Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
In the world of Japanese horror games, Parasite Eve is a weird case. It is not quite obscure enough to be considered a hidden gem, but it is also not on level with contemporaries like Resident Evil and Silent Hill.
But maybe it should be placed on a higher pedestal, because for its particular time and place in the history of video games, Parasite Eve really stands out as a spectacular (and very peculiar) achievement. Somehow, it holds up a lot better than most games like it because it is more like the games of today.
I’m sure that being a horror / RPG hybrid turned off a lot of people during the initial release – it certainly was one of the reasons I steered clear of it in my teens – but since almost every modern action game or first person shooter has RPG elements these days, there is almost something portentous about the aspirations of Parasite Eve.
Where it fails, it fails miserably. The writing is laughable – the dialogue, in particular, is a haphazard maelstrom of one-liners, cliches, and half-assed jokes – and for all of the great things about it, the game is still undoubtedly of its era, both in terms of how it looks (icky) and how quaint and simplistic it is.
Still, Parasite Eve remains an enthralling experience nearly a decade-and-a-half after its release, which is more than can be said about most of the games of its era. The combat holds up surprisingly well, the leveling and inventory mechanics are fun to play around with, and the story, though ludicrous, is a flawed example of a team trying to put together an interesting narrative for an hours-long experience, all of which are more than enough to keep players entertained for hours.
In Parasite Eve, you play as NYPD cop Aya Brea, who, after a disastrous, fiery date at the opera, finds that she has a weird mental link with the game’s eponymous villain. She chases Eve through several key New York locations, which seem to have somehow been cribbed from both Ghostbusters movies, uncovering a weird, somewhat science fiction-y plot about (and I could not make this up) mitochondria.
There is a subplot involving your partner and a random Asian stereotype, but beyond Eve and Aya, mitochondria definitely takes center stage in the game’s story. Mitochondria is probably said two or three dozen times in the game as a way of explaining the ridiculous supernatural elements, playing them off as totally scientifically feasible. Mitochondria is everywhere, apparently. As a passive observer of this review, you might think I’m laying on pretty thick about mitochondria for effect, but you’d be wrong. The word ‘mitochondria’ is mentioned in at least every other dialogue sequence not involving Eve, and every single dialogue scene involving the villain.
And though I don’t fully understand the gist of the plot – mitochondria has evolved without the aid of human genetics, and so it is somehow independent of humanity, or something – the plot isn’t really what drives the game. Sure, you might bask in the relatively unsophisticated writing ironically, but there isn’t really anything memorable about the story. It’s your typical save-the-world venture, only it goes to Dead Alive levels of insanity at certain points to stand out to the audience.
Where Parasite Eve really stands out is in the gameplay. The controls are clunky in the way anyone who’s played late-90s survival horror games would notice, but it is no worse than the early Resident Evils. Opening trunks and doors, especially, can be a pain, and the scale of the game shifts so often as to ruin the perception of depth. But, for the most part, the game handles nicely.
The ease of control is particularly noticeable during combat. The UI is easily understood, and moving around in the combat space while also managing attacks and spells is fun. This is coming from someone who is completely illiterate with traditional RPGs, so that should say something about the playability of this game. You’re not always placed in a great space for fighting, but the fighting itself is almost never the problem. You run around and wait for your AT (attack time) to recharge and then select a target. Based on the strength of the weapon or its specific limitations, you inflict damage on the enemy.
Similarly, the leveling mechanic is simple, mostly because it is automatic. Being involved in a lot of combat jumps up your level fairly quickly. You can then place points into a whole variety of elements, from Attack Time recharge to individual guns, and how you spec up your attributes might have an effect on the game later on, definitely where the final bosses are concerned. Go into the final battles underprepared, and you’re going to have a really difficult go of it.
The combat is randomized, which can be a fairly polarizing element of older RPGs, but it is fun enough that being dragged into encounters doesn’t matter all that much. It isn’t until later in the game, when a random encounter occurs in literally every room, that the randomization becomes trying.
Mostly, however, fighting the wide assortment of monsters – which, to my knowledge, have nothing to do with the plot – gives the player an opportunity to experiment with weapons, armor, and upgrades. There is also the inclusion of special powers in the form of PE (or Parasite Energy), which give Aya everything from health boosts and speed to revival from death.
The dungeons can be quite confusing and labyrinthine, so you might spend a lot of time wandering down same-y paths and overly monochromatic rooms, if you’re not careful. And while the cut scenes somehow manage to hold up and look pretty awesome after all of these years, the overall style of the game suffers from being released in the late 90s, not a great time for 3D PlayStation games. The color schemes consist of either flashy clashing brights, reminiscent of the early 90s, or overwhelmingly brown, drab backgrounds. It’s not bad if you’re passing through, but if you get stuck in, say, the NYC sewer system, the scenery will become fairly revolting after a spell.
As the story progresses, how and why Aya is involved becomes clearer, but the game seems to take a deliberate joy in explaining everything, so be prepared for extended, overly explanatory cutscenes, which are unskippable and often occur just after a save point. In some ways, having to tap X through every line of dialogue before encountering the final iteration of Eve may be the most infuriating part of the game. (Not to mention that the final version of Eve is controller-breakingly difficult and will require several retries.) However, the save points themselves occur more often than in Resident Evil and are not limited.
You’ll probably curse the game’s makers for throwing several versions of a final boss at you, but if you’re quick and resourceful with your upgrades, then you should be able to put this whole nightmare to rest.
I haven’t picked up a lot of PS1 games recently, but I’d venture to guess that technological and mechanical innovations of the last decade have rendered 99% of them unplayable, and so that is probably one of the best things that can be said about Parasite Eve. Even given the graphical and mechanical flaws, it’s still a fun, interesting, and rewarding experience.
Certainly, players unfamiliar with the laughable simplicity of storytelling in these types of games will have a lot to overlook, but it’s kind of like listening to really funky older music. You might not entirely “get” it, but what you look for is the kernel that makes the experience still worthwhile.
Parasite Eve is seldom mentioned as a classic, but it deserves to be given as much credit as possible for what it does well. The somewhat incomprehensible story may be to blame for its second tier rank among the horror games of its day – I am amazed that it is based on a novel – but the irony is that perhaps all of the things that made it seem weird at the time make it stand out in a positive way today.
The Final Word: Give Parasite Eve a shot if you’re a fan of weird Japanese games and can run down a PS1 machine. It’s worth a shot for the horror completist, and it really even works as an evolutionary fossil between simple action games of the 90s and the RPG-tinged shooters of the 00s.