"Like the Hollywood summer blockbuster, it's an empty calorie snack for your visual senses, but won't go down in history as great classic cinema."
Squaresoft's Parasite Eve is dubbed "The Cinematic RPG" on the back of the jewel case. This is a fitting description, as Parasite Eve feels more like an interactive movie than an RPG. It has a very Hollywood summer blockbuster vibe to it. It's enjoyable throughout its course, but it doesn't have the makings of great cinema.
Like any good blockbuster, Parasite Eve has some terrific visuals. Even though this game was released in 1998, it still looks great. The prerendered backdrops look terrific. They have great detail and are often interactive. Drawers and cupboards can be opened in various locales, and it is a good idea to check all of them. Because the game is set in a haunted Manhattan, the backdrops have that dark, gritty, urban look and feel to them wholly unlike the bright, colorful, prerendered backdrops in Star Ocean 2.
The polygon characters are noticeably pixilated, but they looked great for their time. Even still, the polygon models have decent detailing on their faces and clothing during close-ups. There is also great use of body language in the characters during non-interactive scenes. Both the playable and non-playable characters even have distinctive ways of walking. My main complaint is that protagonist Aya Brea's polygon form is anorexically skinny. The enemy models look all right too, but their designs aren't anything out of the ordinary. They're mostly mutated animals, and not the most original looking mutated animals.
The other polygons are used in the overland. While the polygon Manhattan may look primitive by 2002 standards, it looked awesome back then. The buildings have a good amount of detailing. Personally, I liked this busy urban overland much better than the sparse green overlands of traditional RPGs.
As is par for the course, Squaresoft packed their cinematic RPG with tons of CG FMV cinemas. Square's CG artists are among the best in the industry. The quality of the CG and the quality of the cinematography in these scenes is astounding. The most impressive part to me were the CG scenes that took place within cells. This was better than that old movie Fantastic Voyage. If only high school biology videos were like this.
Tetsuya Nomura, of Final Fantasy VII fame, did the character designs. Personally, I found the character designs bland. Granted, Nomura doesn't have the stylish flair of Yoshitaka Amano or Kazuma Kaneko, but his Final Fantasy character designs are much better than these. Perhaps due to his artwork or perhaps due to the CG, protagonist Aya Brea continuously had a blank, emotionless look on her face, even during high emotion scenes.
Now that I've mentioned the name of our protagonist, Aya Brea, I see it fit to discuss the story. Aya Brea is a 25-year-old rookie NYPD police officer at the 17th precinct. On Christmas Eve, she and some blonde guy are on a date to see an opera at Carnegie Hall. During the opera, lead actress Melissa Pearce breaks into her big vocal number. As she starts singing, fire emanates from her hands immolating the cast and the audience. Somehow, Aya is not affected and confronts Pearce. However, Melissa Pearce is no longer Melissa Pearce, but is now Eve - a being with such highly evolved mitochondria organelles, that she can harness their energy for her destructive power (for those who slept through high school bio, mitochondria are the organelles inside cells that provide energy to the nucleus).
So, of course, the big question on everybody's mind is, "why isn't Aya affected by Eve's mitochondria powers? How come she doesn't burn like other humans do under Eve's hand?" As you progress through the story you will find out about Aya's latent powers, and also find out about those strange flashbacks she has about a girl in a hospital. Her past comes back to haunt her in many ways. The story won't win any awards, but it is entertaining throughout its course. The story is very easy to follow and all loose ends are tied up and resolved during the conclusion. It's also paced quickly so there isn't a lull in the action and there are lots of pretty CG special effects. In short, it's summer blockbuster movie material.
The tale is rather short. It takes place over a six day span, and it took me about 10 hours to complete this game. This short length is both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because the game fits into busy schedules nicely; an armchair general could blast through this in a weekend. It is a curse because character development suffers big time. I can forgive the lack of progressive character development, since the game only covers six days, but I cannot forgive the lack of personality in these characters. Dialogue is sparse, and when it is present, the script reads very dry. It's free of technical errors, but it's bland. Combine that with emotionless faces, and you have characters that feel more like robots than humans.
The characters are given rich backstories in the manual, but they're rather bland in the game. Again, poor writing is a major culprit, but I would have loved to see the story delve more into the characters and their pasts. The relationship between Aya and her partner, veteran officer Daniel Dollis, has a lot of potential, but is not explored enough.
One thing that would have added immensely to the personality of the characters is voice acting. If the dialogue were spoken, that would have definitely brought life to these characters. There are a few voice clips here and there, such as Aya saying "uh!" when she takes damage in battles or an occasional off-camera scream, but that's not enough for me.
As for the rest of the sound, it's done nicely. Unlike your typical blockbuster movie, Parasite Eve does not have a bombastic soundtrack. In fact, Yoko Shimomura's compositions are quite subtle and understated; they fit their intended story scenes and add a nice ambience to the locales. Shimomura uses a lot of variety in her compositions. From the piano-driven regular battle theme, to the delicate synthesizers of Aya's precinct music, to the bass-driven techno beat of the overland theme, the variety to these pieces is great and the music never seems stale. However, none of the tracks have particularly catchy melodies that will be stuck in your head for days. The music is wonderfully atmospheric, but is wholly unmemorable.
