This Is Not The Aya Brea You’re Looking For
The 3rd Birthday was originally announced—to the disappointment of many—as a game feature Parasite Eve heroine Aya Brea, and it was going to be headed for phones as a mobile game. Then somewhere along the line, it switched up gears and went over to the PSP instead. Still not exactly the console revival people were hoping for, but it was a step up right? That was the theory anyway. It did not pan out.
Rewriting The Past
The 3rd Birthday is mostly about correcting the horrors of the present by revisiting the past. In the year 2012, New York is devastated by a massive attack from a new species known only as the Twisted. By 2013, the city is all but lost, and an amnesiac Aya Brea from the previous Parasite Eve games is the only one who can save the city by travelling back in time, Quantum Leap-style, and occupying the bodies of people present at the events to try and change them. What follows is a lot of shooting, high drama, ominous philosophical rambling and plot twists that don’t make a whole lot of sense when you think about it. There’s a story here that almost begins to piece itself together at the end, but it’s ultimately let down by some bad plotting, dramatic events with more shock value than narrative logic, and paper thin characterization that tries to get by with the occasional, broken, cryptic, existential sentence.
On the plus side, for a PSP game, The 3rd Birthday looks and sounds amazing. Square-Enix always seems to be on top of things in the graphics department, and this game is no exception. Of course, the pre-rendered cut-scenes are gorgeous, and in-game the characters manage to hold up on the PSPs small screen, with Aya Brea looking nicely detailed. The environments also hold their own, but with only six—albeit large—levels in the game, repetition begins to set in fairly quickly. While not quite up to the impressive standards set by the God of War games on the PSP, The 3rd Birthday is still right up there as far as good looking games go. The same holds true for the sound, which needs to be played through earpones, or piped through some external speakers to appreciate the work done here. Stereo surround is employed, and the no expense was spared on the music and sound effects. Unfortunately the voice acting is typical of Japanese localized games, with a lot of unnecessary grunts, and some fairly nonsensical phrases from characters that might have sounded a little more digestible in the original Japanese.
A Parasite On Eve
There’s a reason this isn’t called Parasite Eve 3 or even Parasite Eve: The 3rd Birthday, and that’s because aside from a few names, and a New York location, the game has almost no relation to the previous series either mechanically or narratively. What used to be an RPG with a slight action focus to it has now been “Mass Effected” with a heavier focus on the action and an RPG component that tries to remain as marginal as possible.
The basic mechanics consist of over the shoulder shooting, cover-based shooting and/or dodging which is already problematic because of two hardware limitations; the use of an analog nub on the PSP for movement, and the lack of a second, right side analog interface for camera work, meaning the camera has been assigned to the D-Pad. This already limits the precision of the controls and situational awareness. It also means old 3D navigational headaches—such as the camera getting totally confused in tight areas like corners—are back with a vengeance. Such navigational difficulties are compounded by the fact that the radar on the upper-right does not do double duty as a mini-map, thus forcing players to pause the game and consult the proper in-game map in the main menu if they should get lost, an unfortunate regularity because of the repeating environmental backdrops.
To try and negate the clunkiness of shooting in such conditions, Hexa Drive has incorporated an auto-lock on feature, which generally works. It’s also a bit of a cheat for the developers to add in some cheap challenge, by having certain monsters generate bullet proof shielding at the exact points that auto-lock targets, making it impossible to get in a hit even though you only need to adjust your firing angle by a couple of degrees in any given direction. It encourages players to use the Overdive mechanic of jumping from one body to the next in order to get the best firing angle, necessitating some house-keeping in the form of moving soldiers to ideal cross-fire positions and other strategies since they seem helpless to act on their own. If players ignore soldiers or even just stay in one soldier too long, enemies will inevitably focus on that soldier and likely kill them, depriving players of one more firing position to use. The problem is only compounded by a lack of variety in enemies, tactics and environments, leading to a quick attack of “arena shooter” fatigue with functional, not engaging level designs.
As far as the RPG aspects go, there is a levelling system, and there is a mechanic known as the “DNA Board” that seems to borrow liberally from the sphere grid system and other ability maps of earlier Final Fantasy games. Various DNA components are gathered as loot from fallen enemies, and these can be equipped on the DNA board for various effects such as healing, shielding and critical hits, but the rub is all of this probable. Equipping a “barrier” DNA doesn’t automatically grant increased protection but merely a chance during combat that it may kick in. It’s confusing in one sense because the entire RPG aspect feels, in this regard, completely optional. The game can be played without ever actually using the DNA boards or their enhancement abilities. It almost feels like Hexa Drive didn’t want an RPG component but felt compelled to grudgingly implement one because this is a Square-Enix product.
The 3rd Birthday is a game at odds with itself and its audience. It relies on an association with a past franchise, but doesn’t utilize it in a way fans will appreciate. It incorporates RPG mechanics, but then makes them needlessly complex and completely optional. It focuses on 3rd person shooting but doesn’t address well-known control and camera problems that come from using the PSP’s more limited interface. And finally, it creates a repetitious and in some instances, unjustifiably difficult gaming experience that is not responsive enough for the shooter crowd, and too minimal for the RPG crowd. Technically, there’s nothing wrong with the game, it runs smoothly and without a hitch. Conceptually however… If you’re a fan of the original Parasite Eve series, you should stay far away from this game. It’s definitely not what you’re looking for or expecting.