Karen, The Gaming Goddess

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Monday 12 January 2009

Parasite Eve, Part Three: CSI:NY (megalomaniac cellular organelles division)

PEHeader

The last thing I ever want to do with these recaps is produce passages that read like "I picked up the Zoo key. I opened the chest and got a shotgun. Then I went through the second door on the left and fought two monkeys and a zebra." So I hope you can forgive me for being a tad light on gameplay details in most of these recaps.

Besides, I assume you're all accomplished enough gamers that you know ALL ABOUT rummaging through other people's stuff in search of keys and consumables of mysterious origin.

Trust the NYPD, Or the Terrorists Win

PE19 It's the 'actually' that just makes it.

Day 2, Resonance, starts off with the NYPD trying to figure out just what the hell went down at Carnegie Hall last night, and Parasite Eve briefly becomes a police procedural. Normally I come down hard on games with long non-playable sequences, and the first half of Day Two is almost all cutscenes, but unlike a lot of games, this stuff was legitimately interesting the first time.

A particularly interesting sequence is the press conference, where Police Chief Baker cautions Aya not to give the press anything without going through him first, and Aya infuriates him by telling the truth at the event. To this day, I'm not sure who's right here: The gut reaction is Aya, because she is Telling the Truth, however, can you imagine how that news bite would go?

''Attention citizens of NYC: This just in, superpowers are real, there is a deranged mutant opera singer on the loose who can kill hundreds of people with a thought, and the police can't approach her for fear of officers bursting into flame. The only one who MIGHT be able to stop her is a 25-year-old rookie cop who looks like she weighs about 90 pounds soaking wet, capable of casting only the spells 'Heal', 'Scan' and 'Heal 2'. Residents are advised to stay in the house, run if they hear anything that sounds like Puccini, and try not to spontaneously combust. And now back to "Dancing With the Stars.''

PE21 Aya's suspicious survival does not go unnoticed by the press. Nice touch.

Baker is right when he says that the truth, if anyone even believes it, will only cause hysteria. However, the reporters' questions make it seem as though they already have a pretty good idea just what happened at Carnegie Hall and are digging for details, in which case lying outright will accomplish nothing except making people distrust the authorities on top of everything else.

The cover story that Baker is trying to put over is that the event was a terrorist attack engineered with flammable chemicals (and you know that you might have a serious problem there when a sophisticated terrorist attack using chemical weapons has become the lie that you tell to calm people down.) In 1998, terrorism was still pretty far off the average person's radar (at least in the US), and senseless attacks on non-military targets especially, so it seemed at the time like Baker was trying to pull anything he could think of out of his ass rather than tell the truth. Let's just say that time has been kind to Baker and his cover story.

There's a subtle thing going on here with Aya, Daniel and Baker, that before this incident Aya was the untried rookie whom everybody liked but didn't quite trust or respect, and her sudden unavoidable promotion to the most prominent field agent has turned the whole chain of command on it's head. People can give Aya any kind of orders they want, but she's the only one with any real power in this situation, literally and figuratively. She's afraid of Eve's cold, survival-of-the-fittest mentality, but in some respects she exemplifies it. The subtitle of PE is "The worst foe lies within the self." To its credit, usually it does interesting things with this idea without hitting you over the head with it. Usually.

I Can't Trust You With a Gun, But Here You Go Anyway

PE20

Another fascinating thing- what can I say, Day Two is just fascinating- involves Aya going to the weapons department and getting a rifle from gun-hating cop Torres, who gets his own tiny little subplot about firearms. I wonder: how many games have addressed guns?

Now I know, guns are to video games like snowflakes are to winter and sugar is to Fruit Loops, but when was the last time you played a game that actually had anything to say, whatsoever, about guns? Usually, you collect tons of weapons and use them all with abandon, and maybe if the game considers itself progressive, there will be some kind of vague anti-war message in there somewhere, and then you go right back to shooting. That's not as hypocritical as I'm making it sound: I can go to the Arms and Armor section at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and marvel at the beauty of the elaborate swords and crossbows and lances, and completely ignore the fact that those items were designed to help commit acts of violence.

So I don't expect every game that includes guns, which is a lot of them, to address the morals or the politics. In fact, I can understand why they wouldn't want to touch any of that stuff with a ten-foot pole. Nevertheless, Parasite Eve is the only game I've ever played that actually came out and took a stance on the role of guns in personal defense, and I think that's remarkable. I'll have more to say about it when the subplot culminates in Day Three.

By the way, if I was Queen of the world, the Metropolitan Museum of Art would be the final dungeon in PE3. Actually, if I was Queen of the world, the Met would be the final dungeon everywhere.

