There are reasons why The 3rd Birthday is not officially designated Parasite Eve 3. Of course, in all but name this is Parasite Eve 3. Very much so, in fact. Same Parasite Eve adult themes; same Parasite Eve messed up warped imagery – the series’ famed fascination with transmorphism manifesting as flesh-splitting horror-shows present and accounted for – even the same Parasite Eve main character. However, not is all as it may initially seem, with Aya Brea’s latest fantastical adventure warranting a fresh new name due to two salient points.
First, there hasn’t been a Parasite Eve for some time, and who wants to potentially estrange today’s generation, more accustomed to their Twitters and their iPads than their Googles and their Game Gears, by branding a discriminating “3” at the end of a lost franchise’s title? Time has moved on, starkly apparent by the fact that The 3rd Birthday is graphically superior to its digital ancestors despite now confined to the already antiquated PSP. Secondly, and more acutely, this is not the Parasite Eve of yore. Gone are the “Resident Evil with RPG” motifs. This is a tactical comeback replete with an astute eye toward reinvention, morphed into something that may be perceived as a tad off-kilter – familiar yet patently different – similar in many ways to the game’s destructive force, the Twisted.
Which is actually a good thing, the game’s decision to distance itself from its hallowed history removing the necessity to explain protagonist Aya Brea’s complicated, almost soap-opera-esque, back-story. In fact, there’s little need to recount the events of the first two Parasite Eve games, genetically modified prima donna lunatics fleeing into sewers and mutated mitochondria admittedly great bedtime yarns, but nonetheless entirely superfluous to the story now at hand. This is almost a retcon, Square Enix’s producers choosing to give everyone’s favourite blonde New York cop the tabula rasa treatment, wiping her memory clean and hence achieving the unachievable – namely making a renowned mysterious and elusive character even more mysterious and more elusive.
The Bourne treatment works well for the most part. Through Aya’s disjointed and fragmented recollection we learn why she is a fulcrum point to the story’s strange and shocking occurrences as they gradually unravel. Sure, it’s built on what is almost gaming’s equivalent to a “Bobby stepping out of the shower in Dallas” moment – the main character conveniently forgetting all that has come before – but in The 3rd Birthday it’s a venial concept, a premise that allows the retention of the tone and feel of the earlier games but without their complex baggage or the possibility of breeding indifference in those who may not be privy to Brea’s rookie days. And let’s not forget that the first Parasite Eve never managed to enjoy a European release. The blank slate treatment is tantamount to proffering a clean canvas to all while still showing a notable artist standing to one side, eager brush in hand.
One staple Parasite Eve tenant – its setting – hasn’t changed, however; with New York very much central to the game’s vibrant core. The opening hour with The 3rd Birthday is all about exposition, bouncing back and forth over a short time-span to not only inform the uninitiated that what has come before is now considered moot, but to absorb what type of climate Aya now finds herself in.
We learn of crippling and relentless attacks on New York City, the escalating crisis eventually killing millions and rendering the stricken metropolis almost uninhabitable. The enemy, referred to colloquially as the Twisted – once again showcasing Japanese designers’ well-documented penchant for tentacles – has ripped through concrete and entombed skyscrapers, entangling the Statue of Liberty while generally getting in the way of everyday life in the Big Apple.
The game kicks off a year after the Twisted’s crushing yet beautifully rendered opening assault, with Aya, having been rescued from the rubble, now an integral part of a government agency (the amusingly named CTI or Counter Twisted Investigation) charged with tackling the ongoing problem of giant appendages squeezing the crap out their once illustrious city.
The key to Aya’s involvement is her strange and unique power, Overdive. This quasi-scientific yet thinly-veiled mystical ability is the game’s fundamental nexus, linking Aya’s involvement with recent and traumatic past events in New York while setting up the game’s primary gameplay mechanic: the ability to focus on a person and then transfer one’s spirit, energy, whatever into them. Inhabiting a completely different body and hence replenishing health, weapons and, often crucially, taking up alternate locations on the battlefield, Aya uses this split-personality dynamic to embattle the emerging Twisted menace back in the past, hoping to gain pertinent knowledge of how to combat the aggressor in the present.
