PARASITE EVE 2 / Squaresoft / Playstation

Many games attempt to deliver "horror" thrills by taking control of the situation out of the player's hands. The less effectively you're able to defend yourself and navigate the environment, the more helpless you feel as ravaging beasties chase you about trying to get at your delicious guts. It's a true premise, but there's another factor to consider - hampering the control and obfuscating the camera angles is also the enemy of good gameplay. "Survival horror" games of the '90s never did seem to figure out how to strike a great balance between the two, and I think it's the main reason the "Resident Evil clone" genre declined after riding high from '96 to about 2000. Well that, and saturation.

Parasite Eve 2 is another of these games that seems to be making decisions based primarily on "horror value" rather than gameplay. It begins with how heroine Aya Brea simply moves about. In the first Parasite Eve, Aya had free movement - you push in a direction, she moves in that direction. That's been taken away in Parasite Eve 2 in favor of the worst style of "tank controls" - you're forced to rotate in place slowly until you're facing the direction you want to go, then press forward to move that way without deviating from your straight-line trajectory. If you want to change directions, you have to come to a full stop, rotate again, then begin "driving" forward again.

I suppose the idea is to make the new battle system seem more challenging and terrifying. In the first Parasite Eve, battles would randomly occur on "hotspots." In this one, you can usually see (or at least hear) enemies milling about when you enter a screen. You're free to try to navigate your way through them without getting spotted. If they notice Aya, however, or if you choose to initiate combat by drawing your gun, you go into "battle mode." Unlike the first Parasite Eve, battles don't let you run about freely and stop and fire at whatever enemy you like that's within range. First you slowly rotate while the enemy is approaching, to run in a direction away from them. Then, when you've put a little space between you and them, stop and slowly rotate again to face them again (for whatever reason, Aya can't consistently just automatically turn and shoot when you're locked on to a foe.) By this time they've largely closed the gap between you, so you maybe get a round off before having to repeat the process again. Unless you're facing one of the enemies that charges at you from across the screen, in which case you might as well just stand and slug it out with them, as you're never going to effectively both dodge their attacks and fire back without getting hit.

The movement and camera are a case of "one step forward, two steps back" from the first game. In PE1, the camera was pulled too far back out of scenes, they were lit poorly, and Aya had free movement but simply ran around too damn slowly considering how huge the screens were (and how much faster enemies were than her in battle.) PE2 solves a bunch of these problems, but introduces new ones. Instead of huge pulled-out camera view in most scenes, we get a very tight close-up view with good lighting, which makes it easier to find things you're supposed to click on and see all possible screen exits. However, we also get camera angles that are selected to obscure what's ahead for good ol' "jump factor", and all the aforementioned "tank control" movement problems. End result is that PE2 is often even more of a headache to navigate than PE1 was, especially in combat.

The other major problem with this game is that it's one of those that will punish you very harshly for not knowing exactly what's coming next and having your inventory set up for it. It's a shame that all these major problems weigh the game down so much, because underneath is a pretty good horror-adventure that's more interesting than PE1 was in a lot of ways.

The story picks up a couple years after PE1. Aya has moved west to L.A. and now works for MIST, a special branch of the FBI created to deal with mutant creatures from the New York incident roaming the country. Aya says she moved to L.A. to intercept them as they headed west ... guess the whole rest of the country in between the two coasts is just fucked? We only briefly get to explore MIST HQ and L.A. in an opening "tutorial mission", as Aya gets called to Akropolis Towers where mutant beasties have gone on a rampage and wiped out a whole SWAT team. After about 45 minutes of gameplay there, Aya ends up getting packed off to Dryfield, your typical little run-down nearly-abandoned shithole out in the desert. This is where the rest of the game takes place.

Or as much as you can tolerate before getting bored and quitting, anyway. Aside from the major problems listed above, there's other little niggles weighing the game down. What puzzles there are are almost exclusively "write down information from locations A, B, C, D and E to use at location F." Not even really so much a puzzle as a multi-part fetch quest really. The inventory system is a little too limited, and the bizarre "attachments" system (allowing you to select only five or so items that can be used in battle, which you manually "attach" to your armor) is just inexplicable. And Yoko Shimomura apparently didn't return for soundtrack duties, as the music is much more minimalist and tedious here. The town of Dryfield, where you spend a huge chunk of the game, literally has five repeating bass notes with some scuffling and ambient sounds thrown in the background.

The story and characters aren't bad, and I wouldn't have minded sticking with the game to see where it all went. It also has some of the best 2D hand-painted backdrops on the original Playstation, and some fantastic cutscenes. The control, camera, tedious puzzles, and "die and do it over" mentality were just too much for me to bother ever even getting anywhere in Disc 2, however.


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