BY James Roberts in Reviews | 09 SEP 98
Featured in
Issue 42

Biohazard 2, Capcom / Parasite Eve, Square

BY James Roberts in Reviews | 09 SEP 98

As the games market has grown to embrace an older generation of players, game genres have developed to cater to its tastes and bring a greater sense of involvement. This has been reflected in the role of music within games - from the soundtrack of Wipeout (1995) to the do-it-yourself remixing of Fluid (1998) - and in the appearance of a genre that draws from the strain of gratuitously violent, tongue-in-cheek, shock-horror of films such as Dawn of the Dead (1979) and Driller Killer (1979).

A key game in the evolution of the genre was Capcom's Biohazard (Resident Evil in the UK). One of the first games to receive an '18' rating in Britain, Biohazard borrowed liberally from the mythology of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) and offered the player two roles (male or female) in a bid to save small-town America from genetic mutation and a hideous zombie death. Biohazard eagerly exploited the storage possibilities of the PlayStation's CD-ROM format, providing pre-recorded dialogue between characters, outstanding sound effects and full-motion video sequences - both live-action and computer-generated - in an attempt to give the player as cinematic an experience as possible.

With the release of Biohazard 2, which grafts John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) onto it is Romero roots, it interesting to see how the cinematic qualities of its predecessor have been developed. The most obvious - the truly dreadful live-action scenes performed by 'real', solid wood actors - have been dropped entirely. The incredibly stilted recorded dialogue has been retained, however, and is still spoken with an almost total lack of natural intonation. This contributes greatly to Biohazard's low-budget, underground-horror-flick atmosphere, but whether it is intentional or not remains a mystery. The static-shot nature of the game has also been kept. Unlike the follow-camera popularised by the Tomb Raider series, Biohazard provides a single viewpoint for each scene of the game. This allows some truly claustrophobic overhead camera angles and the use of pre-rendered backgrounds with a far higher level of detail, and hence atmosphere, than is found in the 'live' environments of, say, Tomb Raider. The drawback is that each scene has to be loaded into memory as the player progresses and to minimise delay both Biohazard 1 and 2 use the stalwart filmic convention of a shot of a door opening into a black space between scenes, further adding to the tension in Twilight Zone kind of a way.

In fact, it is this understanding of how shock and suspense are generated in the cinema, or on radio for that matter, that has made the Biohazard series so successful. It is the eruption of violence during moments of apparent calm and the care lavished on peripheral background details, lighting and incidental sound effects that builds up the atmosphere in the game rather than the more literal borrowings from the cinema, such as FMV. At one point in Biohazard 2, for example, the character descends a fire escape and then walks across a gravel patio. Each footstep on the fire escape is accompanied by a metallic clang which then immediately switches to a gravely crunch as you reach the ground. The sound effects throughout change according to the surface being walked upon and the degree of echo perfectly matches the size of the room the player inhabits, tangibly suggesting real space.

Many of these features have been adopted by Square's USA division in the company's first excursion into the horror genre: Parasite Eve. Based on the 1993 novel of the same name by Sena Hideaki (filmed in 1997) and subtitled The Cinematic RPG, Square's debt to Biohazard 2 is visible in both the attention to detail in the sound effects and it's overall grimy-Americana look as much as aspects of the game's play mechanics. Biohazard 1 and 2 are minimalist games: there is not a huge amount of stuff to pick up as you progress and what you can carry is severely limited, forcing you to make decisions about what is necessary or not. Parasite Eve has adopted a similar approach, with the female character only being able to carry a limited (although larger) number of items, but, characteristically for a software company that specialises in role-playing-games, it allows detailed fiddling with the parameters of weapons and armour as well as a wider range of things to pick up, many of which are of no obvious use.

Square have also attempted to create characters far less one-dimensional than their counterparts in Biohazard - well, closer to NYPD Blue than Neighbours at least - and has invested a great deal in the plot. There is a phenomenal amount of text-based dialogue to be clicked through during breaks in the action. This is where the real difficulties of translating a cinematic experience into a game start to become apparent. If you have read the book, seen the film, or even completed the game once, the reams of text are tedious. Plot development is difficult to deal with in a game, and, despite its atmospheric graphics and novel gameplay, Parasite Eve aptly demonstrates that text-based dialogue is not the way to do it