My normal philosophy with this column is to introduce readers to lesser-known games, and maybe help them crack a smile or two in the process, but with Parasite Eve‘s 16th anniversary looming on September 9th and the realization that it fit the parameters for this column, my course was set. We’ll return to our regularly-scheduled programming next Sunday.
It arrived on US shores in late autumn 1998. Square, riding the metric crap-ton wave of cash earned on Final Fantasy 7, decided to make a massively story-driven RPG. A cross between video game and film, it was a story of ultimate evil. A tale of biology run amok, of evolution pushed to the breaking point, of humanity’s last days. And the story of one lone savior, a cop bearing the burden of every New Yorker’s life on her shoulders. Instead of the sword and sorcery fare upon which they’d built their brand, Square stayed right in the modern era. For inspiration they turned to a Pharmacology graduate student named Hideaki Sena who, in 1995, won the prestigious Japan Horror Novel Award for a sci-fi thriller entitled “Parasite Eve”.
Making a game based on a license can be like juggling flaming chainsaws while walking a flaming tightrope over a giant flaming hole filled with enraged, flaming bears. So much can go wrong, and expectations are often so high that a single misstep can induce levels of fan community rage that would make Solid Snake think twice about infiltrating. Square neatly dodged this issue in the US by making sure nobody knew “Parasite Eve” was licensed from anything. Sure there were some otaku or foreign film club types who had seen the 1997 movie, but the novel didn’t get an English translation until 2005 which you math-inclined types will notice is seven years after the game was released. Basically the only way you were an American and knew this was a licensed game was if you read the author’s biography in the instruction manual.
Square actually did one better by making a simple design choice. The video game doesn’t adapt the novel or the film, it sets off to blaze its own trail in the form of a sequel to Sena’s novel. One of the characters, a Japanese scientist named Maeda, references this off-handedly in a scene where he describes a similar biological event happening one year earlier in Japan, but otherwise gamers hadn’t the slightest idea there that much back-story. Since nobody in the US was familiar with the source materials, Square gained the benefits of sinking or swimming on their own merit without being weighed to the anchor of preconceived notions.
The story of Parasite Eve is complex, convoluted, and loaded with enough science to bring the entire “Big Bang Theory” crew to screaming, non-coital orgasm. Mitochondria, simple organisms that work in conjunction with our cells to produce energy and regulate other biological functions, finally evolve consciousness of their own and decide they’re sick of being tied to our worthless meat-sacks in order to get anything done. The consciousness they create calls itself ‘Eve’, and Eve takes it upon herself to awaken the mitochondria in everyone in close proximity. This results in spontaneous combustion, melting, and soiled underwear.
Eve only has one obstacle: Detective Aya Brea with the NYPD isn’t only immune to Eve’s powers, she’s actively evolving some of her own in response. Aya’s an antibody, the only person in New York who can get anywhere near Eve without dissolving into jelly, but she’s damned if she knows why. The story of their actions and interactions takes place over six days in December.
Parasite Eve‘s battles are of the Active Time variety, with Aya dodging and weaving through attackers while she waits for her own action bar to charge. Rather than finding new swords or armor, Aya upgrades her guns and clothing, swapping pistols for assault rifles and leather jackets for kevlar vests. Players use tools to Frankenstein useful bits from one piece of gear and slap them into another, so it’s not uncommon to see rifles upgraded to shoot explosive rounds in a shotgun burst pattern or bullet-proof armor with extra pockets for inventory items which auto-heals you in combat.
Boss battles are grandiose affairs, from giant crocodiles mutated to walk on two legs and spit electricity to rampaging dinosaur skeletons that want to eat you despite lacking a stomach for the last sixty-five million years.
The whole game is tied together by cinematic sequences which are expertly rendered and beautiful in their awfulness. The opening video in which Eve immolates an audience of theater-goers is every bit as competent as what you’d see in an A-list Hollywood feature. As Eve continues to grow and mutate, scenes get more and more disturbing. One of the best comes near the end when Aya confronts a grotesquely-pregnant Eve, who smiles and raises a finger to her lips in the universal gesture for, “Shhh…don’t wake the baby” as she strokes her belly.
This game is a solid example of Square knocking everything out of the park. Graphics are phenomenal for the day, with pre-rendered backdrops modeled in real life then digitized for the game, and the aforementioned cinematics are considerably polished. Yoko Shimomura’s soundtrack is sublime brilliance. The story presents complex concepts of Biology in a way anyone who’s taken high school science can comprehend. Characters are unique and multifaceted, fully-realized instead of being simple cardboard cutouts.
So happy 16th birthday, Parasite Eve. It’s a pity the two sequels jettisoned the best parts of the original in an effort to create something new and different, because PE works pretty darn flawlessly as-is. For RPG fans who somehow missed the Final Fantasy rush of 1997, this was a perfectly good reason to buy a PlayStation in 1998. And if you missed it the first time around, a quick trip to the PlayStation Network Store and six US dollars gets you one of the greatest RPG experiences of the 32-bit age.
Even the ads for Parasite Eve were works of art. We’ve got the proof right here: