Review: The 3rd Birthday (Sony PSP)

The 3rd Birthday
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: HexaDrive/Square Enix
Genre: Third Person Shooter
Release Date: 03/29/2011

The first Parasite Eve combined turned-based RPG with some survival horror and action RPG, with pretty FMV cutscenes for its time to boot. The second game departed from the way the first game played and drew comparisons to a Resident Evil game. It also incited mixed reactions, with some seeing it as a step backwards and others seeing it as an improvement. The first game sucked me in from beginning to end, and I liked Aya as a protagonist, so when I heard another game in the series was coming out, my interest was piqued even though it wasn’t billed as a sequel. Now, after 11 years, Aya Brea stars in another game. Is this a grand comeback, or should the series have stayed in the annals of time?

The 3rd Birthday takes place after the events of the second game. Aya returns to New York and now works for the Counter Twisted Investigation organization that formed after a new threat to the world’s population emerged in the form of monstrosities called, well, Twisted. She’s the only one with the ability to Overdive, which lets her take over other people’s bodies and travel through time. At various points she dives into the past to fix some events, and her actions in the past have unintended consequences on the present that she then also has to fix as well. As you might imagine, this gets convoluted quickly.

A few pivotal characters from the first two games (besides Aya, obviously) do return, but the links between this game and its predecessors are otherwise tenuous, as the events of the first two games are only obliquely referenced. To be honest, the way Aya was acting in this game grated on me at first, though as the game went on that did lessen, both from me getting used to it and from her being. If this had been a new character it probably wouldn’t have bothered me (or at least less so), but it’s a complete departure from her established characterization in the first two games. Yes, she did have her emotional moments, but she also managed to pull herself together. It’s explained in the end, but it feels rather haphazard. You do get to see a glimpse of her previous personality towards the end, but it’s all too fleeting.

It may seem silly to comparing things in this game to the previous two Parasite Eve games, given this game doesn’t even have Parasite Eve in the title and that according to the director, Hajime Tabata, it’s not meant to be a sequel. But even with that claim, when you take established characters and concepts and put them into another game, comparisons will be drawn to their previous incarnations. It’s inevitable. The metaphysical and spiritual elements feel out of place in a series with a heavy scientific bent. Aya is not the only returning character who might seem nigh unrecognizable in personality. Maeda is a particularly bad case. In the first game he was bumbling and socially awkward, but meant well and proved to be helpful in the end. In this game, he makes creepy comments to Aya about how she’s his main research subject and how much he wants to study her. Given that the game’s set in New York like it was in the first game, the lack of any sort of mention of Daniel Dollis or his son is odd. Considering how the returning characters are treated, though, that might be for the best.

The progression of the plot could have been far better. They throw so much at you at once and don’t take the time to fill in all the holes left behind in its wake. A fast paced story isn’t intrinsically bad, but it is when it’s so fast that it leaves little time for actual development and to become attached to the new characters. The datalogs help somewhat in making sense of everything thrown at you plotwise. However, some things still are never explained or poorly expounded on, namely the event that precipitated everything in the first place. Yes, you can speculate, especially if you know the storyline for the previous two games, but no concrete explanation is given within the game itself. Key events that should have happened onscreen were simply shoved aside into the datalogs, such as why one character’s transformation was never shown while others undergoing a similar transformation were. One character who turns on you never reveals his motives and is killed off in an email. Datalogs and the like aren’t bad in and of themselves, and they can be good ways to provide background information and world building. But events integral to the progression of the ongoing plot should not be confined to them, and one should be able to understand the main parts of the plot by playing through the game.

If there’s one thing Square Enix knows how to do, it’s pretty graphics. You get to see a reasonably accurate rendering of New York City, albeit a rather dilapidated one. Possibly as a small nod to the first game, the introductory portion features the Statue of Liberty in a state of disrepair due to the current threat. It’s apparent in the view from the roof of your headquarters, even with huge twisted branches protruding from the ground and reaching towards the sky. In one episode there is a building labelled Square Enix, so some artistic liberty was exercised. The environments are detailed, though not much of it is interactive save for barriers used as cover and some doors you can blow open. The character models look and animate well enough, though there’s no mouth movements in in-game cutscenes, which looks odd when people are talking. The enemies you face are appropriately hideous. As you might expect, the cutscenes are quite polished. Much like the first game was billed as a “cinematic RPG”, in a way this could be seen as a cinematic shooter. The visceral transformations are strangely absent. Anyone who’s played the first and/or second game can likely recall the first cutscene involving a seemingly innocuous being transforming into a monstrosity you then have to take down. Here, the transformations are depicted as disappearing into a portal and emerging as a grotesque monster. That’s not to say there’s no gore or unsettling moments – there’s plenty of blood and perturbations to be had.

