Cops, Monsters, and Manhattan—RPG Club Plays Parasite Eve Part 1

Welcome back to Pixels of Death’s RPG Club, the recurring series where our staff tosses themselves into the role playing games of yore and tries our best to make sense of them today. After the unadulterated weirdness of Earthbound in August, the team decided we’d go with something much more standard and down to Earth. That idea was promptly thrown out and instead we started to play Square Enix’s Parasite Eve.

For those who have never played the game, Parasite Eve is a Playstation 1 RPG from the late 90s developed and published by Square Enix, then known as Squaresoft. The game mixes action RPG combat with survival horror aesthetics ripped straight out of Resident Evil and tells the tale of NYPD officer Aya Brea as she struggles to understand a series of horrific mutations. Over the course of six days in Manhattan, Aya discovers a nefarious plot and an endless supply of pseudo-scientific jargon.

But that’s enough with the boring demographic information. Let’s get down to what we actually think about the title so far. For this first entry, our writers played through at least the first day, with many completing the second as well.

An early area in Parasite Eve.

Reid McCarter:

There is something very refreshing about how Parasite Eve stars a cop who protects herself with flak jackets and fights with a gun. Coming from Earthbound (the subject of our last RPG Club, which I assume all of you have printed out and sleep with under your pillow by now) into Square’s sci-fi/horror role-playing game makes me wish that more games in this genre would turn away from swords and sorcery and embrace the real world a bit more instead. Granted, within in the first hour the protagonist, Aya, has learned both a healing and enemy scanning spell and encountered grotesque monsters, but these fantasy elements are grounded by the game’s setting — a facsimile of late 1990s New York City — and are “explained” through pseudo-scientific terminology that, completely unrealistic as it is, can at least be found in actual dictionaries.

The introduction to Parasite Eve is compelling for these reasons. Too often role-playing games toss players into a world where every term is invented and there is no real context provided for the narrative. Final Fantasy and Elder Scrolls games, while often fun, are overwhelming during their openings. Both series (and they’re not the only ones) are overly fond of dumping fake noun after fake noun on the audience until it’s difficult to develop any real understanding of their worlds, let alone find a way to get invested in their stories. It’s great to see Parasite Eve open with a New York City police officer heading out on a date to Carnegie Hall before things start getting weird. This helps make the situation immediately easier to care about because I know what New York City is, I know what a cop is, and I know what species Aya belongs to. When mitochondria-related mutations and early childhood laboratory flashbacks start popping off I’m able to contextualize these new elements without having to do the extra mental gymnastics of remembering which kingdom the protagonist is in, what an Amulet of Binding does, or, uh, what a G’huarin is.

So, good job kicking your story off Parasite Eve. I’m excited to see what happens next.

The sewers in Parasite Eve serve as a breeding ground for baddies, naturally.

Samer Farag:

I’ve heard of Parasite Eve in passing, but have never felt the need to play it. To be honest, it’s refreshing to delve into a game that I’ve never experienced before. A few hours in, after finishing Day 2 of Parasite Eve, one thing stuck with me more than anything else after I’d shut off the game.

It wasn’t the fact that Aya seems like a strong female lead, not often seen in video games. It wasn’t the fact that the game was using “mitochondria” way too liberally for my tastes. And it wasn’t the fact that there was a Black character in my JRPG that wasn’t a walking stereotype (which is awesome, and something I’ll probably get into later).

No, it was the game’s pre-rendered backgrounds that I was thinking about most.

Pre-rendered backgrounds are fascinating. As a kid, I loved them. They held a sense of mystery, and their graphical fidelity was something that hadn’t been seen in video games before. But after experiencing much of what modern video games have to offer, pre-rendered backgrounds have since lost their luster.

That being said, with some thought, I’ve begun to understand many of the benefits pre-rendered backgrounds had for the PS1 era; especially for a game like Parasite Eve.

Parasite Eve is a game that takes its sense of atmosphere seriously, and pre-rendered backgrounds lend well to that atmosphere. Pre-rendered backgrounds are static and lifeless, with very little in the way of particle effects, or really, any movement whatsoever. While that can be seen as a negative, this works in Parasite Eve‘s favor. New York is deserted. Only Aya and the vicious monsters she encounters exist in this haunted ecosystem. Thus, the lifelessness of the game’s pre-rendered backgrounds accentuate the uneasiness that you’re *supposed* to be feeling as you play the game.

Beyond that, pre-rendered backgrounds play a role in the cinematography of the game. Full 3D camera control is helpful in allowing a player to view a game world from multiple angles. But pre-rendered backgrounds can be used by developers to create interesting camera angles, putting focus on important plot points and landscapes. This also works from a battle perspective. Combat tactics can vary drastically depending on the angle given to you in a specific scene. Some battles can take place in a constricting viewpoint, making quick dodging key, while others can take place in open spaces, with various painted in objects obstructing your path.

Overall, I’ve come to appreciate the pre-rendered backgrounds of Parasite Eve. All that’s left is for the rest of the game to impress me. I like to give JRPGs that I’ve found myself invested in at least 10 hours of freebies, before I begin to criticize things like plot and slow pacing. Look for more thoughts next week.

Yay fire!

Mike Barrett:

Growing up around the forests and farmlands in Pennsylvania, I rarely ever had the chance to see a place I knew well appear as a location in a movie, television show, or video game. There was one time I can recall clearly when a public park from my town showed up in NBA Homecourt as the home court for former Detroit Piston’s shooting guard Richard ‘Rip’ Hamilton, but that’s it.

So you can guess how startling it was for me to pick up Parasite Eve and see a digital version of the place I live in now, New York City, being torn apart by monsters. Somehow, despite having lived in the area for three years, I’ve managed to miss playing anything that uses the Big Apple as a setting. But Square’s modern-day tale of our biology turning against us features tons of iconic New York landmarks as the backdrop for terror.

I know exactly where Aya is in the real world at any given moment! I’ve walked past Carnegie Hall where she’s shooting a mutated rat in the face. I’ve had a tooth pulled at a dentist in the top of the Chrysler Building, which serves as the game’s secret challenge mode. I’ve gone running in Central Park, though not in that for-my-life-away-from-beasts way.

An immediate connection formed between me, the main character, and the city itself from the moment the game began. This isn’t me in screwing around in some imaginary world I’m destined to save (but really just want cool looking weapons and maybe a party romance), this is a real place with real-fictional people in danger. Though I played the game 15 years ago as a child, I’m finding it harder to ignore the consequences of the plot and get lost in the gamey stuff like stats and boss fights, things that typically pull my progress obsessed mind along.

Despite the jagged PS1 visuals and horribly wonky dialogue, this game feels significant in a way I’ve never experienced before thanks to the city. New York is the victim, and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let my new home go to ruin.

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And that’s all for now! Come back next week to see how we’re faring against Parasite Eve‘s grotesque monsters and dubious science. As always, feel free to play along with us and leave your comments down below.