While the situations in them don’t fully map to the real world, there’s an implicit understanding that there is a shared logic between videogames, especially within the same genre. A constant staple of the console roleplaying game is how characters become stronger. When the player visits a previously unexplored corner of the world map or dungeon, they encounter monsters more powerful than before. In most circumstances, the more powerful the monster, the more experience points offered for defeating it, which allows the playable characters to get stronger faster.
This is mostly done away with in Saga Frontier. There’s a different sort of logic to the encounters, where this time the enemy’s strength is determined by how many battles have been fought. That gives a bit more weight to getting into fights, because it gives the impression that there’s such a thing as too much fighting.
However, it’s still important to get into battle as it’s still the main way of getting characters stronger. There’s no experience points to be rewarded. Certain statistics are upgraded based on the action that’s chosen in battle. Pick physical attacks and strength goes up. Choose to defend and health points go up. Decide on a spell and magic-related stats go up. Crucially they don’t even have to be used in battle, if the battle is won before a character gets to use their ability, they still get the reward. It’s not the experience that strengthened them, it’s simply the idea of taking part. The only thing gained from an action being used is new abilities.
It’s one of the many things that makes Saga Frontier feel unusual. That it’s using a kind of interface I’m familiar with, but the results aren’t quite the same. I would argue that everything in this game ends up giving it a rather dreamlike quality. The intense pre-rendered visual style, terse NPC dialogue, and seemingly random assortment of monsters make everything seem surreal.
But dreams are collections of thoughts and feelings, while sometimes being a seemingly random collage of events, can also be interpreted as a narrative. That’s what I found from the seven scenarios in this game. Each lasts about the length of a night’s sleep.
One scenario that has stuck with me is Red’s, which follows the rules of a Japanese superhero show. The henchmen always have to be defeated before the boss. Sometimes enemies can put themselves in a special arena to make themselves more powerful (usually a way of justifying a recurring set in shows to have less locations to film). The most important part is that Red can’t be seen by others to transform into a masked hero. It would be simple to think that you have to put Red in a party alone in order to use it, but enemies in this scenario seem to cast a “blind” status effect fairly frequently. If the rest of the party is blinded, the game smartly determines that Red should be able to transform, as no one can see him.
I should also mention that the character progression mentioned only works for one of the four types of party members: the humans. Monsters can become other monsters to get stronger, Mystics will take on the essence of defeated foes, and the stats of Robots depend entirely on the equipment. It’s possible to go on entire runs and only encounter one or two party member types. Saga Frontier is full of ideas and places you might not even take a look at.
There are a lot of moments where the game cuts things short. A sudden game over from falling off a ship. A quick defeat from being caught while sneaking. A wrap up that’s all too fast, or even a sudden ending in the middle of a boss fight. These moments make everything feel abrupt. It’s like suddenly waking up.
If you read about Squaresoft’s videogames from the 1990s, they are often framed as the trendsetters. Final Fantasy is still the lens many assess the entire Japanese role-playing game genre through, but that’s just what happens when it’s the most popular example. That didn’t stop them with looking to other games for inspiration with Parasite Eve. In this case, survival horror.
I’ve made multiple attempts to play Resident Evil games of that era, and I’ve found them very difficult and stressful to get through. It’s not because of the tank controls, since I’ve enjoyed games that feature those. It’s because of the specific tensions those games created, usually through limiting resources. Fighting every enemy was discouraged because it could have resulted in taking more damage or wasted ammo. Even saving was a limited consumable resource. Limiting an in-game item activates my tendency to hoard them, meaning that it extended the time I took between saves, which resulted in heightened anxiety because if I lost the game I would lose a lot more progress.
Parasite Eve doesn’t have that tension, because it approaches things from an RPG-first perspective. To really highlight that difference, fighting as many enemies as you can is encouraged here, because doing so will actually increase resources. Both genres are about seeing how far your resources can take you, it’s just that a lot of RPGs give more opportunities to farm for them.
What Parasite Eve does retain from horror games is tone, atmosphere and the level of violence they have. It’s not a scary game, but there’s a lot of body horror present. An organism known as Eve has managed to gain control over the mitochondria found in human cells, causing people to spontaneously combust or melt, and turning animals into grotesque mutations (which mostly act as the game’s stock of enemies to fight). NYPD officer Aya Brea, the playable protagonist, is immune to all of that.
This means she can go into places where others can’t, so most locations she visits appear mostly empty until a random battle starts, and you can’t talk to the monsters. Tight spaces and close up camera angles serve to heighten the sense of loneliness this all brings. Setting the game in New York during Christmas also contributes to this, as it’s typically a time when people get together. Seeing the game’s imitations of real places with small amounts of festive decorations and zero people around conveys a real sense of isolation. Sometimes the transitions between camera angles doesn’t quite match up with the direction of travel, meaning that at times Aya will possibly turn back and go back to the previous screen by accident. While it is a minor practical nuisance when moving around, these small stops manage to suggest a little anxiety about pushing forward.
The one thing that the makers of this game seemed to also have some fear over is guns. Seemingly because she’s part of the NYPD, Aya comes across many firearms she can use to face off against all enemies. While guns are used to solve many of the problems found in the game, there are characters there to specifically lament the increasing militarization of the police force. But that’s all it really amounts to, a few characters that are sad about it. It would have resulted in an entirely different sort of game if it fully decided to commit to that as an overall theme, but that may have been interesting.
Ultimately Parasite Eve is a game that’s made to be fun to play. It’s a stripped down RPG without any towns, shops or places to rest up. There are some interesting quirks to its real-time turn based combat. Aya can freely move around the combat arenas to dodge enemy attacks, and once her turn meter has filled up the player can choose to take the turn at any point. This is because committing to an attack can leave Aya vulnerable to be hurt by the enemy, so it’s best to learn the enemy patterns and find the right opportunity to strike without taking too much damage. That’s something that could have brought more tension but she can take quite a lot of hits, which isn’t what people usually mean when they say playing horror games of this era feels like controlling a tank. Aya’s special mitochondria immunity powers seem to give her the standard suite of RPG magic spells like Heal, Haste and Barrier. I also really love the music in the game, but it often goes for dance house more than haunted house.
There’s nothing quite as bizarre as playing a game like this, where a city is made empty because of a deadly biological threat, during a real pandemic. While the danger is considerably heightened in Parasite Eve (nobody’s bursting into flames from the virus as far as I know but people are still dying), just seeing media where an immediate effort is made to remove citizens from danger can’t stop me thinking about the real world. It makes me wish more effort was taken in the reality.
They made two sequels to this game, and I don’t know much about them except that a small fraction of games media people that I followed were not happy about the most recent one, The 3rd Birthday. I’m eager to find out for myself soon enough.