Yoko Shimomura, who also composed for the first Parasite Eve, returns to work on this one. As such, there’s some tracks from that game in this game, such as Primal Eyes. Most of them have been given more tempo and more of a rock feel, and they’re generally aurally pleasant and help create a creepy foreboding atmosphere. The voice acting is generally decent, but at times the delivery of some lines fall flat. The soldiers let out screams of abject agony when dying, which is somewhat unsettling, but you’ll probably be hearing it so much it probably won’t get to you after a while. The “No, let me go!” cries when one of the Twisted gets them in their clutches can also induce a bit of guilt if you dive into another body to escape their grisly fate. Aya utters a moan or grunt when examining anything, even something like a soda machine or forklift. She has a few different comments for most objects, so if you’re compulsive about examining everything, you’ll be hearing it a lot. It’s a rather odd inclusion, and it doesn’t make much sense.

While there are four different configurations to choose from, some buttons remain consistent across all of them. The d-pad controls the camera and toggles between enemies when locked on, pressing triangle and O activates Liberation when the gauge is full, left trigger resets the camera to behind Aya and locks on to an enemy, triangle Overdives, X dodge rolls (or dodge hops when you’re firing on an enemy, though this is less effective than rolling), and the analog stick controls movement. The controls work for the most part, and you have a few choices of configurations to choose from. The camera can get tricky at times, particularly while using guns that do not have lock on, namely grenade launchers and sniper rifles. Those who have played the PSP iterations of Monster Hunter may be used to controlling the camera manually, though it can get a bit disorienting when trying to aim with those weapons since the first person view faces where the camera is rather than the direction Aya is facing. You can get around that by switching to a weapon that locks on and aiming with it, then switching back to that weapon, but that takes up time while enemies are attacking you.

Much of the gameplay hinges on the the Overdive system, which shares some similarities to the mindjacking of the titular game released earlier this year. You take control of NPC soldiers, and they each carry a gun that you can use in addition to your own. Unlike Mindjack, however, you’re always controlling the main character no matter what body you’re in and you never control any enemies. Once you exhaust the ammo in that gun, you can overdive into another person if there’s anyone nearby, and after a time the ammo will reload. At some points there are civilians you can dive into, but they don’t carry any weapons, so you have to rely on your own. You regenerate life while you’re standing still, and taking cover behind a barricade bolsters this effect. If you have allies taking cover nearby, you can execute a Crossfire attack and have them concentrate their firepower on one enemy. This inflicts more damage and helps with stunning them. However, you have to wait until the gauge fills up completely, and if you reload, get hit, or stop aiming, or if you no longer have allies taking cover (either by them getting killed or the barricade they’re hiding behind destroyed), you have to start over. The Liberation ability returns, but this time it’s a bar that fills up as you kill enemies. Once activated, you move more quickly, have unlimited ammo, and deal more damage with each shot (plus stun enemies more quickly). As you attack enemies, they get closer to becoming stunned (guns with higher impact speed this up). Once they reach that point, you can then overdive into them. Instead of taking control of them, you’ll inflict a larger chunk of damage than you would normally by performing an Overdive Kill. If an enemy is killed with an Overdive Kill, there’s no corpse left behind, whereas killing them normally leaves behind a corpse that eventually explodes and damages anyone in the vicinity.

When you perform an Overdive Kill, you’ll earn Over Energy (OE for short) chips, which bestow various skills that fall under passive, Liberation, Crossfire, Overdive, Overdive Kill, and negative. Liberation skills trigger while Liberation Mode is active, and Overdive, Crossfire, and Overdive Kill skills activate while performing the actions they’re named for. As the name implies, negative skills have detrimental effects when equipped, but they’re still useful for combining with other chips to create some of the better skills. OE chips are arranged on a DNA board, which is a 3×3 grid. Adjacent chips with the same skill link to each other, which increases that skill’s level. Placing chips on top of each other either levels up (or down) the skill, replace the old skill with the one on the chip, or create a new one entirely from certain chip combinations. You can press square to keep cycling through various permutations until you’re happy with what you get.

Guns have five stats to them: W-POW, B-POW, B-IMPACT, Handling, and Range. W-POW and B-POW correspond to weapon and bullet power respectively and together determine the amount of damage the weapon inflicts, B-IMPACT indicates how quickly the weapon can stun an enemy, handling affects how much the reticle moves when aiming, and range is exactly what it sounds like. Gun customization is limited to unlocking various upgrades, such as more ammo reserves and higher impact bullets. The more you use a given type of gun, the more experience points you earn towards it, and you earn more EXP for using higher damage guns. Some guns require you reach a certain level in that weapon type before you can use it. You can buy more weapons in the weapon shop with BP (Battle Points), and you can also unlock weapons by Overdiving into someone carrying a new weapon.

The actual game is short and linear, and the longevity of the game lies in replayability. You can unlock new costumes and weapons, as well as accomplish feats you missed the first time around and try to get improve your ranking for each episode. There’s two more difficulties you can unlock after beating the highest you currently have unlocked. You can also unlock cheat codes, but only three of them actually help you. The rest hamper you in some shape or form, so you can activate those if you want more of a challenge. There’s even an extra scene in the ending you can unlock if you beat the game again. In addition, there’s extra files in the datalog that can be unlocked. If you play through the whole game in one costume without changing, you unlock a view mode for that costume, which lets you view it from different angles and what it looks like at each stage of damage. It’s nothing special, but there it is if you want to admire a costume from every angle. Unlocking everything will take at least several playthroughs, so there is incentive to play through the game more than once.

