling was massaged to reduce the need to grind in the remakes. As a result, the game was brought more in-line with more contemporary expectations of the genre.
So, as the years passed, Square continued to put out new games in the series as it became the juggernaut that it is today. The company continues to build upon the foundation set by the first Final Fantasy, but one thing remains the same today just like back in 1987, the series developers still aim high and are extremely ambitious with these games as they try their best to provide an involving story set in a vibrant world for players to explore.