The 3rd Birthday - Staff Review  

I Can't Take It, Here in Hunger City
by Sam "Nyx" Marchello

Less than 20 Hours
+ Beautiful visuals.
+ Great soundtrack.
+ Overdive system is nifty.
- Terrible camera.
- Incoherent mess of a story.
- Clothing damage is gratuitous.
Click here for scoring definitions 

   In some ways, it's hard to believe that it has been thirteen years since the original release of Parasite Eve. I read Hideaki Sena's novel years after playing the game, which let me appreciate both the type of horror story Sena attempted to tell, and Squaresoft's sequel interpretation. Many gamers loved the dark tale that both Parasite Eve 1 and 2 articulated, but believed that one more game was unforeseeable. However, when Square Enix announced The 3rd Birthday, questioning the relevancy of the series after it was MIA for so long was only natural. Czech author Milan Kundera writes, "The basis of shame is not some personal mistake of ours, but that this humiliation is seen by everyone," and this precisely encapsulates the experience of playing The 3rd Birthday — Aya Brea's humiliation is made all the greater because it is seen by others instead of kept to herself.

   The 3rd Birthday has players reprising the role of Aya Brea, a former NYPD officer turned CTI (Counter Twisted Investigator) military guinea pig. As "The Babel" has erected itself over Manhattan, demons known as Twisted swarm the city. Aya possesses the special ability to Overdive, meaning she is able to dive into the bodies of living souls from the past and present, giving her the power to defeat the Twisted. Although Aya is unable to recall the memories of her past life, she is determined to restore them, even if it means being manipulated by the CTI as humanity's only hope.

   At first glance, The 3rd Birthday's story doesn't seem all that bad, which makes its devolution into true disappointment all the more infuriating. In fact, it has moments which demonstrate some interesting ideas that simply come across as poorly executed. Part of this problem stems from the characterization of Aya Brea, who has lost nearly all of the spark that made her memorable from the previous Parasite Eve games. There is a story-specific reason for this change, but the game explains this plot point much too late. Although it could have been an interesting twist had it been introduced slightly earlier, it does not excuse the drastic character transformation, and for those who have played the previous games, this change in Aya's persona may be an immediate turn-off. It also doesn't help that the story is convoluted throughout, the dialogue is awkward, and the voice acting feels half-hearted. It's also a shame that The 3rd Birthday's story is made less enjoyable by having prior knowledge of the original Parasite Eve games.

Stayin' alive. Stayin' alive.

   Although the story is undoubtedly convoluted, the game's combat shows some promise. The 3rd Birthday sports fast-paced action combat, similar to that of a miniature Mass Effect 2. The game focuses on a pop-and-shoot style, but requires a bit of strategy thanks to the Overdive system. As long as there are soldiers in sight, Aya can swap bodies with a press of the triangle button. Switching bodies allows Aya to gain different perspectives in the environments, but also replenishes her health and ammo. Also, once Aya has staggered an enemy, she can use an Overdive Kill, which allows her to jump into the body of a Twisted and unleash a deadly attack from its insides. This skill takes a lot out of Aya, however, requiring a few moments after the attack is performed to regain her strength. This skill becomes critical throughout, as players will be swapping bodies frequently just to keep ammo and health plentiful. In some situations it is not always possible to Overdive, though fortunately Aya will regain health slowly by remaining idle.

   Aya also possesses two more skills to help her in combat: Crossfire and Liberation. Crossfire requires players to hold down the left trigger to lock onto an enemy. Once a gauge is full, pressing the right trigger will permit Aya to use Crossfire, which allows for an easier way to stagger the enemy. The second skill is Liberation, which lets Aya perform Energy Shot attacks. This skill is by far one of Aya's greatest assets, as she can evade enemies at lightning speed while shooting them for enormous damage. This skill is limited, but is a great benefit when staggering enemies as it will also allocate players easier access to using Overdive Kill. Making use of these skills while body swapping adds some tactical variety to the interesting gameplay, but there's one thing that can destroy the overall combat experience: the camera.

Like a poison lullaby... pu-pu-pump inside your mind. Like a poison lullaby... pu-pu-pump inside your head.

   The 3rd Birthday sports one of the worst cameras ever to appear in an action-RPG. In fact, the camera makes it frustrating to progress in combat, as players will need to simultaneously use the d-pad for moving the camera while running with the analog stick. In many cases, players will encounter Twisted that can teleport, snatch Aya from the ground, or even swarm, and it's not always possible to see the surroundings when the camera refuses to cooperate. This causes a lot of frustrating deaths, and furthermore, the camera can even manage to screw up the game's auto-aiming system. If Aya is shooting an enemy that is almost dead, should another enemy appear nearby, the camera will pan to that new enemy rather than allowing Aya to complete killing the enemy she already had in her sights. There's also no auto-aim for the sniper rifle, and if there are too many enemies onscreen, it can be tricky to position the scope using the d-pad without taking plenty of hits. Needless to say, the camera is the one downfall in what is otherwise a decent combat system, but its atrociousness is enough to snuff out a lot of potential enjoyment.

"Monster." Right.

   As Aya fights the Twisted, she gains experience. As she levels up, her physical condition increases, and her health is restored. When Aya uses Liberation and Overdive Kill, she is able to gain more experience through critical hits. Leveling up is also important for weapons usage. As Aya increases her skill level with various weapons, new weapons become available from the Weapons Depot. As Aya destroys her enemies, she is also awarded Brave Points (BP) which she can spend on new weapons and upgrades. When Aya fights in the field she may also obtain OE chips which she can then install into the Over Energy Settings. By installing chips, it'll allow players to customize Aya's health and defense, or boost her healing and regeneration. It's not the most intuitive system, as it does require some experimentation in order to get the best combinations possible without downgrading other skills. It may not be a perfect customization system, but once players figure it out there is enough to work with to outfit Aya to the player's overall play style.

   The other, more minor issue comes from the clothing damage that Square Enix chose to incorporate for the sake of "realism." However, Aya losing her clothes has no point beyond a feeble attempt to titillate, and the way in which her clothes are presented is far more unrealistic than the developers imply. Although players can restore her clothing whenever they are at a terminal, the purpose of this gimmick is purely for fan-service, and does the game no assistance in its effort to represent a purportedly strong female lead positively. Had the game presented this more tastefully, it probably would be less off-putting, but instead it shows just how Aya Brea's creators think.

   Although the majority of this review has been mixed with an emphasis on the negative, there are two aspects of this game that really shine, and that's in the audio and visual department. The soundtrack, composed by Mitsuto Suzuki, Tsuyoshi Sekito, and Yoko Shimomura, showcases a lot of variety, from very simple piano pieces to high energy techno tracks. The only downside in the audio comes from the game's voice acting, in which Jensen Ackles forgets to play Kyle Madigan, playing Dean Winchester from TV's Supernatural instead. Yvonne Strahovski provides a vulnerable side to Aya's character, but this performance comes across as very one-dimensional. Visually, The 3rd Birthday triumphs easily as one of the most polished looking games on the PlayStation Portable, sporting some of the crispest, most detailed graphics that are unsurpassed by previous offerings on the system.

   The 3rd Birthday is a difficult game to recommend. There are aspects of it that really shine and make it an enjoyable experience, but others features, particularly the game's tortuous story, will surely disappoint those who were expecting the game to be in the vein of the previous Parasite Eve titles. It feels as though Square Enix has taken a huge step back in terms of its depiction of women, which is truly disappointing considering Aya's former pedigree. If you can get past the game's overall tone and technical issues, then there can be enjoyment, but for those who fear that the fetishization of Aya Brea may be too much to handle, wisely steer clear.

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