Parasite Eve fans have nervously awaited The 3rd Birthday's arrival for quite some time now. Some of us were disappointed when it was announced for PSP, coupled with a vaguely pessimistic outlook because the title, which dropped the Parasite Eve name entirely, suggested it wasn't a full sequel. Despite this, Aya Brea reprises her role as protagonist, and the action-RPG gameplay is mostly intact. It's definitely a different take on the series though, both in gameplay and story.
Above: The cutscenes are particularly pretty, but the in-game graphics are strong too
Here's the set-up: monsters called Twisted are taking over the world in present day, and humanity is on the verge of complete annihilation. Aya Brea has the unique power to use a device that sends her consciousness back in time, where she can "dive" into a nearby person and control his or her body. By going back to the time of the initial Twisted outbreak, Aya hopes to change the timeline by defeating the Twisted before they can spread.
The combat is similar to that of the first two Parasite Eves, in that it's an action shooter that mainly involves auto-targeting while dodging enemy attacks. Aya's powers have been substantially pared down compared to the first two games (her Parasite Energy powers have been completely removed), but she still has a few special moves, including a brief but intensely strong powerup called Liberation, as well as the all-new Overdive ability, which is easily the most interesting thing the gameplay has going for it. During battle, Aya's consciousness can jump from soldier to soldier any time (you use the triangle button to select which soldier to transfer to), which can be exploited in several strategic ways.
For example, you can use Overdive to arrange the soldiers in advantageous formations across the field to minimize casualties and maximize efficiency. If your health is running low, you can switch to a soldier with more HP to save yourself from death, but conversely you can also switch to someone with low HP to allow recovery and preserve your squad's numbers (HP regenerates while Aya is standing still). Aya can equip three guns of her own that travel with her as she dives from body to body, but each soldier has an additional fourth gun that differs from soldier to soldier that you can experiment with. All together, Overdive definitely adds a layer of depth that complements the gameplay well.
The combat is nicely varied in other ways, too. Aya's arsenal of guns all function distinctly, and you have good options not only for her trusty handgun but for assault rifles, shotguns and the like. Some weapons, like sniper rifles, can't use auto-targeting, and the aiming mechanic works well to add a nice traditional shooter element to the gameplay. There are also a few sequences where you get to control heavy equipment like tanks and copters, which breaks up the regular 3rd person sections nicely so that the action never feels monotonous (it also helps that the game is fairly short – I beat it in just under 10 hours).
The combat does suffer because of the limitations of the PSP controls though. Most annoyingly, since you move Aya with the nub and move the camera with the d-pad, it's impossible to control the camera while Aya is moving, which can obviously be extremely frustrating during battle. The L button re-centers the camera, but it's also used to auto-target the nearest enemy, so it isn't helpful for adjusting the camera during fights. To change targets you also have to use the d-pad, meaning that you can't switch targets while running and dodging either. Often it feels like a third hand is needed to properly use the controls.
Aya's new Overdive ability might enhance the gameplay, but the concept of diving through time definitely hurts the story. Unlike the fairly straightforward (if somewhat bizarre) plots of the previous Parasite Eve games, The 3rd Birthday's story jumps all over the place and is often difficult to follow. The time discontinuities and alternate realities only further muddle a story that's already confusing and convoluted to begin with, and the story often makes huge leaps that you just have to shrug and go with. Yet despite the scattered confusion of the plot, the one thing that's glaringly obvious from the start is who the not-so-secret secretly evil character is. There's something wrong when you can somehow see the twist coming a mile away even though you don't totally understand the story.
Above: Using Crossfire directs all soldiers on the field to attack the targeted enemy at once. Aya can also use an Overdive Kill on staggered enemies (shown by the yellow triangle) for massive damage
And while we're talking about story and characters, I would like to take a moment (or several paragraphs) to express my strong objection to what has become of protagonist Aya Brea. I'm a huge fan of the first Parasite Eve, and Aya is a major reason why it continues to rank highly in my favorite games of all time. She was one of the few game heroines who actually felt totally realistic. Everything about her seemed believable for her role as an NYPD detective, from her practical wardrobe to her dogged resolve and bravery. She was sexy too, and when Mitochondria Eve suddenly attacked the opera she was attending at Carnegie Hall, she was still able to drop enemies cold while wearing a dress and heels. But of course, she changed into jeans and a t-shirt/jacket as soon as she could afterwards, because that's the practical thing to do if you're heading into combat. In a game about sentient mitochondria trying to usurp the human race, Aya Brea was as down-to-earth as a character could get.
Needless to say, I was unhappy when Parasite Eve II portrayed her as a miniskirt-clad, machine-gun toting over-sexualized stereotypical caricature of a woman, complete with shower scene. The 3rd Birthday takes the ridiculousness to a new level though – her destructible clothing is particularly cringe-worthy, with her left ass cheek completely exposed at all times unless you constantly pay to have her clothing repaired. Her character has been completely stripped not only of clothes but of personality too, and she's portrayed as just a mindless yes-woman taking orders without question.
Above: It gets way worse than this - her pants almost completely disappear at full damage
Don't get me wrong – gratuitous over-sexualization certainly has its place if that's what the character/series is known for. If a game is initially built upon the foundation of pillowy mounds of breasteses, that's one thing – but it seems disrespectful and crass to change a pre-established character so dramatically in such an obvious boner-baiting ploy. Imagine if Mirror's Edge 2 restyled Faith as a busty bombshell parkouring around the city in a string bikini with boob and ass physics, for example. It feels wrong to those of us who knew Aya from the first Parasite Eve. It's as if Square-Enix got Aya Brea mixed up with Aya from Onechanbara.
Speaking of unfortunate recharacterizations, Dr. Maeda returns from the first Parasite Eve, but instead of the mild-mannered genius we were introduced to before, he's depicted as a lecherous creep – with no explanation for the character change whatsoever. What the hell? He had a polite crush on Aya in the first game, but in The 3rd Birthday he grotesquely and vocally gets excited about the prospect of Aya's little sister being an underage, more "nubile" version of her. Why happen?!
The story may turn off fans of the first two Parasite Eve games, but if you can get past the inane plot and characterizations, there's still a solid action-RPG underneath. Even on the easiest difficulty it's quite challenging too, and there are lots of real incentives for playing through multiple times and leveling Aya's equipment and abilities (of course, upon completing your first playthrough the first item you unlock is a maid outfit… ugh). It's almost worth recommending more to people totally new to the series, because if you're not invested in the characters you'll have less issues with the direction The 3rd Birthday has taken. Here's hoping Aya gets the respect she deserves if Parasite Eve ever gets a full sequel on consoles.
Mar 25, 2011