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Parasite Eve II (PlayStation) artwork

Parasite Eve II (PlayStation) review


"AYAAAAAAAAAAAAA! "



AYAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

That's both me yelling out the name of Parasite Eve 2's (PE2's) heroine, and my scream of frustration at this game. Square's full-blown entry into the Survival Horror stakes mobilises tons of technical wunderkind features, many of them completely original for the genre, then befouls the lot with endlessly stupid and arbitrary game design and a truly dumb outlook.

Adult world portrayed in juvenile terms with bubblegum dialogue? - Check.

No voice acting but characters gesticulate like lunatics? - Check.

Battles are tough but save points are terribly placed? - Check.

Inventory decisions must be made with ESP? - Check.

You must search every hotspot 3 times or you will miss crucial stuff? - Check.

Annoying 2-faced attitude towards Men and Women? - Check.

etc. etc.

''My ovaries!!!''

Let's get you up to speed. The sci-fi concept of the PE games is that rogue parasitic organelles hiding in human cells known as Mitochondria have been starting to go berserk lately, resulting in humans transforming into various nasty mutants called NMCs (Neo-Mitochondrian Creatures). We get to play Aya Brea, who as an NYPD officer helped put down the 1997 NMC uprising in the first game in this series. Note that the first game had turn-based combat and was apparently quite a different kettle of fish to this one. I haven't played it myself.

Now Aya's working in LA for an arm of the FBI known as MIST (Had enough acronym punishment yet?) MIST stands for Mitochondrian Investigation and Suppression Team. Aya's own Mitochondria are slightly aroused from her involvement in this whole business, meaning she can harness PARASITE ENERGY - which in effect gives her magic or supernatural powers. She'll need them too now that NMCs are starting to rampage around LA, which is just the launchpoint for another twisty turny Parasite Eve adventure.

Home on the Range?

After a prototypically lush opening to the game with memorable rock-techno score and drool-inducing image montage (do survival horror games have the best intros in the universe or what?), we find Aya on the shooting range in MIST HQ. Now this is great! Or is it?

There are 5 levels of training which will teach you how to move around and how to use the game's targeting system, which opposes the button scheme from Resident Evil games for starters (heh). You have a choice of 3 pieces of music you can listen to as you train to get your adrenaline pounding, and the stress-inducing synth mantra of the sublime 'Pick up the Gauntlet' is worth %80 of the score for this game alone. And yet already I'm wondering (because this isn't 'Shenmue' where being sidelined is a reason to live), 'Am I supposed to hang around here and complete all 5 levels of training before I leave?' It seemed like a really tedious idea but I was worried to depart too soon. The game gave no indication either way. So immediately I started to experience the annoying querulousness of PE2.

When Aya gets out in the field, gameplay is primarily in the Resident Evil style. We guide our sexy and waify blonde heroine through shimmering backdrops and camera angles which cut about dramatically. Undoubtedly the graphics, sounds and music are exceptional throughout PE2. Pre-rendered backdrops of glassy LA, the red-saturated Mojave desert and a neon-lit underground base are deeply atmospheric. Lighting effects upon the characters are more dynamic than for any other survival horror game I've seen - almost every object and surface will alter the quality of light. The water in the lake system is the BEST and MOST LUSH undulating water I've ever seen in a videogame! I swear I wanted to drink the screen. But...

When good-looking games turn bad

Talking to characters produces conversations in subtitle only. I was really disappointed that I'd never get to hear anyone's voice. Then, when the designers go 'halfway' with the idea - that is, characters sometimes laugh, snort or grunt, but never utter words - you have the curious effect of a world of miming deaf-mutes. A lot of the FMVs come across as very strange and unintentionally funny because of this, and it's hardly giving the game a credible feeling. Oh, and everyone waves their arms A WHOLE LOT. Sometimes when they're angry, they'll hit things! Expositional acting 101.

Now, walk up to something and click the X button to look at it. You could try to run up to it, but running in this game is a joke and paint drys faster than Aya runs. So you clicked X... Aya cranes her head and tells you what's going on in her cute 'talking to herself' style. But things get foul. You have to click again to check for a 2nd comment or clue, again for the 3rd one, and then at least once more to make sure you've reached the 'final' comment. I detest this stupid arbitrary 'You must search everything 3+ times or you will not find all the items' system. I only realised this was going on a third of the way through the game, by which time I'd missed some important pick-ups. I should have clicked on the cupboard TWICE and actually disregarded Aya's initial comment that there was nothing in it! How stupid of me to believe her!! Really, this is total throwback stuff.

