The 3rd Birthday
Aya Brea is a weak-willed dud. At least she is in The 3rd Birthday – a quasi-sequel to Square’s widely popular PSone Parasite Eve series. Gone is Detective Brea – a confident heroine focused on unraveling the mysteries surrounding an unfolding, Resident Evil-esque parasitic nightmare in a snow-covered New York City. In steps a highly-sexualized, whimpering mess of a “protagonist” who nearly single-handedly makes this game not worth playing. Also gone is the addictive Vagrant Story-style battle system; though it, at least, is replaced with mildly satisfying lock-on shooting mechanics and Overdrive – a fantastic feature which allows you to hop from ally to ally across the battlefield while taking on the game’s grotesque enemies. As a stand-alone action game in the Parasite Eve universe, The 3rd Birthday is a decent enough effort, but as a direct sequel to its “spiritual predecessors,” it is shallow, forgettable, and rather disappointing.
One wonders why Square Enix even chose to shoehorn The 3rd Birthday into the Parasite Eve universe, when clearly so much liberty was taken with the original games’ characters, plot and overall gameplay mechanics. It was a questionable decision, to be sure, but here we are, stuck with a game that will most likely alienate fans of the PSone iterations, while not offering up the kind of plot cohesiveness to suck in franchise newcomers. Of course, straight-up action games rarely need riveting storytelling to be fun, and if taken as a generic, lock-on heavy third-person shooter with some pretty CG cutscenes (nevermind that these movies do little to add clarity to the game’s muddled, slogging narrative), The 3rd Birthday just might scratch a PSP gamer’s itch for some solid, parasitic beastie-blasting shoot-em-up action.
As mentioned above, the main reason the game doesn’t collapse under the combined weight of a limp, unlikeable protagonist, poor storytelling, and limited lock-on targeting mechanics is the inspired Overdrive system. Deceptively easy to pull off and just plain fun to boot, Overdriving from location to location on the battlefield provides a sense of freedom not usually found in this type of action game. And Overdriving is not just about mindlessly changing locations – it allows for the strategic placement of ally units across the map and the luring of enemy creatures into areas beneficial to the player. Overdrive is the backbone of The 3rd Birthday’s gameplay, so it’s a good thing the mechanic is as engaging and fresh as it is, at least during an initial playthrough of the game’s five or six hour-long campaign.
And Overdrive isn’t the game’s only commendable feature; as has come to be expected for most Square Enix PSP titles, The 3rd Birthday is very pretty. Everything from the grotesque, lumbering bosses and other twisted monsters to the rank-and-file soldiers and Aya herself have been carefully modeled and imbued with stellar, lifelike animations. The environments are perhaps less eye-catching, but this is more due to the game’s overabundance of gritty urban locations than a lack of artistic wizardry. On the audio side of things, the game’s soundtrack was handled by a trio of excellent composers, including Yoko Shimomura – the composer of the first (and compositionally best) game in the series. While the music ranges mostly in the realm of pretty good to excellent, the overall score fails to surpass the high bar set by Shimomura herself in the original Parasite Eve.
Yes, there are certainly things to like about The 3rd Birthday, but the complete butchering of Aya Brea as a character goes a long way in negating the game’s several positives. You see, in this game Aya has no backbone. She is a meandering, amnesiatic heroine with little control of her own destiny and seemingly little desire to gain that control. In cutscenes, she gazes with wide, doey eyes at approaching danger and utters diminutive little sighs and gasps as mutated creatures slaughter people and attempt to dismember her. Not only does she float through most of the game’s story as a lifeless, unlikable shell, but she’s also forced to do so with clothing that is designed to tear away during combat, leaving her running around battling parasitic creatures half-naked. Now, objectification is hardly a rarity when it comes to videogame heroines, but Aya’s dissolving garments and weak-willed, subservient nature instill a sort of creepy, unhealthy sexuality to the whole affair and strip away nearly all of the appealing traits that made her an intriguing protagonist in the PSone iterations.
“…the complete butchering of Aya Brea as a character goes a long way in negating the game’s several positives.”It doesn’t help that the plot attempting to propel Aya’s story forward is cryptic, plodding and so full of gaping holes and tedious Japanese sci-fi cliches that many gamers will likely find themselves annoyed, confused, disinterested, or a combination of all three. Aya’s supporting cast are nearly all equally as unlikable due to a variety of reasons, though terrible dialog and ho-hum voice acting are the offending causes more often than not (a gravelly-voiced Jensen Ackles is a rare bright spot, but he wasn’t given much to work with). And it really is a shame that the game’s beautifully rendered CG cutscenes serve as nothing more than pointless filler to pad out the wearisome storyline. An entertaining plot isn’t usually a necessity for action-heavy videogames, but when that game is set in the Parasite Eve universe, there is a certain expectation of quality that the developers didn’t even get close to reaching here.
All that said, The 3rd Birthday isn’t a terrible game; in fact, it has one very important thing going for it – namely, the Overdrive system. Action fans simply looking for some fast-and-furious shoot-em-up hijinks on their PSP may find enough value in that unique mechanic alone to validate a purchase, especially considering the game’s myriad of unlockables (mostly in the way of ability/weapon upgrades, cheats, and costumes) available for those willing to grind through multiple playthroughs. It’s important, however, that one doesn’t expect Parasite Eve III when popping this into their PSP, as that would surely result in acute disappointment.