Review: Parasite Eve

- Shawn Trautman 

Parasite Eve is an action RPG developed and released by a post-Final Fantasy VII Square, with a lot of money and credibility to burn.  It was actually made as a sequel to a Japanese novel of the same name.  It was dubbed a ”Cinematic RPG” by Square, and while they certainly got “cinematic” right, they were less successful with the “RPG” part.

Storytelling and atmosphere are the clear focus of this game, and gameplay seems to have taken a bit of a backseat.  However (and you won’t catch me saying this very often), the strength of the former mostly outweighs the shortcomings of the latter, and what we’re left with is a flawed, but ultimately very engaging experience.  So, how well does it hold up for a first time player, 14 years later?

GAMEPLAY - Broadly, Parasite Eve can be classified as an action RPG.  There is an overworld map (in this case, the island of Manhattan) where you can travel to different areas; you then run around in those smaller areas (buildings) fighting semi-random battles, gaining experience, new items, new weapons, and higher levels.  This is all done from a third person, isometric/overhead view. 

While most of that sounds like pretty standard RPG fare, the battles are actually unique.  Once you encounter an enemy (by stepping on one of many invisible “hot spots”) you are confined to a small area for the rest of the battle.  The fighting is turn-based to the extent that you have to wait for your action meter to fill up, and only then can you perform attacks or other actions.  In the mean time, though, your enemy is also trying to attack you, and you have full control of your character within the battle arena.  Your only defense is to run around and try to dodge or outrun your opponent’s attacks until you can hit back.  It’s an interesting mix between the fully turn-based battles of Final Fantasy and the completely seamless battles of Kingdom Hearts, and it works pretty well.

You don’t spend much of your time in combat, though, with the exception of the last hour or two of the game.  Mostly, you are walking around, talking to people, solving simple lock-and-key puzzles, and looking for clues to push the story forward.  You will also spend way too much of your time with inventory management.  You have limited inventory space and you are constantly bombarded with new weapons and items, and it can be difficult to tell what will be useful, and what you can safely drop.  There are also a couple of features, bonus points and weapons “tune ups,” that are never fully explained and add to this general level of confusion and frustration.  However, the game is easy enough (with the exception of the last couple of boss fights), that I made it through without ever really touching these systems.  So apparently they were not only confusing, but also unnecessary.

Speaking of unneccessary, it should be mentioned that, while you do gain experience and level up, most of the “random” battles are not random at all.  Rather, they take place at specific points, and they only happen once.  That means that you do not have the option of grinding to get higher levels.  I’m oversimplifying a bit, as there are a handful of times you can go the wrong way and get a few more battles, but basically by the time you reach the next boss, you are at exactly the level the game wants you to be, because you’ve fought the exact number of monsters they wanted you to.  This makes the “RPG elements” feel like little more than window dressing.

These complaints aside, the battle system and exploration (though fairly limited and linear), come together to create a pretty good package that is rarely boring and usually fun enough to make you want to see what’s around the next corner.

STORY - As I mentioned before, the story is the main focus of this game, and it’s a pretty good one.  You play as Aya Brea, a rookie NYC cop who goes to a play, only to witness the entire audience - everyone but you - erupt into flames, seemingly at the hands of the actress on stage.  Scenes such as this begin to erupt all over the city, and there are also sightings of hideous deformed creatures, so the NYPD evacuates the city (that’s right, the entire city - suspension of disbelief is important here), and it is up to you and your partner to figure out what’s going on. 

The main antagonist, Eve, is a creature that has been created out of hyper-evolved mitochondria, and she can influence the mitochondria in other humans and animals to make them do things such as burst into flames or triple in size, grow horns and spit lightning.  Since you were the lone survivor of the original attack, it becomes clear that you have some sort of connection to Eve, and figuring this out is a big part of what makes the story so engaging.  There are a couple of other characters: Maeda, a Japanese scientist with a lot of expertise on mitochondria, and Daniel, the typical “veteran cop partner” character.  While they perform their roles adequately, there is no real character development, and you never truly care what happens to these other characters.  This story is plot-driven, not character-driven.

And that plot, while tough to grasp at certain points, is the main reason I kept playing, and the reason I would come back for more.

PRESENTATION - The story was helped along enormously by the great atmosphere created by the music and visuals.  This game uses polygonal characters over pre-rendered backgrounds, similar to the style of many PlayStation era games, such as Silent Hill and Resident Evil.  But Parasite Eve looks so much better than either of these other games.  The environments, shot from great-looking camera angles, are absolutely gorgeous, and were perhaps my favorite part of the game.  Going into each new area, or even each new room is a treat because of the care and detail that went into every single screen.  The environments are varied and gloomy, and set the scene perfectly.  And while the total number of new environments is not huge, neither is it limited, and it is truly impressive what the art team managed to do with the PlayStation hardware. 

Of course, the backgrounds were pre-rendered, but the character models were not, so the characters and the enemies and certain interactive objects are less impressive.  They are pretty blocky, and pretty pixelated, and really nothing to get excited about.  But because everything else looks so good, it rarely matters. 

There are three types of cutscenes used in the game: standard, in-engine text conversations; text conversations in vehicles with the scenery flying by; and pre-rendered FMV sequences.  The first is pretty typical, and the second is actually really impressive, despite being a fairly simply graphical trick.  The FMV scenes are clearly intended to be the star of the show, and while they usually look nice for the time, the characters still don’t look great, they drag on for a long time, and like all FMV cutscenes, they break immersion by taking you out of the game engine and forcing you to watch a movie.  Given the hardware limitations, they probably could not have gotten in the content any other way, so I get it, but that doesn’t mean I like it.

The music is not quite as stunning as the visuals, but still helps to set the mood in really subtle ways.  There is one simple track that repeats all throughout the game that is spooky and tense, and fits the action perfectly.  It should get old after ten hours, but it never does.  There are a few other tracks too, and they are all pretty good.  Not catchy or hummable, but perfect for what they were intended for.

CONCLUSION - At times, Parasite Eve felt like it was trying to get me to hate it.  It pushed visuals over gameplay, one of my cardinal sins.  It was also deceptively shallow, claiming the RPG tag without any of the weight that goes with it.  It also waived its budget in your face at every possible moment, with long, unskippable FMV cutscenes.  But ultimately the gameplay was good enough, and the story and presentation engaging and interesting enough, to make me want to keep going, and I had a good time doing it.  You can pick this up for $5.99 on PSN for PS3 or PSP.

Verdict -72%