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Old 09-01-2011, 10:52 AM   #1 (permalink)
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The 1st Birthday: A Look Back at Parasite Eve

Note: I wrote this back around the time The 3rd Birthday was released in the U.S. and felt it would be worth publishing online now; I've been in a contemplative mood about the relationship between Japanese and U.S. game development as we close in on Tokyo Game Show 2011.

The grand ambition of nearly every Japanese publisher these days seems to be cracking the mystery of the Western market, but few are so frank about it as Square Enix. But then, Square Enix has always courted the world outside Japan with custom content, albeit often in an inelegant or even insulting fashion. Well, the Square part of the company has, anyway; the Enix half gave up midway through the 16-bit era and retreated entirely to Japan, though it probably would have fared better had it localized masterpieces like Dragon Quest V rather than forgettable nothings like Brain Lord and Robotrek.

Square, on the other hand, started making games designed to appeal to Americans and Europeans the moment it had its proverbial foot in the the door of those markets. It followed the respectable success of Final Fantasy and its ostensible sequel with Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, a simplified RPG seemingly meant for younger, less experienced players. The game's true nature was only revealed upon its release in Japan, where it operated under the name of Final Fantasy USA: the obvious takeaway being that so far as Square's designers were concerned, Americans couldn't fully enjoy the fine sophistication of a proper Final Fantasy game. Never mind that the original Final Fantasy reportedly sold better in the U.S. (700,000 units, according to a 1994 EGM) than in Japan (600,000 units, same source).

Square's next attempt was more flattering, not to mention ambitious: Secret of Evermore. Not merely a full (if not entirely polished) work intended to stand up to the likes of Secret of Mana, Evermore was the company's first production designed by its new American studio. It was to be the first in a long line of such creations, games designed by Americans yet imbued with that indelible Square quality. Admittedly, Evermore wasn't quite a masterpiece, but it was decent and hinted at a great future for Square USA... which was promptly cut short when the company killed its Washington-based studio and sent Evermore's designers scrambling to create their own equally ill-fated venture, Big Rain.

More recently, Square (now Square Enix) has taken a much cannier approach to the enigma of the west by flat-out buying a major European studio, Eidos. This gave Square instant access to popular franchises like Tomb Raider, Deus Ex, Dungeon Siege, and Kane & Lynch, freeing its Japanese studios to continue making increasingly insular games about pretty teens who save neon fantasy worlds while dressing like Shibuya street kids without having to worry about whether or not Americans particularly 'get' products of such clearly sophisticated vision. Tetsuya Nomura can keep on making his porcelain fashion plates, and Square can be assured of healthy sales in the west by rebooting Lara Croft every few years. And everyone's happy.

In truth, this is hardly the most graceful solution to the growing disparity between Japanese and western tastes. Sure, Square Enix now has properties appropriate to both markets, but the company is developing something of a split personality in the process of reaching that point. Nowhere is that clearer than in The 3rd Birthday, a potential blockbuster title which panders nakedly to the Japanese audience in ways that Americans are likely to find uncomfortable. It's a literal kind of naked pandering, for one: The big incentive to play and replay the game is that eventually players will unlock a CG movie of its heroine Aya taking a shower that easily qualifies as soft porn. And, with every playthrough of the game, a new fetish-friendly costume is unlocked for Aya -- costumes that shred under the assault of enemies, eventually rent down to little more than a few strips of cloth over a miraculously undamaged bra-and-panties set.

The bitter irony of The 3rd Birthday is that's a sequel to 1998's Parasite Eve, the one Square game that managed to get the duality of appealing to Japanese and American tastes right... and it pulled off this feat more than a decade ago.

Parasite Eve represents an unusual collaboration between Japanese and American designers, a multinational marriage that's much more obvious in hindsight than it was in 1998. Square made much ado about the game's visual appeal, calling it 'the cinematic RPG,' and its emphasis on pre-rendered cutscenes, Hollywood pacing, and compact length were a blatant attempt to appeal to western audiences. It was a refreshing change from Mystic Quest's condescending approach, and far more sensible than Evermore's approach of setting a bunch of developers loose to do as they would 5,000 miles from home base. No, Parasite Eve was smartly made, both in terms of content and behind the scenes as well.