Puzzles can be just as annoying. If you work out the solution to a puzzle on your own, or even guess one in advance ('Hey, there's a pile of tools here, I'll take one with me because it could be handy later'), you simply won't be allowed to apply it. The game will force you to backtrack endlessly so that Aya herself gets the idea by talking to some other character. Then suddenly the relevant piece of scenery becomes 'live'. Bleh. At least they make up for this with a few demandingly abstract pattern-based and numerical puzzles late in the game. Dancing across stones atop 'The Pyramid of Tlaloc' was great fun.

Single White Female

The esteemed Zigfried summed up the gratuitousness of heroine Aryan Brea - sorry, I mean Aya Brea - thusly: 'Basically she's a hot chick.' In and of itself, that's fine with me. But PE2 displays an unbelievably annoying and hypocritical coyness about this whole issue, which is all the fault of Aya's creators, not the woman herself. She mooches around on the CD label unbuttoning her shirt to the nothing underneath for no apparent reason, and yet as boring sidekick Kyle Madigan hits on her with monotonous frequency throughout the game she mutters stuff like, 'Dream on!'

Huh?! Well, which is the real her? Basically the game is dressed up by dorky lads at Square in %100 leer-oriented Aya paraphernalia which is actually the antithesis of her down-to-earth character, and not even true to the game's world. She is made to wear a 1-inch miniskirt to fight mutants in the Mojave desert! I was waiting for one of the military boffins she meets to say, 'CHRIST WOMAN, PUT SOME PANTS ON IF YOU WANT TO KILL MUTANTS!' When I see her legs pouring out of that skirt I get excruciating feelings, but I'm also just angry about the two-facedness of the whole enterprise. I also doubt that the irony of Aya's extreme version of blue-eyed blondeness in a game with heavy genetic themes was apparent to anyone from the same daggy little responsible group at Square.

Fortunately Aya herself is a very likeable person, friendly with a touch of Gen-X flipness. You will really enjoy the endearing and cute comments she makes as you investigate the world of the game. My favourite is 'Um, I can hear you,' when the redneck garage guy Mr. Douglas is whining about her in the 3rd person, though to her face. She also resorts to sarcasm frequently as we are forced to click on such objects as a urinal three times, thanks to the game's idiotic engine: 'These would be urinals.'

But even this humour can go awry. In one memorable scene in the desert town of Dryfield we can hear the blood-curdling screams of a tortured woman coming from the next building. Your imagination is running riot at this point because you don't know what's happening to her and you're trying to break into that building! But all atmosphere is destroyed as we click madly on hotspots and Aya continues to joke about the environment as if the tortured woman isn't even there. Dud.

The much-vaunted 'Aya takes a shower' scene is of course all tease in keeping with the two-faced outlook of the game. Yuck, Aya doesn't look so hot in FMVs anyway where her legs are reduced to anorexic poles sticking out of a nightgown and her face turns to horribly inexpressive CGI putty. But there is very pleasing close-up detail of her character in the regular playing of the game - her face looks really nice with all features apparent and her oddly-chosen clothes are vivid. Still, the game's 'hot and cold' attitude towards both Aya and the player makes me extremely cynical.

''My rifle has a grenade launcher attached to it!''

Mercifully, you'll be reinvigorated by PE2's combat system, which is genuinely innovative for this genre. When you are threatened by some slavering mutant, you'll hear and 'see' a heartbeat before the game jumps into a specific battle mode with distressing music. The intricate targeting system is now operational. There are nods to the RPG system working in the background which are effortlessly woven into the shooting action. As you blast enemies you'll see the numeric damage ring up over them. Reloading your guns is a HUGE deal here. There are tons of weapons from silenced pistols up to grenade launchers, all behaving realistically loading-wise, and changing carts at the wrong moment will get you mauled.

You can also expend MP (Mitochondria Points, or was it Magic Points?) to activate your Parasite Abilities, with which you can shoot fireballs, torch the area, suck life from your foes, heal yourself etc... they look great, with neato wireframe targeting and explosions of swirling magic dust, and they sound great with a few choice musical notes pulsing through the air. Choosing when and how to use them is highly strategic.

If you win the battle, you gain XP, MP, and finally BP (Bounty Points) which you can spend at 'shop' areas in the game to buy cool new weapons and items. XP is used to revive up to 4 levels of Parasite Energy (your magic) in 4 different elemental spheres, for a total of 16 powers. You're discouraged from fleeing combat as you'll gain nothing and lose 10 BP if you do.

The mutants themselves are terrific gross works of the imagination. Human faces are often grafted into animal form or animals are melded together. The spider-form NMC that quacks like a duck while poisoning you is particularly vile. There are spitting slugs, horrible embryo things that laugh when you shoot them, jacked-up scorpions that bore up from the ground in a cloud of dust and fleshy room-filling monstrosities worthy of an H.R. Giger calendar.