First Trip to Museum of Natural History, Also: Crazy Man

WorldMap1 Our first introduction to the World Map: It's not exactly Manhattan, but it's definitely Manhattan-shaped.

After a harried phone call from Maeda, geeky Japanese scientist extraordinaire whom we will meet very soon, the NYPD learns of a scientist named Klamp who's researching mitochondria. Aya and Daniel take off to go talk to Klamp in the first of many trips to his lab in what will become a very memorable part of PE. As the game progresses, we get to watch Aya and Daniel get increasingly pissed and homicidal while Klamp gets increasingly batshit crazy, and the beauty of it is, he started out crazy. Eve is a memorable villain in that she's uniquely designed and the opera vocals that accompany her are a nice touch, but she's really a monster; she's only as interesting as the reactions she gets out of Aya. The most interesting villains are of course the ones whom you can understand and almost sympathize with, and Klamp fills that role. Additionally, there's a nice sense of real-world menace about him that's lacking from the more fantastical aspects of the game.

Klamp works in the Museum of Natural History, which doesn't make a helluva lot of sense considering his vocation, but it's an excuse to have the Museum as the final dungeon. The characters do comment on the strangeness of the location, which Daniel chalks up to Klamp not exactly being known for his people skills. Aya groans, anticipating what a huge pain in the ass dealing with this guy is going to be (Oh sweetheart, you have no idea), leading to a warning from Daniel not to act rashly like she did at the press conference. Now, I would just say 'Uh, Pot, Kettle, Black?', but Aya takes a different approach.

AyaDanielCar This sensible plea for moderation brought to you by Daniel "Punches Reporters in the FACE" Dollis.

AyaDanielCar2 I know that "Oh, SNAP!" is terribly overused by this point, but seriously? Oh, snap.

I'll continue with the amazing first meeting of Aya and Klamp next time, when I cover the latter half of Day Two. Now, you certainly don't want to miss that--

KLAMP

Tuesday 30 December 2008

City of Vilcabamba: Lara 3, Bears 0

TR_COV

Spoiler Warning: I mention plot points in Final Fantasy X and Metal Gear Solid in this entry. If you haven't gotten around to playing either of those yet, you may want to just read the capsule review at the bottom.

"Vilcabamba" is a really fun word to say. Say it a few times and you'll see what I mean. It also sounds like a delicious new flavor of Bubble Yum to me for some reason. This level really made me want gum.

SecretWaters

This opening area seems to have been a town based around a well, which makes some nice real-world sense. It's completely unnecessary to enter the underwater portion of this level in order to advance, but some pretty cool secrets lie in that direction. I remember being really confused as a kid, because I kept trying to figure out how the underwater part helped you progress, and it doesn't.

CoVDanger

For the life of me, I have no idea why the Vilcabambans were so afraid of this stupid medipack. I can only speculate that this skull-adorned cubbyhole originally contained something decidedly more threatening.

These first few levels are going to get some of the longest write ups, both because they're some of the most memorable, and they're simply the ones I've played the most over the years. Like a lot of people, often I would pop in my TR disc and just play through the game up until somewhere around Tomb of Qualopec, and then move on, my tomb-raiding craving sated. I have played through the game in it's entirety several times, but I've played through these first three or four levels way more times than any of the subsequent ones. In the case of City of Vilcabamba, there's a lot to talk about: The wolf ambush that begins the level, the completely optional underwater pathway, the three(!) secret rooms, the contrast between the simple architecture of the village square versus the grand architecture of the temple area, etc. However, I'm going to go in depth about NONE of those things in favor of A RELIGIOUS TOMB RAIDING EXPERIENCE. You'll see.

CoVBear1

I start this level off in the right way: Killing a bear. Lara 2, Bears 0.

Every once in a while in a game you get a moment where you really understand the feeling that the developers have been trying the whole game to put across to you; Any decent game will communicate the developer's intentions to a certain extent, but great games often have one or more moments that crystallize the essence of the game. For lack of a better term, I tend to call these video-game religious experiences, but while I originally was using the term jokingly, it's not really as silly as it sounds. The traditional idea of a religious experience is a powerful, beautiful message from a God, or creator received by a normal person, a denizen of the world: A video game religious experience is a powerful, beautiful message from a creator, the creator of the game (and humans are at their most divine when they create their own worlds) to a normal person-- a denizen of their fictional domain. I'm an agnostic with no religious agenda, so if any of this is making you uncomfortable, don't be: My point here is more about the potential for the creator of a game to move you, not about religion. If you don't want to consider the religious parallel, just think of it as a moving experience.