Despite its dual lineage, Parasite Eve feels decidedly like a Square game. Its main characters were designed by artist Tetsuya Nomura, fresh off Final Fantasy VII but still years from being given totalitarian control over the company's entire creative output. The scenario and combat system were drafted by no less a veteran designer veteran designers than Hironobu Sakaguchi, and the cutting-edge music was the work of Yoko Shimomuro, who already had RPGs and action game soundtrack work for the likes of Bahamut Lagoon and Street Fighter II under her belt.

Beyond the core creative staff, though, the people behind Parasite Eve were American, or at least worked in the U.S. The all-important CGI work was produced by a Hollywood studio, and the in-game art (and much of the programming work) was implemented by U.S. staff as well. Square's internal develop supervised and kept things on track, ensuring a consistent vision and quality, but the origins of the game's contents gave the adventure a decidedly different flavor than other Square projects of the era.

Despite its billing as a 'cinematic RPG,' Parasite Eve has much more in common with the era's western-developed graphical adventures than with Chrono Trigger. It's not just that the entire thing was presented with polygonal sprites on pre-rendered backgrounds, Alone in the Dark style; after all, Resident Evil and Square's own Final Fantasy VII had been the ones to popularize that particular look. Rather, there's a distinct feel about the game that is reminiscent of '90s PC adventures like Gabriel Knight. Maybe it's the excruciatingly slow pace at which Aya moves—even her run is more of a saunter—or perhaps it's the occasionally infuriating need to trigger events and find items by pixel-hunting for invisible points in the backgrounds. That's the cynical view, though, and there's far more good to Parasite Eve's American influences than bad.

Besides, the absolute worst thing about the game, its ridiculous story, is wholly the doing of the Japanese staff, who made the strange decision to pitch this RPG designed by and for Americans as a sequel to a Japan-only novel by the same name. The book and game have very little to do with one another, though; the events of the former are referenced by a couple of characters as part of the backstory, but ultimately the game is about Aya and her allies (and, eventually, her sister), all of whom were invented for the PlayStation adventure. Eve is the only one to return from Hideaki Sena's novel, and she's more a concept than a character.

Parasite Eve offers up a frankly goofy story about the day the mitochondria in the human body began to evolve beyond humanity, at which point they collectively decided to start causing people to mutate grotesquely, burst into flame, or gain super-powers -- unlikely stuff at best, though perhaps chosen because it offered a decent enough fantasy pretext for an RPG set in modern-day New York City. Oddly, about six months after the game's U.S. release, the magical powers of mitochondria also ended up being the premise around which the Star Wars prequels revolved -- whether that's a good or bad thing is a call best left to the viewer.

The game's modern-day New York City backdrop sets Parasite Eve apart from a Final Fantasy game. The scenery is much less colorful, more down-to-earth. Drab colors dominate, though the visual design is hardly dull. The static backgrounds allow for fairly detailed background art, from the cluttered 17th Precinct police station offices to the wrought iron gates of the zoo. In true survival horror fashion, the mundanity of the setting makes the presence of the uncanny far more unsettling. The game begins in an opulent opera house where the performance is interrupted by the audience bursting into flames, and this sets the tone for the subsequent experience: Everyday settings, rendered convincingly and dominated by the grotesque.

Parasite Eve doesn't pull its gory punches. People burst into flames, and normal creatures spontaneously mutate in disgusting detail, their skin splitting and skeletons deforming. The vulgarity of it all is mitigated by the dated appearance of the computer graphics, fortunately. Its 1998-vintage CG stands safely on the other cliff of the uncanny valley by today's standards, and one need only compare the way its simple, robotic people ignite and scream to the horrifying detail in which The 3rd Birthday depicts its respective masses of victims exploding into geysers of blood to see just how far computer rendering has come in a decade. It's progress of a sort, I suppose.

The setting and visual presentation make Parasite Eve feel very much like a graphical adventure game of mid-'90s vintage. Each location is lovingly detailed, presented with a range of camera angles, and the overall pacing is quite deliberate. Still, you can definitely see its Square heritage once the action kicks in, as Parasite Eve is still very much an RPG on many levels.

