Pros – A simple yet polished, no frills PSP shooter.
Cons – A mire of frustrating controls and incomprehensible plot
Parasite Eve’s illegitimate heir?
It seems every day my friends are hassling me to know when there’ll be a third Parasite Eve game. ’10 years later is the perfect time to complete the survival-horror RPG trilogy’ my mum keeps telling me, and Square-Enix are apparently aware of this. Strategically, in order to avoid the embarrassment of Black Ops-style masses crowding stores, the publisher has stealthily released a sequel under the name ‘The 3rd Birthday’. A Parasite Eve game in all but name, plot, genre and platform, The 3rd Birthday is a time-warping, paradox-troubling, third-person shooter for the PSP, which takes Aya Brea on a third adventure she’ll never forget, nor understand.
Let’s do the time-warp again
10 years is a long time in videogames, and nowhere is this more evident than in the game’s cinematics. Even on the original Playstation, Parasite Eve’s cutscenes were anything but primitive, but on Sony’s handheld it’s clear how far the series’ visuals have come. The 3rd Birthday’s FMVs surpass all but the best of this console’s output, and as the opening sequence begins you’d be forgiven for checking if you’d accidentally placed your UMD of Advent Children in the disc drive.
The game starts with a Cloverfield-style invasion of New York City on Christmas Eve, in the year 2012. As NYC’s greatest landmarks find themselves adorned with tentacled ‘Twisteds’ it’s inevitably Aya Brea who is tasked with the clean up. As a member of the Counter Twisted Investigation, she uses her new-found ability of body-possession or ‘overdiving’ to travel to the past and prevent the Twisted outbreak, while unravelling the past she can’t remember.
As nonsensical as that synopsis is, it would have been invaluable to me when entering beginning the game. From the offset there are snippets of plot that appear to be obscure references to Aya’s past, and yet later prove to have been intended as exposition. As your apparently innocuous actions in the past affect the present, you often find yourself watching cutscenes featuring the shocking return or absence of a character you weren’t entirely aware existed. Playing fast and loose with basic principles such as time paradoxes, parallel universes and characters possessing other characters while killing other characters, The 3rd Birthday quickly goes from esoteric, to incomprehensible, to evoking sheer incredulity that anyone is expected to keep up without the Wikipedia page open at all times.
As the cinematics finally give way to gameplay, The 3rd Birthday reveals itself as a simple yet proficient cover shooter. Utilising Resistance: Retribution’s solution to the lack of second analogue stick, aiming uses auto-lock for all but select weapons and the result is a basic but playable shooter that flows nicely from the defeat of one foe to the appearance of another. The cover mechanic is also similar, as Aya only needs to run in to cover to hide behind it. However, after popping up to shoot, Aya can never be fully relied on to retake cover once you stop. Also, only select environments can be used as cover – no matter if they’re at a less convenient angle than over objects – and ultimately taking cover is useless against all but the largest foes and the less tactical run-and-gun solution has a far greater success rate.
Also disappointingly implemented are the RPG elements of this RPG cover-shooter. Weapons can be bought and upgraded but the statistical differences between them are minimal. The distinction between them is then further undermined as you buy parts that can completely alter their original strengths. There is greater depth in the Over Energy upgrades you apply to Aya’s DNA, but as you experiment with the chains of 2 or 3 pieces on the 3-by-3 grid it quickly becomes clear that without prior knowledge of the results that will be garnered from each gene mutation it’s really pot-luck whether you will end up with the improvements you desire.
The 3rd Birthday is at its best during the simple blast-and-run sequences which make up the majority of the early ‘episodes’. Here the auto-aim facilitates easy blasting and the phantom thumb syndrome of the missing analogue stick can’t cause difficulties in the linear level design. Of course, not content with such a vanilla experience, Square-Enix inject plenty of set-pieces, every one of which helpfully highlights the game’s many flaws, often demanding a dexterity of controls and camera work not possible in the game they’ve designed. Success in these sections often relies on fast escapes or perfectly-targeted attacks, and so failure can’t be solved by any difficulty downgrade. The final completion of these sequences will most likely reward the player with sheer exasperation, rather than any sense of achievement.
During battles you’re also encouraged to use your overdive abilities to leap in to more strategically positioned allies to control, or dive in to your foes themselves and burst them from the inside. On their introduction these promise to be innovative twists on the tactical shooter format, but they soon fall in to the same malaise of poorly implemented controls, as you will often find yourself performing the former during a critical moment where you wanted to do the latter. Your overdrive can also be built up so Aya can use a limit break where she moves, fires and overdives faster, but timing these to best a particularly challenging foe can backfire as you waste your overdrive meter on an enemy immune to all but a specific attack.
The looping music is standard action game fare but it does a solid job of accompanying the admittedly repetitive action. And for their part, the voice actors do a far superior job to the somewhat clumsy and vague translation they have to work with. You will tire of Aya’s grunts, however, as they result not only from the regular occasions that she takes damage, but also when she rolls and runs out of ammunition. The 3rd Birthday is a game that looks better than it sounds, and aside from the attractive (if vacuous) cinematics, the ingame graphics prove that the loyalty Square have shown to Sony’s handheld have paid off. Characters and enemies look and animate well, and the impressive displays in the sky give much-needed set-dressing absent in interior levels.
After 10 hours of linear progression and incomprehensible plot, The 3rd Birthday screeches to a halt. With a bonus ending to unlock, a regular ending to comprehend and a bizarre ability system to get to grips with the dedicated may find reason for a second play through, but with shallow customisation options and little significance to the Parasite Eve series it’s a mystery where they’d get such dedication from. For the rest, the game offers a mediocre shooter with some sparks of enjoyment to pull them through the short, yet often tortuous playtime. It’s not the greatest crime action games have committed on the PSP, but neither is it the Parasite Eve sequel we’ve all waited these last 10 years for (yes we have).