Some examples of this phenomenon that I've found: In Final Fantasy X, when you're on the road to Zanarkand after Tidus has finished telling his story (and you're finally in the present), and everyone bands together to protect Yuna one last time, because the time is coming when they know they'll never be able to protect her again; they don't want to go forward, they want to stay on that journey forever, but they keep pushing forward, towards the dead world of Zanarkand, while the beautiful version of the main theme-- "Someday the Dream will End"-- plays in the background, fading slowly to the battle hymn of Zanarkand while the sky darkens and fills with pyreflies, the souls of the dead. In the original Metal Gear Solid, at the very end Naomi makes peace with Snake, and herself, as the sterile environment of the Shadow Moses nuclear facility is traded for beautiful footage of the Alaskan countryside-- Snake is a creature of technology and war, like Shadow Moses, but when we see the snowy mountains and the wolves, we feel happy for him, because we know he's going home. Even if just for a little while, he can have peace. And in Tomb Raider, there's the suspended pathway in City of Vilcabamba.

CoVTemple

The exterior of the temple. I've always assumed it was a temple, although there's no sign that says "Temple of Blah-Blah-Blah", so I could be wrong. Maybe it's a bathhouse with delusions of grandeur.

I mentioned in the Caves write-up that music is used very sparingly in Tomb Raider, and scenes like this are the big payoff for that creative choice. Toward the end of the level, as Lara ascends a tower of broken platforms in what was once a beautiful temple, we hear Lara's theme for the first time in the game. It plays in the menu, but it's in this instance that we really pay attention to it. It's a surprisingly sad, mellow song-- the opposite of what you'd expect if your only exposure to Lara was through the movies, or even the more recent games. It's a song that makes you think of lost beauty, and quiet reflection, and more than anything, being alone. It's the sound of patience, and persistence: it's the siren's song of a puzzle you need to solve. If you have a copy of PS1 TR, you can put the disc into your computer and listen to it like a soundtrack, and see what I mean. You can also listen to the song via other methods, but I wouldn't know anything about that.

If Lara were in a lot of danger, with the kind of locked-door traps and spiked pits and stuff that start to pop up with increasing frequency later, Lara's theme would seem out of place --it's not a song of peril. But in this puzzle, there's a safety net: the broken platforms are suspended, on both towers, over a pool of water. Even if Lara falls from on high, the water catches her harmlessly. Lara has to struggle to get to the top, but the tomb doesn't really want her to fall. In one sense, she's an invader-- she's "raiding" the premises-- but this obstacle was not put in place to kill her. This was a city that was once alive, and though it's been devastated by war, or famine, or disease, and it can never go back to that time when it was teeming with life, it can save this one lonely visitor, just this once. It will never let Lara in without making her work for it, but as long as she puts forth the effort, she's allowed. In this game, Lara and the tomb are always opposed to one another, as rivals, but never enemies: It's not a battle, but a dialogue with the past, between this one mysterious woman and an even more mysterious place. In short, no matter how hard she fights, Lara is never trying to conquer the tomb; she's trying to prove her worth. She's trying to prove that she's strong enough to be allowed inside. It's not a battle, it's courtship. Yes, there is a sexual reading there if you go in for that sort of thing, but honestly, that's not what it's really about.

CoVwaterpath

Where the magic happens.

And all of this is put across in about five seconds of gameplay: Lara ascends, the music plays, Lara falls, the water catches Lara and immediately, tirelessly, she begins to ascend again. Sometimes people say that Tomb Raider has a feminist message because Lara is a tough chick who carries guns, and I think that's pretty much nonsense: if there is a hidden social message in TR, it's a humanist one. Lara is the one we admire, as opposed to Larson or Pierre, not because she's female, but because she's the one who strives to understand. She's the one who's learned to read the hieroglyphics, she's the one who won't tolerate ruins being littered. If you come with arrogance and violence, you truly are a "raider"; Lara is a raider in name only. She's not entirely there of her own free will: She can never resist exploring, because if she doesn't, she may never find the source of that voice that's singing her name.

CoVswimming

You know, Sirens were supposed to be mermaids....

Completely aside from all of this, this part of the game has a personal resonance to me. When I was young, and TR was the first game I ever played in it's entirety-- I'd played Mario at friends' houses, but this was the first game I ever played at home, on my own console--I spent a long time on this level. I was still clumsy with the controller, I fell into the water a lot, and I got very frustrated. But I kept at it, because games were still exciting to me, every game was like new uncharted territory in a wonderful fantasyland, and I couldn't wait to see the next level. Now when I play, I know the level like the back of my hand and I don't fall at all, but I don't feel that excitement anymore, because I know what's ahead, and no game will ever excite me in the same way. I don't fall in the water and I complete the level, but I can never go back to that time.

