"The 3rd Birthday is a game that resurrected a powerful series and did not do it justice."
Whenever a beloved series gets resurrected, the developer takes a big chance. It's difficult to not only preserve what people loved, but also keep things fresh with new innovations. Longtime fans are also invested fans, however, and it's harder to meet their expectations. It's even more difficult when it has been over a decade since the series has seen a new entry, which is the case with Parasite Eve. Parasite Eve introduced us to a story deeply rooted in science fiction and horror, one of the most badass female main characters ever, and a hybrid action RPG/Survival Horror battle system. All these have worked well in the past, yet I must confess that The 3rd Birthday (T3B) dashed my hopes for a quality title in more ways than one. I'll put it plain and simple: T3B is a tease. It builds you up for greatness and then drowns itself in awful gameplay, poor characterization choices, and an ambiguous story with plot holes galore. The 3rd Birthday is a game that resurrected a powerful series and did not do it justice.
A Familiar Sense of Panic
T3B begins with a scene of absolute pandemonium: it's Christmas Eve 2012 in Manhattan; the scene quickly shifts to Times Square where a blackout occurs and then the whole city begins to collapse. There's debris flying everywhere, eerie smoke filling the air, people running around in sheer panic, and there's a vine-like creature exploding from the underground and wrapping itself around various buildings. It even finds itself a home slicing through the Statue of Liberty. It's not an earthquake; it's something officials don't even know how to define, and so they name this monster-plant creature "the Babel." It's a powerful scene, and one that's definitely on par with the foreshadowing of absolute turmoil that came from the first Parasite Eve's opera scene.
After this, the game shifts to a year later and immediately a familiar face graces the scene: Aya Brea, CTI (Counter Twisted Investigation) Special Agent. There's a team working around her: Hyde Bohr, Chief of the CTI; Thelonious Cray, the combat strategy expert; and Dr. Blank, the brains behind the computer system. Suddenly, Aya's mission is clear: go into the past and reprogram it. Aya has the ability to "Overdive" into soldiers' bodies and change history. The end goal is for Aya to bring the Babels to their demise. Throughout the game, expect a great deal of time shifting, unexpected plot twists, and intense moments that have the potential to make your heart race. The game is novice friendly, too, as there's a glossary of important people and events that's quite extensive if you ever feel lost.
I'll confess, the story is primarily what kept me playing the game, as I desperately tried to piece together all the cryptic information to figure out what was going on. It does a great job of building you up and taking you by surprise. With that being said, there is a lot of ambiguity in the plot as a whole, and even in the end, it's never quite clear what's been resolved. I'm not going to lie: T3B gave me a headache because it threw me in so many different directions without committing me to any one conclusion. As Parasite Eve fans, we've been used to an ambiguous ending, the first two titles did it, and T3B is no exception. However, the plot twist at the end ruined the game for me. I felt tricked, deceived, and flat out angry – talk about having plot holes to justify the big dramatic ending. It didn't sit well with me, but if the game had me all the way up until that point, then it did its job well. The narrative aside, though, the game messed up one thing that I can't ignore, and that's Aya Brea.
For years, many fans have wished to see their beloved Aya Brea again. Rightfully so, as Aya was the ultimate badass, she took charge, and didn't take any lip. When T3B was announced, many gushed at being reunited on screen with Aya, but it's far from the Aya we know and love. Let me ask you a question: how attached are you to the character Aya Brea? If you answered "a lot," T3B is bound to disappoint, since the qualities that make her "Aya" are practically non-existent. For those who haven't played the Parasite Eve games or simply never grew attached to Aya, you might not feel the shocking drought of tough Aya.
The sound effects for her don't help this either – combat noises make her sound like a prissy girl being picked on by the school bully. When she runs out of ammo, the whimpers are just plain annoying. This is not my Aya, not by a long shot. When you take a character so near and dear to many and absolutely destroy what people love about her, it makes it hard to enjoy the game. Adding more insult to injury, Aya's co-workers treat her like a piece of meat to her face, and she doesn't stick up for herself. So, while the story had me going, the disservice that they did to Aya Brea is inexcusable.
It Shouldn't Be This Hard
T3B shifts even further towards shooter territory compared to its predecessors, and, unfortunately, developers haven't done too well with these on the PlayStation Portable hardware. The lack of a second analog stick and fewer buttons really makes the options for shooters limited. There's no doubt in my mind that this game would have worked better on the PlayStation 3; even the director, Hajime Tabata
, confessed to the limitations of the PSP and stated that a home console would have been a better platform for it. T3B falls into the same trap as first-gen titles like Coded Arms did, and it's truly unfortunate that the controls simply don't work. There's an auto-lock system for most weapons, but heavy weapons tend to be more difficult to use. It's also difficult to find the enemy you want at times, exacerbated by the fact that the camera (described in detail below) is awful.
That being said, T3B is a hard game, but it's difficult for all the wrong reasons. Let's start with the camera: if you think the monsters you fight called the Twisted are your enemies, you'd only be partially right. Your biggest enemy in T3B is the camera. I won't sugarcoat: it's awful, and it's bound to tick you off more than once in this game. There are enemies and certain ranged attacks that you just can't see. The only way to combat this is to blindly make use of the dodge button. The worst part? If you get hit by one attack, it seems like your character gets hit by five more in the process. At times, I felt like T3B didn't want me to succeed. It seemed like it did everything in its power to make me fail: a faulty camera, enemies with huge health bars, barriers that break without sufficient cover, faulty reloading, ceaseless spawning of enemies, and easily emptied ammo. My deaths seemed less lack of skill and more cheap gimmick. Thankfully, there are some tools to combat the evils of the difficulty.
