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Parasite Eve was a strange deviation in the early age of Final Fantasy

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Ah, the miracle of ... mitochondrial mutation

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Squaresoft via MAT/MobyGames

In May, my PS4’s hard drive tragically crashed. It was in a safe mode loop and no amount of YouTube and forum solutions helped. It was time to give up. I felt lost. Useless.

In a desperate attempt to console myself with other games, I booted up my old PS3 and looked through my catalogue.

“I don’t remember buying Parasite Eve,” I thought. Probably from a Golden Week sale. I’ll try it out, why not?

Holy crap, that game is weird. But it’s exactly my kind of weird, the kind that I appreciate now and didn’t when I was younger. At that time, all the things I wanted needed to be bright, lively and new. Parasite Eve is neither of those. It’s dark, swathed in muted, grey tones. It doesn’t have magic or a funny cast of characters; it has a creepy lady at the opera with strange limbs and a police officer.

Squaresoft via AlexShepherd/Wikia

What is it about?

Bear with me for a brief science lesson. Mitochondria are present in many of our cells, and one of their functions is converting oxygen to energy. But what if the mitochondria mutate? In Parasite Eve, a strain begins to evolve and become self-aware, seeking another host beyond humans. It calls itself “Eve,” and happens to enjoy setting people on fire when they get too close. NYPD officer Aya Brea is unaffected by the spontaneous combustion for some reason, and it’s her job to figure out what the hell is going on.

Released in 1998, Parasite Eve was Squaresoft’s first M-rated game, and it shows. Based off the Japanese sci-fi/horror novel of the same name, the game isn’t blood and gore-kind of horror as much as it is the scientific and biological kind. Watching the animals undergo transformations in CGI cutscenes remains pretty disturbing, even if the technology is dated. The game’s theme reflects a more cynical view of the world and humanity, and ultimately settles on ambiguity. It’s up to you to see it how you want to see it. In the end, you won’t find any last-minute chipper or tearjerking moments that rally for the beauty of the human race. It instead leaves the player with heavy philosophical questions. There’s a dreary kind of truthfulness that resonated with me, and I continued thinking about it for days after I finished.

Listen to more of Ashley’s thoughts on Parasite Eve at 3:00 — as well as Dark Souls, Halo, and Killing Eve — in the latest episode of The Polygon Show. Available on Apple Podcasts, Art19, and everyone else podcasts are sold.

One of these is not like the others

I love that in between Square’s games with glowing magic rocks and summoning spirits, suddenly there’s Aya, an NYPD officer. She isn’t descended from royalty, blessed with magical powers (unless you count cell mutation) or “the chosen one.” Aya is just Aya. She doesn’t fall into any of the typical female character tropes that tend to be present in most video games, whether that’s being hypersexualized, a damsel in distress or too eager to “be one of the guys.” I’d sooner compare Aya to the silent male protagonists of Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross than Yuna from Final Fantasy 10. Where I expected a certain amount of gruffness to overcompensate for being one of the only women on the force, I found quiet, laser-focused purpose. She doesn’t say much throughout the game, and eventually I found the quiet to be comforting, even meditative, while I navigated mazes in parks or hospitals.

At no point does Aya ever have an in-game companion. Every battle from the beginning until the end is just you as Aya, alone. Parasite Eve fuses Squaresoft’s typical ATB (Active Time Battle) system with freedom of movement. You have to wait for your meter to fill up to attack or use an item, but you can move and run around your enemies in the meantime. It’s a strange battle system that wanted the familiarity of the ATB mechanics while wanting to edge in something new — even if that means taking a risk and fusing the two together.

Squaresoft via MT/MobyGames

Even in the past, there’s something new

There are other little quirks and touches that I loved so much, like picking up a phone and calling into the station to save your progress. Even the transitions from walking to random battles were smooth, way more natural than the other games I played during its heyday.

Aya stops walking, and you hear a loud heartbeat. There’s a black-and-white inversion of color, a lurching effect that tends to precede catastrophic moments seen in so many anime, and your enemy appears. When it’s all over, the camera briefly hovers over Aya as she lowers her weapon and relaxes. Immediately, you can keep walking and pick up where you left off. It doesn’t sound like much, but the effort that went into maintaining a certain flow wasn’t frequently seen in games around that time. I’m too used to having a game figuratively “shatter” my screen and pretty much yell through a loudspeaker that a battle was happening. We learn to live with and forgive these things, especially with games we played when we were kids.

Embrace the weird

Playing Parasite Eve in 2018 was like stumbling upon a time capsule. As someone who will go to the grave defending my love for Final Fantasy 8, I found so much joy in exploring the backlog of Squaresoft’s other late ’90s titles. I love that there was still something new to discover in a genre of games that I thought was long gone.

After losing Squaresoft to a merger with Enix — a great moment of personal sorrow — I rarely see the studio take more ambitious swings like Parasite Eve anymore. I’ll never say no to a Final Fantasy 7 remake, but I’ll always champion the decision to veer from franchise-building and try something different. Let’s put Noctis and his plentiful crossovers aside for a second, and instead dream of a day when Square Enix releases another game based on an obscure sci-fi/horror novel.