The game is challenging, and on the higher difficulties it’s easy to get killed in one or two hits. The protective gear you have on can help a bit, but only to a certain extent – what’s on your DNA board makes the bigger difference. Allies tend to stand there and be sitting ducks for attacks unless you jump in and control them yourself. Overdiving into a soldier also has the effect of regenerating their HP more quickly, especially behind cover, which makes preserving your troops a bit easier. In addition, if you act quickly enough, you can also save a solider that’s sustained a fatal blow. Given that Overdiving into someone else can save you from an untimely death as well in a precarious situation, it would behoove you to try and do so. You can also use the positioning of your troops strategically in order to get into a better position to attack. The cheat codes let you tailor your playthrough to be as challenging as you want it to be (good for those who like to do playthroughs involving things like limiting themselves to one weapons or avoiding levelling up), though when they’re activated any feats you manage to accomplish don’t count, and your ranking for the episode takes a nosedive. The level cap for guns depends on the difficulty level you’re playing, with higher difficulties granting more EXP.

Highjacking bodies isn’t new to the series, though only one character has done it prior to this game, and that was the main antagonist in the first game. The Overdive system bears some resemblance to the aforementioned Mindjack, and having two games released so close together by the same company that share a similar gameplay mechanism sort of dilutes its novelty. Amnesiac protagonists are a fairly common plot device, as is time travel. Neither of those are inherently bad, but this wasn’t the best usage of them. While it lets people who haven’t played the previous two games to dive in without being lost, it also messes with established canon and leaves plenty of room for plot holes. Given that gameplay has changed between each entry in the series, it’s not much of a surprise to see it play differently from the other games. However, it has retained some RPG elements throughout every game.

Part of what kept me going through this game was the try and make sense of the plot. While I was initially put off by how Aya came off, I still wanted to see how things would pan out for her. At times the game made me want to to shoot things (which, oh hey, you do in the game, how convenient), both in a good way and in a bad way. Nonetheless, I did enjoy playing the game itself, and even when I hit a wall I wanted to keep trying until I finally broke through. Even now I’m still going through another playthrough trying to get feats I hadn’t before and unlocking more things.

Parasite Eve doesn’t have quite the same pull as the likes of Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts. Those who enjoyed the previous games might be disappointed with this game, given how much it deviated from the scientific feel of the previous games (and original novel) and more into the metaphysical and spiritual. They likely also wouldn’t be pleased with the big plot twist concerning Aya – I know I wasn’t. But for those who don’t have prior knowledge from the first two games, these issues probably won’t affect them much. A code for a Lightning costume of Aya’s default outfit in Dissidia 012[duodecim] Final Fantasy comes with the game, which can serve as a bit of an incentive for those who own that game to get this one if they’re also Parasite Eve fans. There’s also a Lightning costume (sans red scarf) for Aya in this game, making the crossover bonus bits come full circle.

Fanservice isn’t new to the series, as some of the official art can attest to, plus the infamous shower scene in the second game (and of course, there’s one in this game as well). However, it’s been taken to the next level with this game, as it’s more pervasive within the game itself with Aya’s clothes becoming more and more shredded as she takes damage, until she’s practically running around in her underwear. Before anyone brings up the dress she wore at the opera house: first, the dress made sense in context and second, it didn’t get torn to shreds. Most of the costumes in this game are out of place given the context (fighting in a bikini only makes sense in something like Dead of Alive or OneeChanbara), and while the concept of clothes acting as armor isn’t an outlandish one, the tearing just seems gratuitous. There’s also the manner in which she’s portrayed, doing a 180 from a capable and tough officer and later agent to a whimpering rookie. Even as a rookie in the first game she wasn’t so fearful or inept (according to her records at the beginning of the game, at least). One could make the argument that the big plot twist at the end negates any objections one could make about her characterization here, unlike what was done with, say, Samus in Metroid: Other M. But since for the majority of the game you’re playing under the impression you are, the points can still be raised.

The Scores
Story: Poor
Graphics: Very Good
Sound: Good
Control and Gameplay: Enjoyable
Replayability: Enjoyable
Balance: Above Average
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Decent
Miscellaneous: Mediocre

Short Attention Span Summary
As a standalone game, The 3rd Birthday is an enjoyable shooter. But as part of the Parasite Eve series (even if there’s no Parasite Eve in the title, it’s still borrowing characters and concepts from there), it could have been better. The plot could’ve unfolded better, characters could’ve been fleshed out more, and more of the events could’ve been actually depicted instead of relegated into datalogs. That being said, the graphics have plenty of eyecandy to look at, and the soundtrack is easy on the ears. The gameplay was solid enough, even if the main mechanic is rather close to another recent Square-Enix release. If another game in the series does come out, hopefully it won’t take another decade, and hopefully it won’t be as much of a mess story and character wise.



, , ,




One response to “Review: The 3rd Birthday (Sony PSP)”

  1. Marc-Andre Tremblay Avatar
    Marc-Andre Tremblay

    Thank you for taking the time to write this. I really enjoy your reviews. Your writing skills are excellent, I can feel your love for gaming pervading throughout the article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *