Review: The 3rd Birthday
On Christmas Eve 2013, Manhattan is devastated by an attack by the Twisted: deformed and dangerous monsters that emerge and gather around giant tree trunk-like nests called Babels. Some pedestrians scream and run, while others stay behind to record the events. Christmas has come early, and everyone is getting coal.
This information comes from The 3rd Birthday’s fantastic opening cinematic, which is not very long (especially by Square Enix standards) but nevertheless makes the events leading up to this PSP-exclusive title’s story very clear: New York City is under attack, and someone has to do something about it.
Enter Aya Brea, the now amnesia-ridden protagonist from Parasite Eve and Parasite Eve II. The once-strong and commanding NYPD officer is now a quiet, meek wisp of a woman being used by the CTI (Center for Twisted Investigation) to help change the shape of battles with the Twisted that have already happened. Due to Aya’s vaguely explained abilities, when hooked up to a special machine she is able to “overdive” into the body of a soldier in the past, hurling her consciousness back in time with the ability to change the future. It’s a little bit of Assassin’s Creed and a little bit of Source Code, but there’s a reason the game isn’t called Parasite Eve III: it isn’t much like a Parasite Eve game at all.
In the original series for the PlayStation, Aya had the ability to manipulate the mitochondria of any living thing (to make an enemy spontaneously combust, for example). While there’s no mention of Aya’s mitochondria-manipulating abilities that the series was built around, nor her back story at all (amnesia is a convenient way to re-imagine a series), you do see examples of her being able to manipulate the DNA of both enemies and allies. The soldier she takes control of along with those around her gain the ability to regenerate health, and she can even dive into enemies after wearing them down and then explode them from the inside. Pretty gruesome, yes, but effective. Aya also has a DNA board that lets you “evolve” pieces of her DNA using double or triple DNA cells created in battle. Each one is labeled with a different ability, and placing the same abilities next to each other will strengthen its level. Careful planning can overpower Aya, but poor planning will leave her a mediocre soldier. The fixed camera angles of the originals are also gone, and instead have been replaced by an over-the-shoulder camera that forces you to constantly tap the L-trigger to center the camera behind Aya.
The problems here are in both the gameplay and the story. The gameplay, while interesting at first, becomes repetitive and mindless. This is something you don’t want from hour-and-a-half-long linear levels. You’re herded along a path, shooting whatever doesn’t look human and jumping from body to body to maneuver your position. More enemies will warp in and you never know how far along you are in clearing the area until the enemies abruptly stop appearing (it can sometimes feel like infinite spawns).
In the end, the overdive system doesn’t enhance battle as much as the trailers professed. Each soldier backing you becomes reduced to an extra health bar and an ammo pack, as you can dive into the next soldier during Aya’s death sequence and continue the fight. It functions more as a warp move that’s more efficient than your dodge roll, but leaves whoever’s body Aya jumped away from vulnerable to attack because the A.I. is not very good. Soldiers will fire two- or three-bullet bursts, only being effective offensively when Aya powers up her Crossfire ability, signaling nearby soldiers to empty their clips on your target. However, later battles that have you diving between soldiers, tank operators, and helicopter pilots add some nice seasoning to an otherwise fast food flavor.
You’ll be graded on each of the seven episodes (that count includes Episode 0), earning you points for you to spend unlocking weapon upgrades and new guns. Each episode also includes a set of its own “feats,” which are essentially in-game trophies. Meeting the requirements for the feat will gain you extra points for your upgrades. The episodes can also be replayed with purchased cheats.
The story is told mostly through beautiful cutscenes and in-game walkie-talkie narration as well as a file database, should you want more in-depth descriptions of characters or the timeline. With a very Square Enix melodramatic tone and some hokey dialogue, the story plays out more like a PS game than what we’ve come to expect from today’s storytelling. Unfortunately, it fumbles to capture the tone of the originals and doesn’t feel as deep as those games. Aya’s memory is revealed in flashes as she battles more and more, but it never actually makes much sense until it’s openly explained. There isn’t much to think about here except for questionable time travel physics. And there are of course several twists, though none are especially mind-blowing.
A main component of the game is the return of Eve, the genetically improved clone of Aya from Parasite Eve II who Aya calls her little sister. Her reappearance drives the first portion of the story, pushing Aya to fight to retrieve her memories and reunite with the girl she recognizes from her past.
But the more I played the more I realized I just didn’t feel connected to any of the characters. With such sparse back story and a limited showing of personality, most of the game is dedicated to machinegun fire and men discussing battle missions. For its large showing of drama there’s very little actual substance driving the game, and the only thing allowing it to hang onto its RPG genre moniker is the fact that Aya and her weapons gain experience points.
The 3rd Birthday lacks creativity. Weapons are your usual handgun, sniper rifle, shotgun, and assault rifle of varying types, and even the special weapons don’t feel new. There’s a satellite gun that functions similarly to the Hammer of Dawn from Gears of War: it charges up and then sends a blast of energy from above to the targeted zone. If you’ve played a third-person shooter with an awkward cover system, then you’ve played this game.
Its biggest strength is actually in its production values. The menus and the directing are very stylishly done, living up to the Parasite Eve series’ title of “the cinematic RPG.” The game’s at its best during the crispy, well-detailed cut scenes. With the game data installed the transitions between these cut scenes and gameplay are practically nonexistent. Square Enix really got the packaging and production down right, which makes the mediocre gameplay that much more disappointing. By the middle of Episode 4 of 6 I realized I just didn’t have the drive to continue playing, as wave after wave of weird elephant-worm things warped into the battle, turning what should have been an epic gunfight into a chore.
It was a great idea to try to revive the Parasite Eve series for a current generation system, but this wasn’t the way to do it. And with Square Enix releasing the original Parasite Eve on PSN with the release of The 3rd Birthday they accidentally proved that better technology does not equal a better game. I found myself wishing for some sort of clear-cut tie-in with the series as I played hour after hour, but the opportunity was missed. The game may take place 13 to 14 years after the first two games, but the ability to time travel should have opened up the obvious choice of sending Aya to events within the originals, possibly with changed outcomes. But none of that happened, at least not within the 8 hours it took me to get to Episode 4, and more than halfway through the game I realized that The 3rd Birthday is actually an action-based spin-off that discarded everything that made the Parasite Eve series memorable.