Better Never than Late: Parasite Eve 2
I can't seem to figure it out, but nothing gives me a craving for bad games more than being sick and couchbound -- which may explain why this past weekend I consciously paid six whole dollars for the PSN version of Parasite Eve 2, a game most people don't even remember, and an unlucky few try to forget. (I'm guessing some nearsighted grandmas must have picked this up for little Billy in lieu of the similar-sounding Resident Evil 2.) To be fair, this purchase had a little inspiration behind it; I recently burned through the first Parasite Eve for the sake of a forthcoming Joystiq article, so asking "What's up with that sequel?" seemed perfectly reasonable and not at all a sign of significant brain damage. Based on me simply being aware of the game back in 2000, I knew it had a mediocre reputation, but not really the specifics.
Ten hours of Parasite Eve 2 later, and I have more specifics than I'll ever need.
Boy howdy, Square sure loved that phony opera synth.
Admittedly, making fun of bad video games is kind of old hat on the Internet, (and I'll keep doing it as long as it brings in the mini-bucks) but playing flops of the past can often be educational to classic gaming dorks like me. For one, bad games tend to rip off elements of successful games from their respective eras, so something like Parasite Eve 2 acts as a strange 32-bit sampler. With the gift of hindsight, it can be interesting to look at a mess of mechanics and pick apart the ones that felt dated then, the ones in vogue at the time, and the ones that would eventually be refined into something much more modern. Coming at the very end of the PlayStation's lifespan, Parasite Eve 2 represents the last gasps of some especially painful design ideas smashed up against the contemporary notion of accessibility (though in a nascent form). The result? A mess of a game that's better to read about than to play for yourself.
In retrospect, it's kind of surprising that Parasite Eve 2 took the form that it did; I'm not entirely sure of the original game's popularity, but Square's first "cinematic RPG" (their words) felt like an attempt to lure in gamers who wanted the graphics of Final Fantasy VII, but not the stodgy, menu-based RPG game play. But where the first game felt like a light RPG with some survival horror trappings, Parasite Eve 2 does just the opposite; it's essentially a bad Resident Evil game -- one that happens to be directed by a staff member who worked on that very series (the scenario writer from the first game, to be exact). A strange move, even discounting Parasite Eve's status as a game that tried to meet RPG and survival horror fans halfway. Take note that by 2000, our brief love affair with survival horror had faded significantly, and even the previous year's Resident Evil 3: Nemesis -- a perfectly fine game -- felt dated and even constrained by the technology.
To it's credit, Parasite Eve 2 features a few novel ideas to cut down on the pain typically brought on by Resident Evil titles; Aya gains both EXP and BP from fighting enemies, which can be traded in for new skills, weapons, and items. The in-game map shows which areas contain monsters -- which you can easily run from, mind you -- and a GPS item makes shooting at off-screen foes (one of the worst parts of survival horror) somewhat effortless. And though Parasite Eve 2 plays some lip service to item conservation, Aya's never far from a bottomless ammo bucket. Obviously, the director recognized some of the common complaints about Resident Evil, and tried to address them as best as he could. So it's more than a little strange that he would add one of that series' biggest issues to another that entered the world free of -- say it with me, now -- TANK CONTROLS.
I defended tank controls during their brief period of relevance, but now that I know better, I'll say this: there's simply no reason for tank controls to exist after the invention of analog sticks -- which I know weren't mandatory for PlayStation games, outside of Ape Escape. With Resident Evil, I understand its wonky controls as a product of their time, and the means of input available to the developers; in other words, "It's 1995, how do we make this character move through a 3D world using only a gamepad?" Playing a 2000 game with tank controls feels considerably strange, especially since Aya Brea got around those old pre-rendered environments just fine with a more intuitive control system two years prior.
Some of the concessions implemented to make the game easier give you a little more breathing room than your typical Resident Evil, but all of that goes out the window when the later chunk of the game forsakes any notion of balance by throwing enemies in your path that both take and absorb way too much damage. And the few boss fights of Parasite Eve 2 don't quite know what to do with the game's clumsy controls; most of them involve continuously running from some kind of attack before it can hit you, which is easier said than done when Aya gets snagged on corners and turns around slower than most battleship.
Backtracking also begins to rear its ugly head a few hours into the game because, hey, those pre-rendered backgrounds don't come cheap! While the first Parasite Eve had Aya jumping around to real locations in new York, part two limits her adventure to a dusty desert town, and the caverns and (in another Resident Evil touch) laboratories that sit beneath it. The initial town of Dryfield has its charms, but the following sections involve a lot of samey corridors (no doubt to save on development costs) that tend to repopulate themselves with enemies after any minor plot point. Compared to the ruined cities of Resident Evils 2 and 3, Parasite Eve 2's backdrop doesn't have much life to it, and rarely reflects the fact that horrible monsters can be found around every corner.
The character of Aya Brea also changed for the worse in Parasite Eve 2 -- what little character existed, anyone. While playing through the first game, I couldn't help but notice that Aya had been portrayed pretty respectably, almost as if Square created her as a response to Lara Croft's grotesque form and the mania surrounding it. Parasite Eve's Aya dresses somewhat conservatively (t-shirt, leather jacket, and jeans), and always takes charge in any given situation -- often, where men cannot.
In comparison, Parasite Eve 2 throws Aya into an outfit nearly as shameful as Jill Valentine's tube top/mini-skirt combo from Resident Evil 3 (which also seemed to be a response to Tomb Raider), and while the game doesn't add or detract much from her barely there personality, it makes various attempts to objectify her in ways the original game did not. For instance, even though it doesn't come until roughly the halfway point, we do get a PG-13 shower scene that I remember seeing screenshots of in magazines at the time -- clearly, Square wanted its fans to know that Aya was back and sexier than ever. That said, let us never discuss her Barely Legal makeover in The Third Birthday, because JESUS are you kidding me.
Truth be told, I didn't actually finish Parasite Eve 2, though the game's certainly "finished" enough for me. Having made it to one terrible final boss and struggling through a wretched fight that boiled down to a battle of attrition, I died on said boss' final form... a sassy little creature with the capability of taking away all of your oh-so-important healing spells with an unblockable attack. And, since dying to this second boss meant going all the way back to a pre-fight save (oh, hello 20th century gaming), I didn't have the patience to try it more than once. And that brings us to this blog post, which I'm writing in a vain attempt to justify my time wasted with Parasite Eve 2... with even more wasted time.
Listen: let's just all pretend this was educational, and you can go ahead and make fun of me in the comments.