Before I start with how beneficial these skills are, I just want to note that it's like putting a band-aid over a gushing wound and expecting it to help stop the bleeding completely. First off, Aya can dive into other soldiers' bodies and assume their position on the battlefield and their health using the Overdive system. This helps combat some of your deaths: if an enemy is about to kill you, all you do is press triangle and dive into the body of another solider. This system works well as it not only provides a way to place yourself in a more advantageous position tactically, but it also allows you to put the digital equivalent of whiteout on your mistakes. The awful camera strikes again, however, as sometimes you can't see your options for an Overdive and you have to do it in real time. There are flaws, like your fellow soldiers' terrible AI, but the system does liven up gameplay a bit, as sometimes you can Overdive to a tank or helicopter for stronger attacks, and then go back on the field to take care of the leftovers.
The biggest strength of T3B is its customization. Similar to past Parasite Eve games, you have complete control over what parts of your guns to upgrade. You'll earn BP, which can be used not only to upgrade your gun, but also purchase new superior guns. The game limits you to three guns in your active inventory and one of them has to be your handgun, so really you only have two slots to equip various guns, ranging from assault rifles and shotguns to sniper rifles and grenade launchers. Alongside gun customization comes T3B's biggest and most innovative asset: DNA Boards. Once Aya gets a steady flow of consecutive shots at an enemy, there's an option to press the triangle at just the right moment and she can do an Overdive Kill, destroying them from the inside. When she utilizes this, she's able to collect Over Energy chips (DNA fragments). You can then install them onto a DNA board, customizing and leveling Aya's skills. This was my favorite part of the game; I spent a wealth of time experimenting with chip combinations to get Aya just right. What's striking is that the amount of skills almost feels endless and will undoubtedly help you shore up weak points. For instance, I ran out of ammo an awful lot in the game, but once I unlocked the restock skill, some of the game's difficulty abated.
Even with these skills, a lot of the combat feels very static and repetitive. Basically, you drain enemies with large health bars and aside from simply shooting them, there are only three other aspects to combat. The first is Overdive Kills (which I mentioned earlier), but they're risky because Aya needs a short period to recover from them. The second special attack Aya has is called Liberation. Once you get enough attacks to fill a gauge on the bottom screen, you can activate it, but it takes its toll on Aya. She becomes much stronger for a short amount of time, but must recover, becoming weaker after its use. Third, the Crossfire feature allows you to issue orders to your AI compatriots so you all attack the same target. All-in-all, the gameplay has some unique ideas, but their execution is abysmal, and that's a shame because I could have seen this game as episodic releases on the PSN. For now, we're left with frustrating combat not only because of awkward controls, but bad design choices, too.
Get Your Adrenaline Pumping
The music in T3B is solid, and it's actually one of the few games I've played lately where I noticed such standout, strong music. Yoko Shimomura and Mitsuto Suzuki, in particular, did an excellent job at conveying feelings with their compositions. Many times I attribute the adrenaline rush I had while playing the game to the music. It really puts you right in the moment and has you on edge. My only complaint is that some tracks sound similar, but they still connect with the tone and themes of past Parasite Eve games while retaining a unique sound. As for voice acting, I was super excited when I heard Yvonne Strahovski, from the television show Chuck, lent her voice to T3B. Something feels off about her as Aya Brea, however – Yvonne seemed excited in interviews to be playing a tough female such as Aya Brea, yet her vocals for Aya seem anything but powerful, very meek and mild. I also quite enjoyed Jensen Ackles as Kyle Madigan, but the most standout was James M. Connor as Hyde Bohr, who played the part perfectly.
As for graphics, this is Square Enix we're talking about here: the one thing that we can always depend on them for is stellar graphics. T3B takes full advantage of the PSP's power with realistic characters that are very much in the vein of Tetsuya Nomura's style. If at any point the game loses its edge in graphics, it's the unimaginative environments. Besides that, the game is top-notch, even the detail presented in recreating familiar places such as Times Square is astonishing. To be honest, I don't think Aya Brea's clothes had to be ripped in all the right places. Aya's design is over-sexualized; most of the game she is running on the screen practically naked. It would make sense if other characters' clothes were tattered in the same way, but that's not the case.
There Had To Be a Better Way to Bring Back The Series
The 3rd Birthday is disappointing; it brings back a series and a character that fans adore, and destroys what fans held as a paragon. The narrative is filled with holes and problems, the tough Aya people were hoping for is absent, the gameplay is a mess, and the story tries harder to throw you into cheap plot twists rather than to be enjoyable. I'm happy they aren't charging full price for this, because it's fairly short for an RPG – only around fifteen hours, without much to entice you into a replay. A new game+ does exist, where you keep your level from your past playthrough and go through the game again for new scenes, and I know fanboys will find replay value in that Aya shower scene. All told, even if fans get past the personality change of Aya, there's still the broken gameplay that takes the fun out of the game. Sometimes things are better left in the past, and maybe the series shouldn't have been revived if The 3rd Birthday is all Square Enix has to offer us.