This entry is probably too close to literary analysis for a lot of people, and if you've been completely soured on the whole subject by pompous, overblown academic writing, I can't really blame you. I'm attempting to describe what that tiny lump in my throat is when I play this part of the level. I don't think about any of this consciously while I play, but this is what happens when I try to articulate that feeling. I pass this part of the level, I collect my thoughts, I pull a few switches, and I celebrate the beauty of discovery, the unknown. I plunder the last of the secret rooms, and I take a final swim. On some level, I mourn the loss of my childhood.

And then there's another fucking bear.

CoVBear2

He thinks he's so tough. Watch this, I've got the drop on this bastard.

CoVBear3

BWAH HAHAH! Lara 3, Bears 0.

Best: Need I say it? The suspended pathway in the temple. Additionally, the fact that there's a whole underwater labyrinth that's completely optional to the main course of the level is pretty awesome. I like levels that give you places to explore that are off the beaten path.

Worst: FUCKING BEARS.

Rating: 5 Uzi Clips out of 5: Still simple compared to the later levels, but it's a beautiful simplicity.

CoVstats

I was so busy being moved in my soul by this level, that I think I forgot the shotgun. I hate it when that happens.

Next Time: The Lost Valley: In which instead of a religious experience we have a MADE OF AWESOME experience. Totally not a spoiler: Next one is also a 5 uzi-clipper.

Wednesday 17 December 2008

Insanity: The Tomb Raider Project Begins

TR_CAVES

When I first started playing Tomb Raider in high school, I was briefly obsessed with the game and commented to a classmate that I would love to be a professional tomb raider when I grew up. It seemed so perfect: I had long brown hair, I was kind of a stuck-up bitch, I liked nature hikes and firearms and shiny things, so I was halfway to being Lara already.

Then this dude reminded me that another term for tomb raiding is grave robbing, and that kind of took all the fun out of that idea. It's kind of like how Pirates of the Caribbean, (or any of the dozens of Japanese RPGs that romanticize pirating), can get you really psyched up about the idea of being a pirate, until you remember that regardless of whether or not they're charming rogues, pirates are thieves. And additionally, they might even rape and pillage. It's not a pretty picture.

Suffice to say, tomb raiding is one of those pursuits best left exclusively to the world of video games. One of my ideas for this blog before I started it was to play through all of the TR games, in order, and write about them like some sort of adventure game anthropologist. Keep in mind that while this entry marks the beginning of that project, I fully expect to die somewhere in the middle of The TR4: Last Revelation-- if I'm lucky.

There are several possible interpretations of that statement, all of them macabre.

Lara's Home Lara's Home is a little mini level where Lara teaches you her moveset. We also learn how marvelously British and patrician she is. Most people do not have a "Music Room" with a baby grand piano. Also, I never noticed this until taking screens for this blog, but I think the paintings on the wall are very pixelated versions of famous paintings. The one in this picture looks like a Jacques Louis-David to me.

Before delving into the original Tomb Raider as a game, I want to address the subject of Ms. Croft herself. She's been so incredibly over-exposed as a character that it may seem like there's nothing left to say about her, but it's important to note that Lara as she appears in classic Tomb Raider is essentially a different character from the incarnation in the later games and the movies. Original Lara was a woman of few words, classy as she was concise, and only carried weapons because large jungle cats tended to try to kill her if she wasn't careful. She was primarily an archeologist and a writer with a passion for exploring, and if she was also an action hero, she performed that role as a means to an end. Basically, original Lara was far more likeable and alluring because you were given very little information about her, she handled herself very capably, and the game really wasn't trying to hit you over the head with how awesome she was. After the huge success of the first TR, from the sequel onwards Lara evolved into one of those obnoxiously self-aware movie badasses, who possesses a huge wardrobe of sexy adventuring gear and doesn't need much provocation to shoot someone in the head. I wouldn't dismiss the later games and movies, since there's a lot more to TR than just Lara, but I think you have to have a sense of this evolution of her portrayal in order to understand my tremendous affection for the original character of Lara-- When I say Lara, unless you played this game when it came out, chances are you are not associating the same character with the name.

