In the 1990s Square was making a big push towards making video games more like film. Starting with Final Fantasy VII with it’s very impressive opening cinematic and character focused story. This continues throughout their remaining SNES games, and into the PS1 era. Emphasis is placed upon story, cutscenes, and visuals. This comes to a head with the bombastic cinematics of FF7 and its later siblings. Each of these games felt like RPGs that utilized filmic elements to help tell their story, but never truly “cinematic” RPGs. That title is most aptly applied to Parasite Eve. It packs many filmic elements together with innovative RPG mechanics to create a very unique experience.
Christmas Eve 1997, NYPD officer Aya Brea is going to the Opera on a date. During the female lead’s big solo, the other actors and members of the audience begin to spontaneously combust. Without hesitating, Aya shoulder checks her date out of the way, draws her pistol, then approaches the stage. The actress identifies herself as Eve and babbles on about mitochondria. When Aya attempts to apprehend her, the actress runs. Aya chases the actress backstage, encountering mutated animals along the way. Eventually Eve escapes, but not before transforming into a horrifying monstrosity. And so begins Aya’s 6-day investigation into Eve, mitochondrial evolution, and her own immunity to them.
Parasite Eve is a unique hybrid of a survival horror, and role playing game. It’s graphics utilize 3D character models on top of pre-rendered 2D backgrounds, like that of other Square Soft RPGs of the time. This allows for very detailed environments, but less detailed character models. The game leans into its strong point with very “New York” environments like Central Park, NYPD offices, and The American Museum of Natural History. As you explore these environments you collect items and encounter mitochondria mutated animals.
The screen flashes grey, you hear a heartbeat, then enemies appear on screen. Parasite Eve’s combat happens within its explorable environments, instead of a separate screen. The combat is a combination of real time movement, with an ATB meter to execute actions. ATB pauses the game, allowing you to carefully consider if you want to use an item, a parasite power, or fire your gun.
Gunplay is the core of combat. When attack is selected a large sphere appears around Aya, indicating her range. Most of her guns have multiple shots, allowing you to choose where to place each one. It’s possible to put each round in a single enemy or spread them around. Some guns have special properties like tranquilizer, fire, or ice. While firing Aya is a sitting duck, so timing and positioning is key.
After battles Aya collects items and experience points. She will also occasionally learn Parasite Powers when leveling. Because the combat focuses on gunplay, powers are generally support abilities like healing and buffs. Using powers depletes the PE gauge, which recharges over time in combat.
Plot, setting, theme, and visuals all resemble other horror titles of the time, like Resident Evil. It’s leveling systems, and exploration/combat split are inherited from its creator’s RPG experience. Its innovative combat system acts as a keystone for the games overall hybrid nature.
Prior to playing Parasite Eve, I was under the impression it was mostly just an interesting hybrid of RPG and survival horror. In my mind it was Square reacting to the success of the survival horror genre at the time, basically a Resident Evil knockoff. While I do believe that RE was a large inspiration for the development of Parasite Eve, its ambitions were quite a bit deeper than just imitation.
Like I mentioned in the intro, Square Soft (especially PE’s producer Hironobu Sakaguchi) always seemed interested in making games more like movies. Lots of times this took the form of just straight up adding movies to games in the form of cut scenes. Essentially you had a typical RPG, but with literal movies attached.
Parasite Eve takes a different approach, by taking the elements of movies and retrofitting them onto games. This starts with the premise: a New York cop fights monsters while investigating a mysterious paranormal entity. New York is a very common setting for film and TV, but unusual for games, especially JRPGs. Police procedurals are another common genre of Film and TV, that isn’t too uncommon in games but, rare for RPGs. Horror helps bridge the gap between film and RPG as its one of the few film genres to feature monsters.
Cinematic elements extend into gameplay as well. Aya is the only character you control, acting as the “star” of the game. She is supported by a small cast who help explain and drive the plot, but she is the only one driving the action. The games visuals utilize many cinematic camera angles to emphasize drama and increase tension. The combat system supports this goal as well by focusing on action movie friendly gunplay. Keeping battles in the same areas as exploration helps maintain continuity and promotes immersion.
All these elements combine into Square Soft’s most successful attempt at creating a film-like experience in video game form. It’s surprising that they followed this game with an actual Resident Evil knock off with Parasite Eve 2. I kind of understand why. While Parasite Eve 1 was very interesting, the simple combat system got stale after a while. Fortunately, it’s a short game, so it never totally overstays its welcome. While I wouldn’t call it a failed experiment, it could have been better.
That’s why it’s disappointing the series went in a different direction after the first game. The combat system provided a good base that could have been fleshed out more in sequels. Vagrant Story’s combat system bears some resemblance to Parasite Eve’s, but with more complexity. Maybe it will have the more in-depth version of Parasite Eve I’d hoped for in it’s sequel.