If Aya’s ability to strap herself into a futuristic contraption, traverse time and space and go back to the start of the Twisted’s appearance is notably 12 Monkeys in nature (vaguely explained as stemming from her anomalous genetic makeup), it’s The 3rd Birthday’s Matrix-esque persona-popping Overdive dynamic that sets it wholly apart from other Parasite Eve games.
Though its plot, varied monster menagerie and equipment enhancement mechanics are all strong traits in The 3rd Birthday, it’s this Overdive quirk upon which the entire game hinges. For the most part it’s an engaging and workable feature; the ability to zip around the battlefield and inhabit soldiers who were the first to fight the emerging threat quite engrossing. It’s a key concept of the game, the utilisation of the soul-surfing technique critical to surmounting the Twisted’s ever-growing assimilation of New York. It only barely mitigates the game’s shortcomings when it comes to its control system, however, as though possessing another soldier just before dying helps, when the screen is full of enemies and the game’s locking system goes haywire, you could have a million soul-slaves available and it wouldn’t make fighting back the onslaught any less frustrating. Considering how heavy the game relies on shooting a cast of twisted terrors, camera problems and an arduous lock-on system dishes up more than a few irks.
This issue is a product of not having a second analogue stick in a world where multiple enemies can readily zoom around a third dimensional space. Aya is quite nimble, sprightly rolling about the place while showering a multitude of foes with an ever-growing array of weaponry, but players will often find themselves wrestling with the camera and Aya’s position on the field, all the while hoping to whatever god a half-Japanese amnesiac prays to that she chooses to target the nearest nasty for a change. It’s not a deal-breaker; the action still enjoyable and fair for the most part, but while a game of this scope should be lauded on a hand-held, it should also be recognised when the platform its producers have chosen to grace it on has hamstrung the experience.
It’s not The 3rd Birthday’s only failing, however, as while the premise and pacing is flawless, some of the delivery is overly mawkish and, at times, sub-par. The voice acting is erratic, some of Aya’s team, such as the hacker whiz Blank, coming across as cardboard cut-out caricatures. It’s more the result of a weak script (or a poor translation of the original), dialogue sometimes overly simplified and, in places, incongruous to the gravity of the situation at hand.
These negatives do not overshadow what is quite often a florid, enjoyable gaming experience, however. Behind the $200 hair-style and brazenly hyper-sexualised front, The 3rd Birthday is brimming with RPG-lite attributes and a Square Enix signature multi-faceted power-up system. Transporting back to the present between episodes, it’s essential for Aya to invest in tricking out her motley gear. By overdiving into creatures during heated battles (which also results in the handy by-product of said critter exploding), Aya can snare DNA snippets, necessary to upgrade her own genetic alignment when back in the present. The three-by-three grid-style matrix system presented enables players to mix and match varying polymer strands, the intention to always maximise positive effects such as ‘health’, ‘power surge’ and ‘boost-fire’ while keeping side-effect drawbacks such as ‘slow’ from creeping into your helical pairs.
This configuration flavour adds an extra layer to the game, testing players to come up with better and more applicable amalgams to overcome the title’s numerous and imaginative boss characters. Without this welcome dimension The 3rd Birthday is a shallow near-future shooter with a hot, enigmatic protagonist. Clocking in at around six hours in length, the designers’ decision to introduce this degree of depth saves the title from mediocrity.
- High production values, embodied in the series’ tell-tale cinematics
- Interesting narrative
- Well-crafted levelling system adding some longevity
- Helter-skelter targeting/lock system, controls at times frustrating and onerous
- Poor execution of some story elements due to below average script in places
- Mowing through monsters can become repetitive
As a hero, Aya Brea’s likeability is rooted in the dichotomy of her strengths and vulnerabilities. She’s hot stuff; dashing into action with little regard to herself, but she’s not a super-hero; her insecurities and frailties more apparent during the revealing cut-scenes. This yin-yang is analogous to The 3rd Birthday’s underlying duality. It’s a worthwhile jaunt on the PSP, head and shoulders above most other hand-held offerings, but Aya’s inherent limitations are often mirrored in the platform’s recognised restrictions.[boxout]Fans of Parasite Eve will relish in more blonde bangs, tight tank-tops and gory shenanigans. Those searching for a fully realised third person shooter on the PSP will be left somewhat nonplussed, however.
The 3rd Birthday is a memorable event; it’s just not the groundbreaking party the invitation alluded to.