Another thing to keep in mind about her is her age; It's very telling that Lara was conceived of as a character who was around 30 years of age, if not older. By any reasonable standard that's still pretty young, but when you sit back and think about it, it's astonishing how rare that is in video games. The last thing I ever want to do is go on some sort of indignant feminist rant (seriously, if I ever start doing that, just shoot me. Like an injured race horse), BUT, the fact remains that women tend to stop appearing in games after they hit the ripe old age of 18, or early 20s at the latest. It's getting a bit better now- in Metal Gear Solid 4 for example, both Meryl and Naomi are supposed to be post-30 and still babes, if professional ones--but in 1995, usually the only females above a certain age were the apron-adorned mothers who stayed in the house in Japanese RPGs, and sometimes doled out fruit and/or free healing. In the case of Lara, the developers were forced to make her a little older because the character type they were going for was so experienced and erudite that making her too young would have rang false. That presumed experience and intelligence is very appealing in a character, at least if you're like me and are tired of playing as either plucky ten year old boys, or virile special forces types who wouldn't know a book if it bit them on their well-muscled gluteus maximus.

Journey The journey of a thousand miles and a dozen video games begins with a single step.

Like Final Fantasy VII, Tomb Raider is a game that you can't really give it's proper due without taking into account the zeitgeist of the time. Many of the features that were so innovative at the time have become bread-and-butter features in games with any sort of adventure component, and the things that made us miss sleep to play it in the mid-90s are hard to even imagine now. I remember being motivated to beat the next set of levels as soon as a I could so I could see the next FMV of Lara in action, because you only got one cinematic for hours upon hours of gameplay, and as a result, every single one was critically important to the plot. Today, the overabundance of video game cinematics has become such an epidemic that we rate scenes on a kind of Kafkaesque "Sandwich scale", or how many sandwiches you could make and consume while the characters on your screen model and emote like first year drama majors and generally refuse to SHUT THE HELL UP.

The sparse use of music in TR caused you to have strong emotional connections to individual music cues, whereas now games have full Hans Zimmer scores and hearing a full orchestral track in the background of the most mundane parts of a game is completely normal. The graphics had just reached the level where you could believe you were in an immersive world if you engaged your imagination and pretended that ammunition totally would be at the bottom of a pristine mountain lake and the whole world is made up of squares-- nowadays, if you have to use your imagination at all, the graphics have failed. The world of TR was like an impressionist painting, the graphics we see now are a hyper-real simulation. It's a very different aesthetic.

Secret Room This little secret room tucked into the first level is a good example of the secrets in the game-- the items you got were unimportant, it was finding a hidden realm within a hidden realm that was satisfying. Also, you can see some of the Incan style on the giant idol.

At the time, TR opened the door for the future of gaming, while thematically being based on nostalgia for the past. You were using the newest technology of the time to explore the ruins of human civilization, and there was a certain reverence there for the past that was moving in a way that I've never encountered in another game. The TR franchise, and others as well, have explored environments drawn from lost cultures since, but never with the same perfect meeting of the future and the past. Current game environments tell us with authority what they think the past was like; the blocky, pointellistic environments of Tomb Raider were not a statement, but a suggestion:

Wouldn't it be nice if it had been like this.

Level 1: Caves

stairs_flipping In this area some wolves rush at you and you hear the rousing action music for the first time. It's pretty surprising the first time you play because the dead world of Caves has lulled you into a false sense of security by this point. Unfortunately, the wolves are not in this screen because I killed them already. Whoops.

If I were to go into great depth about every individual level, this TR project would be about 50,000 pages, so I'm going to give most levels a cursory inspection and only spend time on the ones that strike me as something special. I will also give all levels a rating out of five (medipacks? Uzi clips?), and do a best/worst section. In the event that I have nothing much to say about a level, I'll just do the rating and the best/worst. Also, I'm not including the bonus levels that were added in the later PC versions because I have the PS originals. If I can find a version of TR Gold that works on my computer, I'll play the bonus levels.

Caves doesn't appear to have much going for it; graphically it's the blandest level ever. Since it's the first level, there isn't much difficulty, and Lara is still on the outskirts of the ancient city, so there's a lot of stone and grass and only small touches of Incan artwork. However, what it does do marvelously well is establish a mood that will persist throughout the entire game. Lara is alone, in a cave, exploring areas that haven't been seen by human eyes in decades, if not longer. The architecture, what's left of it, is grown over, if still majestic at times. Except for occasional whispers of sound, it is silent. Lara is a breath of life in a dead world. Even the presence of animal life doesn't add any warmth; starvation has driven the wolves hostile. Anything that survives here, does so just barely.

Switch This image demonstrates a big problem with TR: Since side-stepping was not introduced until TR2, it was very easy to walk up to a switch, be out of position to pull it, and have to hop back a few steps in order to position Lara properly. It's infuriating. Out of all the tweaks that were made to the controls in subsequent games, the addition of the sidestep was the only one that was absolutely necessary.

They also introduce all of the most significant exploration features: Lara turns her head to look at a significant area (from the very beginning she always mysteriously knows things that you do not), music is rare and only appears when something important is about to happen and you need to step up your game, and if you're thorough, you can hear that deeply satisfying "ta-dah!" sound that heralds a secret multiple times. We also get the first Bear of the game, who functions as a kind of hidden mini-boss (it's not necessary to kill him, but you get access to another medipack if you do), showing that Tomb Raider was taking the fight to the bears ten years before Stephen Colbert made it cool. Should you make the mistake of fighting the bear up close and personal instead of plinking away at it from a safe perch, you will learn very swiftly that the only good bear in Tomb Raider is a dead bear. The same applies to T-Rexes, but that's later.

Bears! BEARS! I didn't have to go out of my way to kill this guy, but I did out of a sense of duty. I watch the Colbert Report.

Best: Backflipping up the marble stairs away from the wolves while the TR action theme plays. Still exhilarating after all these years.

Worst: The timed switch puzzle. In some respects it's good because it forces you to get a little tighter with the controls if you've just been winging it up to now, but the controls in TR aren't well suited for this sort of puzzle. Fortunately the grand majority of the puzzles in the game are not timed.

Overall Ranking: 2 Uzi Clips out of 5. It's simple, but it has to score higher than 1 because a)It's good enough to lure you into playing the rest of the game b) the simplicity is intentional and c)the occasional musical cues add a lot of atmosphere.

Cavesstats I'm going to try to get all the secrets, but I make no promises. Also, keep in mind that my times on these statistics screens are misleading because I'm constantly setting up and editing screen shots. I could blow through this level in a few minutes, but where's the fun in that?

Next Time: City of Vilacamba. I warn you: There is another bear. Prepare yourself.

Tuesday 9 December 2008

Parasite Eve, Part Two: Sewer Fun!

PEHeader My new graphic for all PE related entries. I'm rather fond of it.

I wanted to get this chunk of PE finished before moving onto other games, so as promised, here's more PE goodness-- including some new spells (yaay!), and some giant mutated frogs (boo!).

Parasite Eve is split up into 6 days; This entry covers the remainder of Day 1. The Day format is interesting in and of itself because games usually don't tell you how much "in-game time" has passed for the characters in the story. For example, in Final Fantasy X you can finish the game with 10 hours on your timer or 200, but you haven't the faintest idea how long Yuna's pilgrimage was supposed to have taken from a story perspective. A week? A month? Six months? We'll never know. PE takes a very different approach: You can spend 500 hours running around Central Park if you want to (and if for some God- forsaken reason you want to try the "300 pieces of Junk sidequest", you very well might find yourself doing just that), but you'll still be stuck in the second day. You always know precisely where you are in the story.

PE9 In this room Aya reads Melissa's diary and finds a key she needs to progress...or would have, if my inventory hadn't been completely full of crappy items at the time. I had to dump an item and then re-read the whole diary.

This may seem trivial, but typically in RPGs characters mature over some nebulous, but presumably substantial, period of time. In this game we know for a fact that Aya is dealing with a series of nightmarish scenarios that come at her one right after the other without allowing her a pause for breath. An understanding of the timeframe is essential to understanding Aya, who's desperation and anger are the hallmarks of a person under extreme stress rather than unforgivable character flaws. I mentioned last time that Aya doesn't always appear to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but in all fairness, most people would be rendered comatose halfway through Day 2 if they had to step into Aya's shiny platform shoes. Although considering the high aesthetic value and general desirability of said shoes, I might risk it anyway...okay, I think I'm getting slightly off-topic.

PE10 If you think Eve's mutated form is cool, wait until you see Aya's.

Anyway, without getting too bogged down in detail, the remainder of Day One involves searching the basement of Carnegie Hall for a key that will allow you to catch up with Melissa/Eve, who drops the Melissa persona entirely and mutates into a decidedly non- human form. Another RIDICULOUSLY EASY boss fight ensues with the freshly mutated Eve, which is so easy that even the fact that I was completely distracted by trying to get a good screenshot didn't seem to matter. It's possible that after playing this game on and off for ten years I've lost all objectivity in regard to it's difficulty, but I do have to say that Day One really does seem a tad too easy. It's one of those precious tutorial stages that refuses to level with you and admit that it's a tutorial.

PE11 Oh wow Eve, now you can shoot TWO puny laser beams instead of one! Taking this screenshot was about fifty times harder than the actual battle.

Aya and Eve continue their cat and mouse game, with Eve leading Aya into the sewers beneath Carnegie Hall. I thought I would have a lot more to say about the sewer area, because it's marvelously creepy and atmospheric, but gameplay-wise it's simple. You pick up a bunch of items (which I wouldn't be so quick to pick up considering they've been sitting IN THE SEWER for God knows how long, but Aya's braver than me), and fight some more mutated rats and mutated frogs. Interestingly, while the rats only mutated to three or four times their original size, the frogs are huge behemoths. You just can't predict those wacky mitochondrial mutations.

