"Some issues with the camera and controls aside, The 3rd Birthday is certainly worth a purchase and a play."
Let me state this up front: I am a Parasite Eve newbie. I knew very little about the series before playing The 3rd Birthday and next to nothing about the story and characters. Judging from other reviews, it seems this may have been a good thing. This installment of the series appears to share few similarities with the others and has disappointed many long-time fans. If you're looking for an opinion that reflects the feelings of an experienced Parasite Eve player, then I suggest you check out this excellent review
written by my lovely co-worker, Kimberley Wallace. If The 3rd Birthday is your first experience with the series, however, just keep on reading!
New York City, Christmas Eve 2012. The earth begins to quake before being torn apart as vile alien creatures, later dubbed the Twisted, erupt from the ground along with huge plant-like structures that wrap around and tear down the nearby skyscrapers. These structures become known as "Babels," and they are the primary target of the CTI (Counter Twisted Investigation) that is setup a year later. Aya Brea, former New York police officer, is among those chosen to work in the investigation due to a unique skill she possesses: the Overdive. She can use this power to take over the consciousness of another person and control their body. When combined with special technology to amplify this power, she can even travel into the past. Aya is sent back in time by the CTI on different missions to try and change the course of the future and put a stop to the Twisted and their Babels.
The premise of the game is quite interesting, and there are plenty of suspenseful moments throughout the story. Unfortunately, it's extremely poorly told. There are gaps in the plot, the pacing is awkward, and half the time it's a wonder Aya doesn't just stand there, scratching her head and wondering what on earth is going on and why no one ever explains anything properly. Initially, I thought I was confused because I haven't played either of the first two Parasite Eve games. A quick run around the Internet told me otherwise. Even the ending has its confusing moments, but it does answer a number of questions and provides a very interesting twist. Adding to the mess, however, are the forgettable characters. They're not developed well at all and will rarely provoke anything more than an indifferent emotional response from the player. Aya shows some promise as a likeable character, but she's amnesia-stricken and has little interesting dialogue so she's only slightly more interesting than a plank of wood. If she wasn't as pretty to look at as she is, I doubt I'd even bat an eyelid as she's brutally slaughtered by the Twisted.
On the bright side, the suspenseful gameplay adds an extra layer of excitement to the story. The 3rd Birthday falls between being an RPG and a third-person shooter. The game is broken up into different missions where Aya moves from point A to point B and kills a ton of enemies along the way. She can carry up to three different guns into each mission along with a fourth that is provided by whatever soldier she controls. Using the Overdive skill with a simple press of the triangle button allows her to swap between any soldiers currently on the field. There is no real difference between controlled soldiers apart from slight variation in weapons they carry, but maneuvering them to different parts of the terrain can make for a massive tactical advantage. The soldiers Aya is not in control of are left in the care of the AI. It tends to be a little sloppy, and soldiers prefer to stand out in the open and shoot wildly rather than take cover behind environmental objects. This isn't a game-breaking issue, and as long as soldiers are positioned manually in more difficult battles, it's not a problem.
Boss battles are the highlight of the combat. They're fun, challenging, tactical, and require some thought to defeat. In an early fight, for example, the weak spot of a boss is on top of its back, but it's too tall for Aya to reach. She has to use Overdive to find higher ground and shoot from above. This works until the boss catches onto the strategy and begins to climb the wall after her! These fights keep you on your toes and the variation in gameplay makes up for the fact they all look a little graphically similar. A couple of these encounters even have Aya behind the gun on some heavy vehicles!
I know the controls have been a major issue for some players, but I didn't find them to be game-breaking. The 3rd Birthday would be far better suited to a controller with two analogue sticks, but it works well enough on the PSP. The stick controls Aya, and the directional pad moves the camera. This could have been a nightmare, but each enemy can be locked onto by holding down the left trigger. It's a little fiddly at times to find the right enemy and the camera can get in the way, but generally I was too busy rolling around madly with the cross button to be worrying about which enemy I was aiming at as long as they were all dead in the end. In terms of difficulty, I found the normal setting to be just right. A number of fights were quite a challenge, but I never felt they were insurmountable. Another handy mechanic is being able to Overdive into a solider if the one being controlled is killed. It requires quick timing to pull off, but death can continue to be evaded like this as long as there are allies around. It will certainly hurt your final score at the end of the mission though.
