Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Return of Aya Brea

I wouldn't say it was the most exciting or most surprising thing at E3, but I was personally interested in seeing anything new on Square Enix's The 3rd Birthday.

It's a PSP game, hence the trailer is not very exciting, but in case it's not clear, The 3rd Birthday is the third game starring Aya Brea, the third game, more or less, in the Parasite Eve series.  Originally announced three years ago (via some pretty wicked poster art) for Japanese mobile phones, it was bittersweet news for fans who were sure the series had been laid to rest after 2000's forgettable Parasite Eve II.  Like many players, I had enjoyed the first game but knew very little about the second, yet I still wanted to see more done with the Aya Brea character.  The announcement of a third entry after a seven-year hiatus at least proved that Square Enix still remembered, but being consigned to cellphones was almost a fate worse than death.  The outlook brightened somewhat when, a year later, The 3rd Birthday was, along with Final Fantasy Agito XIII, moved to the semi-legit PSP.  All Square Enix showed was a short and cryptic pre-rendered movie trailer (and more nifty promotional artwork), but the news of composer Yoko Shimomura's return to the series made it instantly more promising than Parasite Eve II.  Then two years went by with nothing else shown.

According to one interview, development is now in full gear, with many key staff from the Final Fantasy XIII team having joined up since completing that game.  I suppose one could alternatively take that as meaning that production on The 3rd Birthday had been placed on the back burner while its key staff worked on FFXIII.  Given how unexpectedly long that game took to finally make it out, that would explain the two years of no news on The 3rd Birthday.  Of course, the long-in-development Final Fantasy Versus XIII had been similarly put on hold so that its team could help out on the increasingly elephantine nightmare project that was FFXIII.  Now a new console Kingdom Hearts is being held back because Tetsuya Nomura's team is back to working on Versus XIII, which apparently still wasn't ready to be shown at this year's E3.  And Agito XIII, headed up by Hajime Tabata, also in charge of The 3rd Birthday, has been in limbo for even longer.  Given all that, I can actually take Square Enix's word for it that an HD console remake of Final Fantasy VII, of the quality that fans would want, would not be feasible at this time.  I'm probably repeating myself and stating the obvious, but Square Enix ain't what Square used to be, and the days of getting two Parasite Eve games in one console generation are over.  In fact, did you know that, besides FFXIII, Square Enix has to date released only one other title that it itself developed for HD consoles, that being the underperforming The Last Remnant for Xbox 360?

Back on the topic of Parasite Eve, it is significant that, despite it being the third Aya Brea game and having a very prominent "3" in the title, The 3rd Birthday is not being called "Parasite Eve 3."  Tabata insists that it is not a Parasite Eve sequel.  Perhaps he means that it is more of a spin-off, and maybe fans can yet hope for a "Parasite Eve 3" for consoles somewhere down the line.  But I suspect maybe this is just Square Enix's way to get around licensing issues.  You may recall that Parasite Eve was actually based on a Japanese novel, and in Japan, the game was just one part of a multimedia J-horror sensation.  There were no book or movie sequels, but novelist Hideaki Sena still received a "based on a novel by" credit for the Parasite Eve II game.  Maybe it's taken this long to bring back the game series because Square Enix didn't want to pay licensing fees to the book people.  This would also explain why Square Enix has yet to offer either of the PS1 Parasite Eve games for download on PSN.

I actually read Sena's Parasite Eve novel, because I was curious, as a fan of the game.  It's not very good.  It also has very little in common with the game.  The concept of the Eve character is much the same--she is a mitochondrial life form, silently evolving in humans until the day she might take over, using a female host who had received Eve via an organ transplant, to give birth to the ultimate being.  Also as in the game, her main power is the ability to ignite human beings, giving the appearance that they are spontaneously combusting.  But Aya Brea, the mitochondria-powered heroine of the games, is entirely a Square creation, and the first game's plot, handled by Takashi Tokita of Final Fantasy IV, also traces a very different arc.

In the game, Eve possesses an opera singer and, in the opening minutes, sets the entire audience on fire.  From there, she infects and mutates animals that lay siege to the city, and it is up to Aya and her fellow NYPD cops to wage a six-day war against the mitochondrial menace.  The novel proceeds at a much more languid pace and is devoid of cops or much action.  The central characters are the civilians who are in various ways connected to the Eve hosts, the organ donor and recipient.  Eve herself doesn't really emerge until the final third of the book.  Before that, nobody even suspects her existence, and most of the book is passages describing biological research procedures, including going into detail on the work that goes into putting together and presenting a graduate thesis.  Sena's characters even dialogue about which scientific journals, in order, are the most prestigious and hardest to get published in.  At these points, I suspect that Sena is not really writing horror, or even fiction, anymore.  Periodically, he attempts to build suspense by having characters remark on how suddenly hot it is or how unnatural some research samples seem.  Then Eve appears, rapes a man and a little girl, and melts maybe a half-dozen people, before dissolving that same night due to her own deficient grasp of the science.

I must confess, I haven't read a lot of pop horror, so I don't know what is standard in the genre, but I don't understand how this became a sensation in Japan.  Maybe if I understood the science better, I would find the characters' research more unsettling.  From my perspective, however, Square shed a lot of the source material to the game's advantage and constructed many more spectacular sequences, all framed within a narrative more thoroughly laced with dread.  At most, the game could be taken as a semi-sequel to the book, rather than any kind of adaptation.  But Parasite Eve was so much better as a game than as a book, and even the first game already expanded so far beyond the scope of the novel, that it would have been a real shame to have Aya forced into early retirement due to licensing hassles.  So if Square Enix's compromise is to forget about "Parasite Eve," forget about Eve altogether, and move forward with just Aya, then I'm perfectly fine with that.


Czardoz said...

What, no love for the new Kid Icarus? Or new 2-D Donkey Kong?

Henry said...

I didn't have a lot of love for the old Kid Icarus. The return of Donkey Kong Country is exciting, although I'm a little saddened that Rare couldn't do it.