PE13 I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume that Aya was unable to wear this dress on future occasions. I don't even want to speculate what other kinds of 'items' might be floating around in there besides the pick-ups....

Finally Aya catches up to Eve and the two of them have a fairly civil conversation at gunpoint, because Aya's little handgun is her safety blanket. Eve leaves, but not before uttering a line which I've always been impressed with: "I'm going to give you some time... some time to think and some time to evolve." Eve wants Aya on her side, but she wants Aya to realize herself that she belongs with Eve. She will abandon this idea eventually in favor of a more aggressive approach, but it's telling that she even tries. It's also really nice from a logical perspective that you don't have to spend the entire game wondering why Eve doesn't just kill Aya already if she's just so damned powerful. The "the villian tests the hero in order to recruit them" idea isn't exactly ground-breaking, but I still like it a helluva lot better than the more common "the villian doesn't kill the hero when they have the chance because apparently, they just can't be bothered."

PE14 At this point, Aya has just learned the spell "Scan", which isn't a helluva lot of use in this situation...or ever. I suppose I can't blame her for sticking with her trusty handgun. Better spells coming soon.

Let's see...gritty atmosphere, check. Massive death toll, check. Sewers, check. Hot chick with a gun, check. Now, this would be just like Resident Evil 2 if only there was a bloodthirsty ALLIGATOR in the sewers! How cool would that be? Fortunately, Eve hooks us up. We love her.

PE15 This was an awesome FMV the day I got the game, and it remains awesome today. The screenshot can't do it justice, but this monster is introduced perfectly.

Finally we get to the first real boss fight of the game, which still isn't difficult but you could conceivably lose if you're distracted. Or busy with your tax return. Or not paying any attention whatsoever. Still, the mutated Alligator has powerful attacks, and you need to take advantage of Aya's mobility to keep her out of harm's way (More on the free-movement combat system next time.)

PE16 I took this screen right when Aya's bullet hit the boss, which is why it has that cool glowing effect. I probably couldn't take this again to save my life.

Day One ends with the introduction of Aya's partner, Daniel, a 30-something cop with a more than superficial resemblance to Final Fantasy VII's Barret Wallace. Daniel rescues Aya from a persistent reporter by punching him in the face, which is the type of behavior that I guess Japanese game developers expect from hard-boiled NYC cops. As the two of them speed off in the squad car, Daniel gives Aya a backhanded compliment-- apparently, showing up at the scene of mass murder is a good indicator of latent "cop instinct"-- and we get a feel for their father-daughter dynamic. Later we will learn that Aya is the brains of this operation while Daniel is the hothead, and considering that Aya's approach to problem solving ideally involves a rocket launcher, that should tell you something about the volatility of this outfit. Really, Eve's lucky that these two didn't torch the city in the course of a botched investigation long before she got around to it.

PE17 This screen marks the beginning of the ongoing subplot of Daniel's neglected son, Ben. Unlike a lot of games that force dialogue like this on you in order to create the illusion of character depth, PE actually makes good use of this subplot later.

Next in PE, we begin Day 2 and unfortunately Aya ditches her evening gown for a more practical ensemble. On the plus side, we get a cool new gun and Aya's PE powers evolve to the point where her spells are almost useful.

Thursday 13 November 2008

Parasite Eve: An Odyssey

PED1 As you may have surmised by my last rather, ahem, verbose entry, I have a lot to say about games-- at least the ones that have a special place in my heart, for lack of a better phrase. For a game like Parasite Eve (and frankly, for most games that I care enough about to cover in the first place), a single blog entry would be completely inadequate. What I've decided to do is allow for multiple entries for individual games which will be tagged accordingly, so even though they may be posted months apart, you can find all the coverage of a single game or series easily.

Where to even begin with Parasite Eve? Some things are seminal on a broad cultural, even global level, like Hamlet or the Beatles you can debate their merit or their influence on their successors, and many people devote a frightening amount of time to doing just that, but ultimately it's pointless: They are agreed upon by everyone with a functioning frontal lobe to be both very good and a huge influence on everything.

But some things are deeply influential to a specific individual, and it's not because they're better than Hamlet or the Beatles--quality has nothing to do with it. It's a certain alchemy of personality, timing, and some x-factor that I'll never be able to nail down. Parasite Eve came out when I was sixteen, and it had a huge effect on my personal aesthetics.

