IGN Review of The 3rd Birthday
The long-awaited return of Parasite Eve, ambiguously titled 'The 3rd Birthday', is a welcome one. The third title in the series, fans will get the most out of the smaller character cameos and setting details. New players shouldn't fret too much if you haven't played the previous games though; Square Enix provides a lot of optional background to pour over that plug the gaps. More critically though, each game features entirely different gameplay slants - with a dense RPG backbone blended with third-person action in this instalment.
Manhattan just can't catch a break these days. Aya Brea, hero of the original titles and Square Enix cult-favourite from the PSOne era, is back in the Big Apple, which has been torn apart in a terrific CG opening sequence. As the game-proper begins, we discover a year has passed and humanity is in a dire state. Aya, pulled from the rubble and now without memory, is tasked with travelling back in time to prevent the outbreak spreading.
The expanded universe of Parasite Eve now incorporates a strange new genetic threat – a gigantic infestation of heinous tentaclular beasts known as The Twisted – and Aya has a new ability at her disposal to stop them in their tracks -- and no, it's not her ability flash a lot of butt cheek. 'Overdive', triggered by holding down the triangle button at any time, allows Aya to immediately teleport to and inhabit any human being nearby. This is, hands down, the coolest mechanic in The 3rd Birthday. Overdiving creates a lightning-quick pace to the shooting and serious depth to the strategy that most shooters can't touch. It works simply, logically and fairly accurately.
By inhabiting other humans, you immediately gain their health status, weapons and placement in the battlefield. That means you can effectively guide your AI counterparts into different formations on the field, creating crossfire points. It also makes it harder for the enemy to pin you into one place.
The Twisted are initially easy to dispatch, but after a couple of chapters, the skies fill with targets spraying toxic clouds, gigantic wriggling behemoths roll towards you from all angles and cover bring a fleeting reprieve. There are dozens of types – and not all are vulnerable to bullets. In fact, without mastering movement and working out individual strategies for each, expect to get punished. It's at this point that mastering Overdive becomes essential.
To balance things, Aya is fairly weak. If you're not fleet-footed and master your dive-rolling and auto-cover abilities, you're smoked. Thankfully, you can choose to 'ascend' back to the secret between-missions facility and tune up before choosing to dive back in time.
It's therefore critical to spend a while tuning up your latent genetic abilities and armament. This is, like both previous entries, a game built on RPG stat-tracking and upgrading – and you can't afford to simply charge into each level expect to live. Weapons are plentiful – and at various points in each stage, there are safe-rooms that allow for saving. The pace and placement is generous, and we're grateful for that.
You really do need to spend your experience points upgrading the potency of your weapons and adding new active and passive abilities to Aya. Weapons tables cover all manner of pistols, revolvers, various sub-automatics and a cool dozen special weapons. Tweaking these is fun; pouring points into upgrading clip size, accuracy and overall damage is completely worthwhile – but arguably holding onto some points is also a good idea. You'll unlock a couple of new weapons at the end of each chapter - and these tend to benefit from decent stat-boost anyway.
If that kind of constant upgrading isn't your bag, you're probably going to come up against a wall. Likewise, Aya's genetic makeup stands in for 'magic' – though you're not actively casting spells. Still, the 9 x 9 grid of stackable 'cells' take a bit of thinking to master. If you're not careful, you can completely waste your new genes – and starting again wipes any you've already applied to the grid. You need to be careful.
Of course, you can stumble your way through, since the menus and presentation are fairly clear-cut and, honestly, Square Enix did a great job making a while lot of content as accessible as possible without sacrificing depth. This depth extends to the between-missions briefings, backstory logs, character biographies, a variety of optional achievement-like 'Feats', loads of unlockable costumes and the ability to replay any mission. This is a rich experience for a PSP game.
That said, the PSP is also admittedly an odd choice for a game like this; there's an ambitious shooter buried within The 3rd Birthday that doesn't play as well as it should with a single analogue stick. It's something of a gameplay barrier that even the most talented developers have had trouble overcoming. Square Enix's solution is to fall back on auto-aim and let players toggle between targets.
It works—mostly. In simple encounters, where you only have two or three targets in your immediate view, it's hardly an issue. You just aim forward and let the game handle choosing the most appropriate enemy to ventilate. It's only when you start facing off against fast moving opponents (and swarms of airborne ones) mid-way into the game that gameplay cracks start to appear.
For all the dive-rolling and auto-targeting, you can't ever be as quick or accurate as you wish you could be. Using the D-pad to toggle between enemies is a hit-and-miss affair (excuse the pun) and bringing out a weapon like the sniper rifle (or any of the manual-target heavy explosives weapons also highlight how cumbersome the single-stick aiming is. It's just not a consistently smooth experience – but if you can persist, it's a lot of fun too.
The 3rd Birthday also delivers an overall quality of presentation that most games are hard-pressed to match on the platform. It speaks for the kind of investment Square Enix has made in the PSP since its release; so many of the company's titles look marvellous. The game sets the default point of view to a handy over-the-shoulder angle, which also gives the player a great view of the landscape. Square Enix has crafted a gorgeously detailed series of areas, each lavished with the kind of small details PSP games rarely see. The boss battles – set in open fields with plenty of destructible objects and interactivity points, are generally excellent. The engine cranks out a surprising amount of lighting, particle effects and physics too.
The voice acting is a mixed bag – largely due to a translated script that has the emotional depth and impact of a bad daytime soap opera. The dialogue is flimsy and straight-to-the-point, and that's a bit of a sin from a studio that we know is capable of tremendous translation efforts (check out Tactics Ogre on PSP). Fans of TV's 'Supernatural' series will immediately recognize Jensen Ackles' voice work in The 3rd Birthday – and he's probably the highlight. His part doesn't factor in until midway into the game, but his raspy, dulcet tones are well suited.
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