Between missions, and at checkpoints during them, the player can customize and upgrade Aya. She gains experience and levels up as she kills Twisted, but most of her power comes from her weapons and the DNA board. Weapons can be bought with BP, gained from killing enemies, and then upgraded to increase their firing power, handling and so on. There are a surprisingly large variety of weapon models available and working out which one is best for a situation is quite enjoyable. The DNA board makes Aya more formidable too, but in more of a support-style manner. By using Overdive to attack enemies the player sometimes finds OE chips. These can be installed in the nine-by-nine DNA grid to increase health regeneration, make critical hits more likely, increase the chance of restocking ammo and plenty of others. Newly acquired chips can be placed on top of existing ones to enhance abilities and even genetically mutate others for unique skills. There are hundreds of different combinations possible, and these upgrades can really turn the tide of battles. Aya has a number of different outfits she can wear as well that provide slightly different defensive capabilities. Only a few are available on a first play-through, but more are unlocked on subsequent ones. They're mostly for aesthetic purposes, but they do provide some extra defense too.
The quality of The 3rd Birthday's graphics is excellent, and environments, characters and enemies are detailed nicely. Aya and the rest of the CTI team are certainly the highlights, but even the helmeted soldiers you take control of shape up well. The character models are sharp and of a high quality. The Twisted are appropriately grotesque, and the huge Babels truly awe-inspiring. A little more variation on enemy models and types would have been nice, as towards the end of the game they do start to feel a little repetitive. Most missions have Aya running around the insides of ruined buildings which are certainly done well, but whenever a shot of the Babel-covered New York skyline comes into view, that is when you'll really stop to take notice. In fact, at one stage late in the game I stopped to take a look at the detailed city through a hole in the wall and was subsequently killed as I admired the view! As for cut-scenes, they're absolutely stunning. Mind you, we'd expect nothing less from Square Enix, would we?
An interesting, and somewhat odd, aspect of the graphical engine is that Aya's clothing actually deteriorates as you take damage. Her shirt and pants literally fall off her body. If she's pounded around she is ultimately left with just some ruined and extremely short jeans along with a ragged vest showing off bits of undergarments. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't somewhat appealing for a male audience, but mostly it just seemed unrealistic. The last thing I want to be concerned with when frantically fighting off Twisted is whether or not Aya's backside is showing.
The soundtrack is solid and emotive. Much of the rush felt when playing can be attributed to the music. There is a great mix and good contrast between the exciting action-based music and the pieces for the softer, more emotional scenes. The sound effects are generally solid too, but it's hard to praise them for being anything more than typical shooter fair. The voice acting varies in quality, but is never ear-grating. Most of the actors do a good enough job with their characters and convey the emotions and feelings of scenes appropriately. Aya's actress does a good job considering the rather average dialogue written for the character. If I had to pick a standout I would say Jensen Ackles as Kyle Madigan, but the voice acting team did a fairly good job across the board.
It's a little disappointing that The 3rd Birthday only takes about ten hours to beat, but there's plenty of incentive for replay value. You're given a score for each mission that you can go back and try to beat along with a number of different achievements to work on for each level. Some of these feats, ranging from clearing specific areas quickly to dealing with enemies in unconventional means, are extremely tricky and would require some dedicated work to pull off. Completing the game on different difficulties unlocks new costumes and special weapons for Aya as well as even more difficult modes. If you're a completionist then you'll need to play the game through many times to unlock everything. There's even a special shower scene that can be unlocked by those who are committed enough.
As someone who had no experience with the series I found a lot to like about The 3rd Birthday. The fast-paced action and exciting combat made it a joy to play through and quite difficult to put down. The graphics are terrific, the cut-scenes gorgeous, and the music memorably solid. It's frustrating that the story is a mess and the characters not particularly exciting, but the twists and turns kept things interesting enough. Some issues with the camera and controls aside, The 3rd Birthday is certainly worth a purchase and a play.