Keep in mind, I'm not encouraging everyone to go out and pick up a copy of the game. PS1 games from that era have aged poorly in the graphics department, and while I think the writing in PE is actually underrated, there's nothing about it that's sufficiently high quality to make it especially worth playing compared to more recent fare. However, as a startlingly ambitious combination of cop show, psychological thriller, Doctor Who-esque Science Fantasy, dungeon crawling, character building, gun collecting, and techno music put together in an RPG that celebrates an empty Manhattan that never was, it's a very unique piece of gaming history.

Oh, and yes, I know that word snobs frown on descriptions like "very unique", because unique originally meant one of a kind and therefore a thing is either unique or it is not, but I think those people should be shot because I am an activist word snob and I want their inflexible, stagnant DNA out of the gene pool. Unique originally meant "one of a kind", but in modern usage it has changed to "giving the impression of being special and important even in comparison to other things that are one of a kind as well." If your dictionary doesn't already agree with me, wait a few years and it probably will.

The protagonist of Parasite Eve is rookie NYC cop Aya Brea, proficient with every firearm under the sun and totally the women I'd fall for if I played on the other team (and err, if she weren't fictional I suppose. I sometimes forget that part.) However, I'm straight, and it does have to be said that Aya can be a little dense-- her dialogue is littered with exclamations like "What? How can that be!?" and "No!" and "What do you mean my mitochondria are evolving at an unusually accelerated rate?" People have knocked the character for that, but to be fair, I kind of like that about her. We can't all be Rhodes Scholars. Aya1 Still the best-dressed gal in video games, even after all these years--okay, except for Classic Yuna. It's a tie.

Note on the Screens: In years past I have always, always kept the default character names in RPGs out of respect for the writers' intentions, but in some of the following screens you will see that Aya's name is Karen for this playthrough. The sacrifices I make for this blog.... PE1

The game starts with Aya on a hilariously awful date, with an escort who says things like "I had my Dad get me the best seats for us tonight!" Y'know, I wonder how much the general gamer likes this opening, because being a woman probably makes it about ten thousand times better. It's like, "I've sooo been there, girl." PE2 They say this about me too.

Fortunately possessed Opera Singer Melissa (known from this point on as Eve) brings a premature end to Aya's date by lighting Carnegie Hall on fire. I used to just pretend that I had cramps.

PE3 Is Eve turning Carnegie Hall into a fiery inferno because her excess mitochondrial energy is being released as heat? Or was it because of that schmuck in the third row who couldn't be bothered to turn off his cell phone?

While the other occupants of the theater are busy burning to death, Aya's all business; she draws her gun and orders her mysteriously-not-burning date out of the theater. If I were some kind of fancy internet guru, I would make an animation of Aya body-checking her date out of the way, because that's exactly what she does here. Minor plot hole: It's repeated many times that Aya is the sole survivor of the Carnegie Hall Incident, only her boyfriend mysteriously escapes the theater and is never mentioned again. I guess some of her special mitochondria must have rubbed off on him when he was helping her with her coat. PE4

Aya approaches Eve in the name of the NYPD, and Eve starts starts demonstrating some of the problems with Japanese-to-English translation that plague this game. The Japanese use the word "body" much more often than English speakers, but a too-literal translation will often keep the word, leading to awkwardness. "I'm burning up!" has a very different connotation then "My body is getting HOT!" Guess which version this game goes with. PE5 The translation-inflicted kinkyness of the Aya and Eve dynamic persists throughout the game. Not as fun as it sounds.

A pathetically easy boss fight ensues, during which Aya's "Parasite Energy" awakens due to her proximity to Eve, meaning she has a green PE bar under her health from now on and will start learning spells to cast as she levels up. Technically I guess they're not "spells", they're more like "benevolent mutations" or "super-evolved mitochondrial abilities", but I'm going to use the word spell from now on because it's shorter. Anyway, Eve babbles something about a connection between her and Aya (Nooo? REALLY?), and Aya has the first of about forty flashbacks to a time she was in the hospital as a small child that she barely remembers. Eve floats offstage, and Aya follows. PE6 Okay, I'll level with you here: I friggin' hate these stupid flashbacks. The story behind them is fine, but there are way too many of them. Yes Aya, you were in the hospital when you were a wee lass! Holy freaking crap! Get over it.

At this point, the story sequences start to dwindle and you begin to experience the actual gameplay of PE, which I will save for another installment. The main event is that Aya starts ransacking the basement of Carnegie Hall while looking for a trace of Eve, and mysteriously finds lots of ammo instead. PE8

Join us next time on Parasite Eve: The Odyssey for Part II: Spelunking in the rat-infested sewers beneath Carnegie Hall is no reason not to look fabulous.