Gameplay could best be described as "RPG-lite." For starters, there is no explorable overland. The overland uses a 'point-and-click' style like Grandia. Also, there is no active party. Aya is the only playable character. Unlike traditional RPGs where you earn money to buy supplies in item or weapon shops, there is no money to be made in Parasite Eve. So how does one go about obtaining items and weapons? You obtain them from treasure chests, of course, and from the spoils of victory after an enemy is defeated. Aya also has limited space for her items, so be sure to use your items wisely.
Since Aya's an NYPD officer, her weapon of choice is the gun, but she's not limited to whatever guns she's given by the precinct or what she finds on the field. If Aya finds a 'tool' item, she can transfer an attribute from one gun to another. Do you have a strong rifle that only shoots two bullets at a time and a weak handgun that shoots five at a time? Use a tool and transfer the handgun's 5-bullets-at-a-time attribute to your rifle. Each gun can have a maximum of four attribute slots.
If you have a weapon with less than four slots, the gunsmith at the precinct can add a slot for you if you have proper paperwork. Unfortunately, this paperwork is often tough to obtain, and is useless once Aya starts finding 4-slot guns. I found this gun customization system really fun to use. I had loads of fun experimenting with different gun attribute combinations and through some tinkering found a combo that worked well for me. With this kind of flexibility, I'm sure others will find a gun workable for them. You can do the same thing with Aya's armor. However, I felt that there weren't enough tools to be found in the game. I wanted to tweak the guns more.
Like any traditional RPG, there are battles. The battles are random encounters, but the encounters take place on the field itself (like in Breath of Fire III) as opposed to a separate battle screen. The battle encounter rate is extremely low, so it does not hamper exploration. In fact, I looked forward to every fight as a fun distraction from the exploration.
Battles take place in semi-realtime. Aya has an ATB bar that fills up, and when full allows her to execute a command, be it attack, use Parasite Energy (magic), use an item, escape, etc. However, while the bar is filling up, Aya can run around the battlefield to avoid enemy attacks. Once the bar is full, you can press X to attack. Once attack is selected, the action stops and a green wire globe enters the screen. This is Aya's range window. If an enemy is within that range window, Aya will hit it. If it is outside the range window, she will miss.
Like in most RPGs, you can target which enemy you want to hit or target multisegmented enemies' various parts. When selecting targets, you will either see a bright red or dark red circle on them. If it is bright red, the enemy is within your range globe and can be hit. The dark red circle means the enemy is out of range.
Once you've decided who and what to hit, press X again and Aya will do her thing. Pressing Triangle when the ATB bar fills up during battle brings up the main menu where you can select an item, a Parasite Energy spell to use, or escape. You can also change your equipment in the menu screen. If your gun runs out of bullets, you can switch to your billy club, for example.
The element of strategy comes into play depending on what gun you have. If you have a powerful grenade launcher that fires five grenades at a time but has a slow rate of firing, then Aya will be a sitting duck standing in one place slowly firing her gun while her ATB bar fills up again. On the other hand, machine guns have a rapid rate of fire, but no specific targeting abilities. Finding and tweaking the right gun for the right battle is a good idea.
As with any RPG, Aya gains experience and levels after battles. With each level up, she also earns BP or Bonus Points. The less the enemy hits you in battle, the more BP you receive during a level up. 100 BP can be redeemed towards increasing some of Aya's stats by one point. You can increase her item capacity or ATB bar filling speed with BP. Or you can allocate a point to her attack, range, or bullet capacity with a particular gun. Or perhaps you'd like to allocate a point to her defense, evasion, or Parasite Energy capacity on her armor.
However, there are flaws in the gameplay. Aya's walking speed is among the slowest I've encountered in an RPG. Her running speed is slower than some RPG characters' walking speed. Because of her slowness, I found myself taking more damage than I should have in battles due to her being a slowpoke and many of the enemies being speedy. However, Aya never encounters more than three enemies at a time in battle, and even with her handicaps, the battles were never frustratingly hard. I'm not very good at action-oriented games, and I found Parasite Eve's fighting system fun rather than frustrating. During exploration, Aya's speed never seemed a bother, probably because the dungeons were not very long and the random encounter rate was very low.
If you have the analog function of your controller on, the D-pad cannot be used. This is rather odd to me. Analog movement on the field and during battles is great, but I prefer the preciseness of the D-pad when navigating menus. The analog pad felt too sensitive during menu navigation. I much prefer the precision of the D-pad when navigating menus.
The third flaw is the junk. Aya often finds items labeled as 'junk' on the field. She can give all her junk to one of the gunsmiths at her precinct. He says it can be used for parts, but I never found anything that came of finding or giving the guy junk. I'd have liked for the junk to play a larger role in gun customization. Perhaps I missed something in the gameplay, and I could be wrong.
Oh, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Parasite Eve's EX mode. After you beat the game, you can play in EX mode. It's basically the same game, but you get to keep your old gear, the enemies are tougher and have more HP, and you can traverse the Chrysler Building bonus dungeon. So the game does have some replay value.
Overall, Parasite Eve feels like a half-hearted effort to me. It is clear that the graphics and battle system took center stage. However, with a rather shallow plotline, boring scripting, characters devoid of personality, and a very short play time, Parasite Eve falls well short of the mark of greatness. I had fun with this game, but in the end it's one of many cases of sadly unrealized potential. Like the Hollywood summer blockbuster, it's an empty calorie snack for your visual senses, but won't go down in history as great classic cinema.