Throw all of the above elements together and you've got hugely detailed, exciting and demanding combat with yucky beasts. It's impressive, but also hard and with very frustrating side-effects. The most annoying aspect is the way that you can only access items in battle which you've 'attached' to your armour prior to combat. This will be 4 items on average, with one slot already wasted by your prime weapon's ammo. You can never anticipate what kind of monsters you're going to face next or what weapon or ammo you'll need out of the huge selection available. So it's blind luck. With the very limited room for attachments, it's really annoying to play for 20 minutes from one of the sparse save points, only to find out that you actually should have brought the shotgun with you (or attached it) because you needed its area blast to survive a certain mass attack.

Too late, you're dead. Go back to start, do not pass GO, do not collect $200. This is extremely unpleasant design.

The whole inventory system is like this: Exactingly detailed, yet used to cumbersome and unguessable effect. When I arrive in the desert, I find MIST HQ has stashed a staggering arsenal of goodies in the boot of my car! Thanks guys, but I have absolutely no clue which items I should take with me. How could I? And if I choose poorly, or take too many and find space is tight, I will probably have to walk all the way back here to dump stuff. It's the opposite of the Resident Evil 'Magic Box'. Try remembering what you left in each of 4 different locations, because you'll have to return to each one specifically to get those items. Admittedly there's a payoff near the end of the game for hoarding items, but by then it's too late to cure my resentment.

''Is that MIST HQ? Yes, I left my chicken inspector badge in the office.''

Your game is saved by finding a telephone and ringing MIST HQ. Another fine idea! Frequently you'll even get a piece of dialogue which is relevant to your exact place in the story. But just as frequently you'll get moronic comments from your boss which punch more holes in any 'credible' feel this game might have strolled towards.

Aya's saving the world, but all the boss will say is, 'Oh, you killed a 10-storey mutant? Good job, now keep investigating.' You just can't take this world seriously. Most of the dialogue is as juvenile and smacks of no research, except for 10-screen diatribes about DNA which somehow devolve into unbelievable gobbledegook, and for the 'developing' comments Aya makes to herself. At least she's got a distinct personality, but with most other characters there's rarely much feel for who's speaking at all.

Did I mention that telephones are horribly placed? Saving games is a pretty frustrating business in PE2. Some very harsh stretches are very long - you'll get really aggravated by your deaths and by the endless repetition of hard scenes, some of which might even have five-minute puzzles tossed in the middle of them! The WORST crime in this department is making you fight two huge final bosses back to back without letting you save inbetween. I can't put into words the sinking hateful fuming feeling I experienced when the 2nd boss invariably killed me on the 1st pass. Oh, and on many subsequent passes, in each case after I had been forced to hack through boss one again. Applying a cheese grater to my face would have hurt less.

I also hate the 'soulful club at night' music which plays on the Game Over screen. It's not a bad piece of music, but invariably it doesn't match the tone of the scene in which you died, and therefore just pisses you off.

When I survived this stuff and first completed the game, I was

(a) Completely underwhelmed and dissatisfied with the quality of the ending, and

(b) Not even sure of what had happened.

Was this the 'good' ending or 'bad'?.. Call me crazy, but I think you should be able to tell on your first try.

Things you must do to get a 'good' ending are once again totally arbitrary! You could never have picked the half a dozen key moments during the game which were herding you one way or the other. Nor does a cleared game give you any indication of what you should do to unlock further features. PE2 is actually quite rich with moments where making a choice will change things slightly gameplay-wise, but none of them are evident, ergo they're wasted. As for changes in story, the 'revelations' here are pretty un-surprising and many players will see them coming from afar. There's also an international conspiracy in the plot and... (SNORE)... really, I didn't care what was going on a lot of the time - the hate-inducing gameplay just made it all a desultory experience.

Diagnosis - Painful

Wait, it can't end like this! Surely I've saved up some wondrous revelation about this game for last?

Actually no, I haven't. PE2 is deeply aggravating. It may look and sound gorgeous, it may have moments of triumphant combat and a thousand fine small details, it may even have 'Pick up the Gauntlet' on the soundtrack, but the fact is that playing it is largely pain. Everything's arbitrary, most of the game design is an insult (search everything 3 times or lose, magically anticipate which of these 30 items you will need in the future) and it's unhelpful, ungenerous and unclear. Worst of all, it can't even create a half-believable world. The plot shimmies its way incredulously into the mud as people gesticulate madly and say stupid things. Aya's cute all right, and the only character with a personality, but you're beaten about the head by the deeply yucky attitude the designers took to her. For masochists, I should mention there's solid replayability in the form of harder missions with more nasties and less firepower...

Plot or credulity wise, this game has nothing on any of the other survival horror games. Some sublime moments and atmosphere, its 'bigness' and its originality save it from a lower score from me. But most of the time it just treats me with contempt, and when that happens I give as good as I get.

-- Parasite Eve II -- 5/10 --

Rating: 5/10

bloomer's avatar
Community review by bloomer (March 08, 2004)

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