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Parasite Eve and the RPG road less traveled

Bob Mackey

In his weekly column, writer Bob Mackey will alternate between two of his passions: the Japanese RPG genre and classic games.

As a lifelong follower of Square Enix – through both good times and bad – Parasite Eve stands as the first of its US-released games that left me feeling pangs of disappointment. Parasite Eve deviates wildly from the prescribed JRPG format, and even though its battle system introduced elements the developer would expand upon in the future, Square's take on Resident Evil features one playable character involved in a story that barely squeaks past the 10-hour mark.

To some, Parasite Eve's focus on streamlining Square's expected RPG design can't be seen as anything but sacrilege, and you can count me in with those who initially felt burned after blowing through the game over the course of a weekend. But it should be noted that Square created this new brand of "cinematic RPG" (as they would call it) to draw in an audience larger than the hardcore JRPG stalwarts who had supported them up to that point. Final Fantasy VII might have sold based on its impressive CGI-laden advertisements, but it did so at the cost of alienating players unprepared for menu-driven gameplay.

In what feels like an extremely prescient move, Square cast Parasite Eve in the mold of our modern, AAA gaming blockbusters, giving gamers a guided amusement park experience lousy with set pieces, and one that can be digested in just a few sittings. It's no wonder that RPG fans like me didn't know what to make of it.

I haven't thought much about Parasite Eve lately, mostly because Square hasn't really given me a reason to; Parasite Eve 2 traded in the first game's light RPG elements for the sake of being a mediocre Resident Evil knockoff, and, nearly a decade later, The 3rd Birthday marked one of Square Enix's most egregious appeals to the burgeoning pervert market. But while its short runtime contradicted some unspoken rule of JRPGs, the original Parasite Eve managed to leave me with fond memories in the fall of 1998 – a period in which some of the biggest and most influential games of all time would launch. Parasite Eve certainly can't be placed alongside Half-Life, Metal Gear Solid, or The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, though it remains an interesting glimpse into a future of JRPGs that never happened.

I've been playing Parasite Eve over the past week as a brief respite from my ongoing Monster Hunter addiction, and in the absence of teenage expectations (the worst kind of expectations), Square's first flirtation with "going Hollywood" – a maneuver that would eventually lead to its fall from grace – continues to be an engrossing little oddity, in spite of the creaky technology at work behind the scenes. If you have any knowledge of its staff, it shouldn't come as any surprise that Final Fantasy IV lead designer and Chrono Trigger director Takashi Tokita took the reins on Parasite Eve; those two previous games in particular stripped and sanded down the many rough RPG edges for a much more approachable experience.

Parasite Eve's battle system even feels like a logical evolution of Chrono Trigger's, with its focus on immediacy (random encounters don't take place in some phantom battle dimension), along with the added option of free movement. The game also cuts down on item management with an altered take on the recharging health system popularized by Halo: Combat Evolved: Instead of being forced to juggle various healing items – even if they are present and slightly unnecessary – protagonist Aya Brea comes equipped with a constantly recharging "PE" meter used for healing, attacking, buffing and debuffing, and said meter fills at a healthy pace. Most fights involve avoiding simple enemy patterns and environmental hazards, all while deciding on the best moments to open fire – not the most complex battle system in the world, but one that still offers plenty of wiggle room for different strategies.

In the medium of video games, the term "cinematic" can be a loaded one, and, for a while, developers used this word to mean "as much story as the CD-ROM format will allow." I didn't quite remember how much Parasite Eve burdened the experience with exposition, but Square gives this horror story a light touch, while keeping everything moving at a fast pace thanks to the urgency demanded by the plot. While the game contains a few Kojima-style infodumps, Parasite Eve mostly stays true to the descriptor "cinematic" with cutscenes that don't keep the player waiting too long, and often cut away as soon as they serve their intended purposes.

As a fan of bad movies, I can tell you that prolonged parking scenes tend to be their most prominent feature; namely, any scene where a character slowly pulls up to their destination, exits their car, and makes a long journey through an interior area – as seen in The Room, Birdemic, and everything made by Ed Wood. The prolonged padding of JPRG storytelling can often feel like gaming's own version of the infamous parking scene, and Parasite Eve does its best to avoid giving the player too much information, even if its two discs could hold a near-endless amount of text. In our current landscape, where every new, big-name IP needs to be a trilogy in order to justify its existence, it's refreshing to jump back into a fully formed game world that doesn't leave questions unanswered just to prolong its lifespan.

Fifteen years later, Parasite Eve exists as a possible RPG design path that, for whatever reason, Square decided not to pursue. While their intentions remain unknown to me, it certainly would have been interesting if more of their RPGs took the same approach as Parasite Eve. A 16-year-old Bob Mackey scoffed at the game's short running time, but the 31-year-old me has a much healthier perspective. In a world where committing to an RPG means signing at least 50 hours of your life away, a short-but-sweet experience feels like an increasing rarity, with games like Crimson Shroud and the Penny Arcade installments popping up now and then to prove the genre doesn't necessarily need to be a protracted or life-consuming experience.

In a disastrous economy that's since made buffet-style entertainment the norm out of necessity – hello, 9-hour Hobbit series – often, it's hard to remember what it's like to be left wanting more. The greatest thing you can say about Square's only entry into its invented sub-genre is that Parasite Eve does exactly that.
Bob Mackey is a freelance writer based out of Berkeley, California. Since 2006, he's written a semimonthly column for the comedy website Something Awful, and his work has been featured on outlets such as 1UP, Gamasutra, Electronic Gaming Monthly, and Cracked. You can follow him on Twitter at @bobservo.

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