Publisher: Square Enix / Developer: Square Enix / Price: $39.99 / ESRB: Mature (Blood, Partial Nudity, Strong Language, Violence) / Played on: PlayStation Portable
The 3rd Birthday is like a meal that’s made using some of the finest ingredients on Earth and prepared by an absent-minded–though incredibly talented–chef. On paper, the meal should be one of the best you’ve ever had in your life, but due to faulty preparation it didn’t turn out that way. Similarly, The 3rd Birthday should be one of the best games ever for the PlayStation Portable. It has so many interesting components and the talent behind the game is tremendous, but the end result is merely average.
For those not familiar with the game’s history, The 3rd Birthday is the third game in the Parasite Eve series. Due to licensing issues, the series had to change names. The first two games appeared on the original PlayStation and were some of the first modern survival-horror games. Although Parasite Eve didn’t go on to have the long-term success of Resident Evil and Silent Hill, the games–particularly the first one–drew ardent fans.
More than a decade after its debut, the series is back. The 3rd Birthday was directed by Hajime Tabata, who also directed the phenomenal Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII. The story was written by Motomu Toriyama, the event director for the excellent Final Fantasy X. Art was handled by the superbly talented Tetsuya Nomura, who is famous for his work in modern Final Fantasy games and Kingdom Hearts. On paper, these guys should have made one hell of a game. Instead, they made an average one.
Before I get into the game’s annoying quirks, I wanted to fawn over the game’s graphics. The in-game graphics are some of the best you’ll ever see on the PSP. The character models look phenomenal, with fantastic details and animations. The cutscenes are some of the best you’ll see on any platform. Your jaw is sure to drop during the game’s numerous cinematic scenes. The 3rd Birthday is just a gorgeous, gorgeous game.
For the most part, The 3rd Birthday plays like a standard third-person shooter. You run around, shoot things, find stuff, shoot more things, and shoot a really big thing at the end of the level. The gameplay is hampered by the PSP’s lack of a second analog stick. By default, there’s no way to control movement and the camera at the same time. The analog stick is used for movement and the d-pad is used to control the camera. This makes navigation and camera control annoying, particularly in the game’s tighter levels.
To compensate for the PSP’s limited controls, the game’s targeting system is ridiculously easy to manage. To compensate for that compensation, enemies–even the scrubs–have more health than they feel like they should. You’ll spend a lot of time firing away at minions that aren’t much of a threat, but because of generous health levels stick around for way too long.
To differentiate The 3rd Birthday from other action games, the developers included RPG elements and a feature called “overdrive”. Unfortunately, only the latter introduces a unique function to the game. You’ll be able to upgrade weapons, armor, and powers throughout the game. Upgrading and leveling up result in a more powerful character, but you’re mostly playing the same way throughout the game. Compare that to leveling up in an RPG, where the gameplay experience is usually deeper and more diverse as the game evolves.
On the plus side, the overdrive ability is pretty cool and can be a lot of fun. The main character has the ability to “jump” into different people she sees. This is useful for when she runs low on health or ammo; she can simply jump into an ally for an instant refill. In boss fights, multiple jumps are usually required; you’ll have to jump (several times) to an ally with a clear shot at the boss’ weak point, lather, rinse, and repeat. There are even chase scenes where you flee from an unbeatable enemy by jumping from person to person (leaving a trail of dead pawns behind you). The coolest use of overdrive is weakening an enemy to the point where you can jump into them, which results in a nasty explosion of guts.
The 3rd Birthday’s story is polarizing on multiple levels. Aside from lead character Aya Brea, the majority of plot elements have nothing to do with the two previous games. Longtime fans will likely be less than impressed. Newcomers will appreciate that they can jump into a series extension without having to learn a long back story. The narrative’s blend of science fiction and time travel will also draw strong reactions. Some will find it fascinating and unique. Others will find it silly. Some will get migraines from trying to figure out all the temporal anomalies. As a fan of the first game, I was disappointed that The 3rd Birthday didn’t have more reference and even reverence to the original games, but found the plot mildly entertaining.
One of the biggest changes in the game is Aya Brea’s characterization. In the first Parasite Eve, she was a strong NYPD officer that kicked ass and didn’t shove sexuality down your throat. That characterization is completely out the window in The 3rd Birthday. Aya still kicks ass, but due to (convenient) amnesia doesn’t possess the strong spirit she had in the other games. Her clothing also shreds as she incurs damage, so you’ll spend a lot of time staring at her legs and ass. There’s even a shower scene that seems like it was included to titillate gamers with a glimpse of her boobs. Aya is definitely hot (uh…you know, for a videogame character, I mean), but what the hell happened to the strong warrior that captivated gamers in Parasite Eve?!?
The 3rd Birthday has glorious graphics, a good soundtrack, and some interesting gameplay mechanics. It also has aspects that are merely average and others that plain don’t work. Despite the amazingly talented team behind the game, the individual pieces do not come together for a great game. There are too many holes and inconsistencies. Some gamers will be happy to put up with the game’s quirks in order to enjoy the stunning visuals, but others will be turned off by the banal gameplay, frustrating camera control, and confusing story. The 3rd Birthday should have been brilliant, but is merely decent.