The 3rd Birthday selected an unconventional path to fruition. Never mind its discarded origin as a cell phone game, the more interesting story lies with its relationship to Parasite Eve. A third game isn’t necessarily surprising, Parasite Eve’s unique combat mechanics and real-world setting were more than enough to merit another entry in the long dormant franchise, but some mystery exists with what, if anything, Square Enix and co-developer HexaDrive were allowed to use for another game. Parasite Eve and its sequel were originally based on a novel by Hideaki Sena, and Square Enix’s rights to that content have long since expired. Luckily the original development team employed Sena’s work as a foundation rather than a complete reproduction, leaving some wiggle room between original content and the series’ lore. The inevitable result was a departure with a few requisite hints of familiarity in the form of The 3rd Birthday.
Aya Brea returns to active duty, albeit not exactly as one might remember. Her mitochondrial super powers have been exchanged for amnesia and a unique ability to Overdive (we’ll get to this later). This is handy, because the New York of 2010 is sprouting evil things called “Babels” that spawn mutated armies of “Twisted” to wreak havoc on the human race. A few years later, CTI, that’s Counter Twisted Investigation, developed a time travel machine that allows Aya to go back into the past to change the future. Once the dominos start falling Aya opens up a whole can of worms Twisted and ultimately has to reclaim her identity while simultaneously saving New York and/or the planet.
Time can forgive Parasite Eve’s weak narrative; the concept was interesting enough even if the writing was beset by a half hearted localization and general implausibility. For The 3rd Birthday, obvious leaps have been made in the way of voice acting and Square-Enix’s first rate CG cut scenes, yet the general context still frolics in the land of ridiculous nonsense. Amnesia was a smart, albeit stereotypical, way of resetting Aya Brea, but the time travel angle is wasted on digging up old characters and focusing on antagonists with little cause for motivation. It’s also baffling, with so many threads left dangling out in the wind that I’m still not totally sure what or when exactly everything transpired. This is pretty much the norm for Square Enix’s output as of late, which is to say it seems to confuse ambition with needless sentimentality and overwritten consequence.
At least it all looks amazing. As if Crisis Core, Birth by Sleep, and Dissidia weren’t convincing enough, The 3rd Birthday is amongst the finest looking games on Sony’s handheld. Animation in particular seems to have received a significant boost, with Aya walking, shooting and running in convincing manner. Dithered edges, impressive gun fire, incredibly detailed backgrounds, and screen-filling bosses also suggest a technical mastery of the hardware. The 3rd Birthday almost has that God of War II thing going for it where you wonder what games could look like if every developer pumped the same time, energy, and years of refinement into perfecting their craft on older (by comparison) hardware. In any case The 3rd Birthday would have no trouble putting the 3DS launch lineup to shame. The music, which I could swear recalls segments of Parasite Eve, is quite good as well.
I wasn’t so hot on Aya’s unfortunate over sexualization. Japanese developers again adhere to the stereotype of taking a potentially strong willed, independent female character and utterly ruining her integrity with needless perversion. It’s weird that Aya is pushing forty and still looks twenty two, but it’s creepy when she reflects damage(?) by having her clothes blown off and ripped to shreds (which totally exposes most of her ass). Couple that with Maeda’s creepy obsession with Aya along with peculiar innuendo from Gabrielle and you’re left in a weird place that offsets the intended narrative and, generally, makes the player groan and feel uncomfortable.
From the outset, The 3rd Birthday seems to have a lot going for it in the third person shooter department. Introduced immediately is its signature hook, the aforementioned Overdive ability. Aya usually rolls with a squad of soldiers and by Overdiving can instantly assume control of any one of them. Not only is it a great way to bail out if you’re getting thrashed by some Twisted, but it can also serve as a way to re-up on ammunition for a weapon. Complexity is also en route, often granting the player the ability to position soldiers at different areas and order them to concentrate their cross fire on a single target. Overdiving is also used in a few puzzles, such as one case where Aya has to Overdive across chasms or through walls to move forward, or to certain soldiers with unique weapons.
The gunplay works with moderate success. The development team elected to use a lock-on mechanism as a means to compensate for the lack of a second analog stick, and unloading on foes before reloading and flicking over to the next Twisted works well. Sniper rifles are met with limited success and turning around and aiming at something is near impossible (a fact highlighted by a truly terrible boss near the end), but The 3rd Birthday’s gunplay isn’t bad for its platform. Camera management, on the other hand, is troublesome. There’s no good way to handle it on a PSP, and assigning camera control to the d-pad is a decent solution, albeit one that arrives with a constant suspicion of getting stabbed in the back.
More familiar mechanics make up the rest of Aya’s move set. A small cover system, where the player can stick to marked barricades and shield a few bullets, is available on a handful of objects. Another interesting wrinkle is added with Aya’s ability to Overdive into Twisted. She doesn’t assume control of them, but rather dives inside and blows them up. It’s a variation on dealing heavy damage through a weak point, but expressed in a manner consistent with the game’s fiction.
Aya earns experience and gains levels, but fine turning her abilities is done through the DNA board. When Aya Overdives into soldiers or enemies, she sometimes receives an Overdrive Energy (OE) chip. That chip can be a pair of two or three abilities that can be assigned to a 9×9 grid. Abilities include boosting crossfire, haste, regen, and a slew of others. Not all of the abilities are beneficial, and creating a good DNA board gets interesting when certain abilities either mutate and become benign or malignant and harmful. This system also has significant consequence, as the player has access to just a single DNA board for most of the game – and OE chips, rare, evolved, normal or otherwise are single-use items. Along with The 3rd Birthday’s considerable weapon customization, there’s plenty of room for personalization.
Unfortunately what the player is asked to do with all of these interesting tools is a manic affair. About a dozen unique Twisted arrive in a variety of forms; a Wad inflates itself and darts around, Snatchers hang to the ceiling and fires off projectiles, and Rollers are insufferable killing machines. Enemy tactics change with their type and their health bars occasionally reach double digits, but the means of their disposal isn’t all that interesting. I constantly found myself doing little else than dodge-rolling all over the level unloading and reloading my rifle waiting for an Overdive kill. Worse, The 3rd Birthday offered dozens of unique weapons, yet, on my first play-through, I was only given access to a precious handful. They got the job done, with the YS228-SWAT seemingly holding far more value than anything else, but it almost seemed like the game was deliberately holding back on the initial experience in favor of incentivizing future play-throughs. That would have been fine if I felt like playing the game again, but normal difficulty was plenty for my tolerance level; by the end of the game, around ten hours, I was ready for it to be over.
More mileage could have been gained with an alluring set of objectives, but level design is where The 3rd Birthday ultimately breaks down. Levels are disguised with neat window dressing, but essentially composed of hallways that lead to arenas, which then lead to more hallways and more arenas as soon as the objective is complete. Levels are occasionally constructed with some verticality in mind, but most everything is composed of beautiful but sterile combat arenas. Objectives are in place but they’re disappointing and hollow; destroying red orbs to lift level gates occurs frequently, but Aya can also be found defusing C4 or blowing away walls with rocket launchers. A brief segment with a helicopter does well to mimic a rail shooter and a few of the bosses are legitimately interesting, but combat is the only good leg The 3rd Birthday has to stand on – and even that sometimes feels too weak to support an entire game.