I’m a big RPG fan now, but that wasn’t always the case. Super Mario RPG introduced me to the genre, but, like many people my age, Final Fantasy VII was the one that wowed me the most. After Final Fantasy VII, I was hungry for more, and Square’s next RPG was one that was surprisingly up my alley. Trading a traditional fantasy setting that usually comes with the genre for a Resident Evil-style bio-horror plot, Parasite Eve immediately grabbed me with its compelling setup and clever twist on the FFVII battle system. Even now, 25 years after the initial Japanese release of Parasite Eve, I’m hard pressed to think of an RPG that feels as unique and striking as the PlayStation classic.
Parasite Eve is a sequel to the Japanese novel of the same name by novelist and pharmacologist Hideaki Sena. The game, produced by Hironobu Sakaguchi and directed by Takashi Tokita, was notable for being the first M-rated game from Squaresoft, as well as having a development team that consisted of members in both Japan and the United States.
Immediately upon starting the game, it’s apparent that there’s a huge emphasis on production value. Parasite Eve pushed the boundaries of pre-rendered CG cutscenes in the same way that Final Fantasy VII did, but in the modern and familiar setting of New York City. While they don’t look quite as impressive in 2023, the sequences have extremely cinematic direction, creating a very polished identity that still manages to shine. The in-engine character models forgo FFVII’s exaggerated, blocky look for more realistic proportions, something Square would continue in FFVIII. Even though those models look dated now, there’s something to the indistinct and fuzzy nature of the PS1 graphics that leave just enough to the imagination to allow it to be uncanny. On top of the great visuals, Yoko Shimomura’s score for the game is excellent, combining influences from opera and electronica music into something very unique and fitting for the tone of the game.
Parasite Eve’s opening chapter is an all-time favorite of mine. You’re introduced to modern day NYPD officer Aya Brea, who’s attending the opera with her unnamed date. In a lavishly directed pre-rendered cutscene, you see the beginning of the opera, which is interrupted by a sinister change in the lead actress. As she locks eyes with Aya, the other actors on stage spontaneously combust, a horrifying phenomenon which quickly spreads to the audience. It’s a terrifyingly beautiful scene that contrasts the actress’ continued elegant performance with the chaos of the crowd running for their lives as people burst into flames. Things only get stranger as you enter the backstage area to see a rat gruesomely mutate in front of your eyes and attack. All of this feels more at home in a Resident Evil game than one from the company that brought you Final Fantasy, making for a sequence that grabs you by the guts right out of the gate.
The plot that unfolds feels completely unique in the RPG space, leaning on sci-fi horror with a grounding in reality. You find out that the actress from the opera is the host to “Eve,” possessed by self-aware mitochondria that have mutated. No longer satisfied with being the powerhouse of human cells, mitochondria have decided they are going to take back the world and reshape it in their image. When I played this in 1998, it felt like I was getting a science lesson in the middle of my horror game, which was so unique at the time. In addition to the wonderful opening, there’s other creepy moments peppered throughout the game, leaning heavily into body horror, definitely earning its M-rating.
Having a limited exposure to RPGs when I was young made me always wonder why everyone was just standing in place while trading blows, so Parasite Eve’s changes to the standard system were a breath of fresh air. There is an active time battle meter that fills up to indicate when you can attack, like Final Fantasy VII, but between attacks you can move freely on the battlefield. Not only can you read enemy tells and dodge their attacks, but your relation to your target also matters for the effectiveness of your attack. The closer you are, the more damage you’ll do. An ever growing selection of special abilities, which come from your mitochondria awakening your potential, are used alongside your firearms, giving you plenty of options for battle. It’s also unique among other JRPGs because of the fact that you’re only controlling Aya instead of a large party. Even revisiting it 25 years later, combat feels dynamic, fresh, and most importantly fun.
In addition to the horror theme of the narrative, there are attempts to bring survival horror tropes into Parasite Eve. Inventory management is more important than most RPGs of the time, including a limited inventory that you have to keep in mind when looting an area. The game has random battles, so dodging around enemies to save ammo isn’t really a viable option like it would be in most survival horror games, so it doesn’t fully achieve that tone. There’s a fun variety of locations, from a museum to a hospital to Central Park, but your movement speed is a little bit too slow to make it always fun to explore, especially when the levels get too long towards the end.
Looking back on the game, one of the most refreshing changes from the RPG norm is its length. Instead of taking 60 hours like most games in the genre, Parasite Eve can be beaten in a lean 12 hours or less. There’s a new game plus mode that includes a brand new dungeon set in the Chrysler Building, which is basically an entirely new game mode on its own, but you can get a full story from your first playthrough in less time than a season of prestige television. This helps emphasize the cinematic nature of the game, keeping things moving at a film-like pace rather than dragging things on for hours and hours.
I fully acknowledge that Parasite Eve doesn’t fully hold up to modern gaming standards, now 25 years later, but I had a blast revisiting the game for this article. Its unique setting, strong cinematic direction, and smart melding of genres makes for a memorable experience no matter when you play it. I’m not usually one to want remakes, but this game is begging for it. Final Fantasy VII Remake gives a good template for combining real-time and turn-based battle systems in a modern context, and the recent Resident Evil remakes show how you can successfully transition the survival horror genre out of fixed camera angles and tank controls. Even if we never see any more of the franchise, and maybe looking at the second and third entries in the series maybe that’s for the best, I just want to see more games drawing from diverse sources to create wholly unique and polished experiences.