Combat is an unusual blend of turn-based and real-time action. Enemies attack semi-randomly—semi-randomly in the sense that they can't be seen before battles begin, but they're triggered by Aya passing over set hotspots on the screen. Despite the pause before combat begins, each fight plays out on the same screen as exploration, similar to Chrono Trigger: Aya moves into position, the enemies materialize or dash into view, and the fight begins.

While Parasite Eve did quite a number of new and interesting things in its day, the battle system is the one facet of the game that's aged with grace. The cutscenes look dated, the visual presentation is antiquated, and the concept of a 'cinematic RPG' seems completely mundane today. The combat system, on the other hand, is still pretty compelling. Aya fights solo through the entire game, and Square took advantage of the relative simplicity offered by a single playable character to mix up the idea of how RPG battles can work. Aya can move freely around the combat zone, evading enemy attacks and setting herself up for strikes of her own. Players have access to two skill sets, weapons and magic (here called Parasite Energy, which is obviously just magic by another name), and once Aya's active-time meter refills, a press of the input button will pause the battle to allow you to choose your action.

Here the game becomes interesting, as positioning becomes a crucial factor to combat. Aya relies primarily on firearms, each of which has a specific effective range. Handguns have poor range but are quick to use, minimizing the amount of time Aya is open and vulnerable as she fires; rifles are powerful and can span the whole screen, but they have a huge speed penalty and are likely to give the bad guys a few free counter-attacks as Aya takes aim. Aya's range is depicted as a sort of wireframe dome, and every enemy (and occasionally multiple points on a single enemy) within that dome can be tabbed through and selected. This concept would be recycled and refined later for Vagrant Story, but here it gets the job done, even if it is rather simplistic.

Outside of combat, guns can be customized by adding small power and range upgrades or by making more significant mods. You can add random burst-fire effects (kind of stupid), increase the number of rounds fired per turn (iffy, since it leaves you standing vulnerable as each shot is fired), augment bullets with effects like poison or acid (brilliant), and even boost the number of actions you're allowed per turn (almost game-breakingly good). Gun enhancement doesn't really shine until the New Game Plus mode, though: You're allowed to carry one gun and one piece of armor into subsequent playthroughs, instantly boosting your power for your replays and allowing you to greatly enhance some of the more advanced items you find in the New Game Plus-only bonus dungeon by transferring the stats of your carryover weapon onto the new items you collect.

In truth, the New Game Plus is essentially the 'real' game, though the carryover gear and bonus points gimp the difficulty somewhat. But it's only in the bonus dungeon, the 70-odd-story Chrysler Building, that you reach the game's true ending and learn the truth behind Aya and Maya and their relationship to Eve. Unfortunately, the Chrysler Building kind of sucks as a dungeon, as each floor is randomly generated and changes every time you leave. The building has no save points, and you have to best a boss every ten floors in order to establish a new shortcut to let you bypass cleared floors. The bosses, however, are infuriatingly cheap, bordering on unfair, and each set of ten floors takes roughly an hour to clear -- meaning that if you succumb to a boss' bastardry, you're set back an hour of very boring progress.

Hiccups of this nature aside, though, Parasite Eve is the sort of game that more RPGs should aspire to be: smart, compact, interesting to play, and set in a world that's not just a dreary medieval fantasy land burnished with slapdash sci-fi embellishments. Disappointingly, though, not only have tragically few RPGs bothered to take a clue from Parasite Eve -- Vagrant Story being a glorious exception -- even the series hasn't bothered to stay true to itself. Parasite Eve II was a fairly mundane Resident Evil clone, and The 3rd Birthday is a gimmicky third-person shooter. Neither is particularly bad, but neither is particular inventive, either. Parasite Eve was uniquely forward-thinking, both in terms of mechanics and in how it was developed. That makes it the video game version of the prophet who is without honor in his home town.
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Old 09-01-2011, 10:42 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Re: The 1st Birthday: A Look Back at Parasite Eve

Thank you Robot.

I actually PSN'd this game recently. So far, I'm up to the point where you get to learn first hand that giving yourself the capacity to shoot seven grenade launching shells once you get your turn is actually not a good idea.
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Old 09-01-2011, 11:35 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Re: The 1st Birthday: A Look Back at Parasite Eve

Don't ever play The Third Birthday.
It's related to Parasite Eve but, it really isn't good.
Gave me a bad first impression to the series, maybe I should try the first game.
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