A note to anybody who lives in (or plans on visiting) New York City: If you ever find yourself standing next to Aya Brea while waiting for the subway, then it's time to catch the next ride out of there. When it comes to weird supernatural events taking down the most populous city in the U.S., Aya seems to always be stuck right in the middle.
This rule is in full effect in The 3rd Birthday, the curiously named third installment in the Parasite Eve franchise. Right from the start we see the city under attack by the devastating tentacles of the Twisted. This enemy seemingly comes out of nowhere and isn't afraid to destroy everything that gets in its path. The opening cinema plays like a big budget Hollywood disaster movie, complete with landmarks being destroyed in fantastical ways. Square Enix isn't around with this PSP exclusive.
You play Aya Brea, the troubled protagonist from the first two other entries. She's a member of the CTI unit, a group of fighters who are charged with taking down the Twisted menace. In order to save the present Aya is put in charge of fixing the past by quite literally going back in time. She's told that she'll inhabit the body of another soldier and will have only so much time to change the past, ward off the supernatural invasion and, if all goes well, save lives. In other words, it has the same plotline as the recent movie Source Code.
The 3rd Birthday has a gimmick that would blow even Jake Gyllenhaal's mind. Not only are you jumping back and forth in time, but Aya is actually able to dive from one character to the next at any time. This means that she's able to quickly switch bodies at the touch of a button, a novel gameplay idea you don't see much in modern games. It's an exhilarating trick that, if used correctly, can really change the dynamics of the battle. Are you about to die? Need a different weapon? Looking for a higher perch? Just push the triangle button and dive into another soldier.
When you're not leaping from one person to another, you're playing a fairly straightforward third-person shooter. Square Enix ditches the turn-based combat of the PlayStation games, instead opting for the typical action/RPG hybrid. The game doesn't require aiming precision; instead you can hold the left shoulder button to lock on to the nearest enemy. This set-up feels natural enough, though the handling can be stiff at times.
Even though this is not a turn-based adventure game, The 3rd Birthday does have plenty in common with the past Parasite Eve titles. The game's cinematic tone has been left intact, offering a compelling story told through lengthy cut scenes. When you're not watching cinemas, you're buying, collecting and upgrading a large arsenal of weapons. The game's levels even have you fighting around famous New York City landmarks, a staple of this franchise. Even though it's not perfect, tonally this feels a lot like Parasite Eve.As nice as it is to have another entry in this series, one thing isn't right -- Aya Brea. She may look the same and have the crazy over dive powers, but this is not the Aya I remember. A decade ago Aya was a strong female character, ready to get her hands dirty investigating a series of weird happenings. In this game she's a timid wimp. She's easily frightened and hardly has anything to say. Heck, even when she picks up an item she makes a pathetic whiney sound. She's not the strong heroine a story like this requires.
Aya's leisurely run is also frustrating, since we're supposed to be racing against the clock to save millions of lives. This isn't a problem when she's exploring the gorgeous (though mostly flat) environments, but she's in a world of hurt when the supernatural creatures inevitably show up. Her speed makes her an easy target, which often results in a lot of cheap hits. This is made even more frustrating when the game's targeting system doesn't work properly. Throw in a camera that often works against you and it's easy to see why I was pulling my hair out.
Even if the camera problems were ironed out and you locked on perfectly every time, that still wouldn't fix the game's main problem. I found the enemies far too powerful for their own good. Even after you've upgraded your weapons, you'll discover that unloading an entire round will barely chip anything away from your enemy's health. You'll spend a long time unloading clip after clip waiting for your foe to die. You can be killed in little more than three or four hits, which makes everything feel very unbalanced. This is especially annoying when you're at the end of a long battle and die. This means that you'll have to fight the whole battle all over again, which isn't nearly as much fun as it sounds.
The game's level designs are also disappointing. Instead of exploring a large world, you're mostly just running through corridors looking for a boss battle. Maybe it's because I spent so much time fighting each boss, but it felt like there was very little build up before each large-scale boss fight. This wouldn't be a bad thing if it wasn't for the cheap tactics all of the bosses use, yet another thing that makes this game infuriating.
Yet despite its frustrating spots, I ended up having a good time with The 3rd Birthday. As the craziness ramps up, so does your firepower. It's a lot of fun taking your high powered guns out and racking up the kills. What's more, as the bosses get bigger you'll find yourself diving into tanks and helicopters. It's because of the game's compelling story and gameplay gimmick that the game worked for me, even with all of its frustrating problems.
It doesn't hurt that the game looks amazing. Aya's adventure is full of tiny details that make everything that much better. Like how her clothing keeps getting more and more destroyed with each successful dive. The battles are also impressive looking, even when you're constantly dying. Best of all, Square Enix is at the top of their game when it comes to making top notch cinemas. The 3rd Birthday looks fantastic.
Sadly, the audio isn't nearly as strong as the visual. I've already complained about Aya's whining, but everybody else has their own annoying habits. Thankfully there are a few good voice actors, but even they can't sell this material. On the other hand, the incidental music is strong and the sound effects are fine. One minor complaint: The game uses this very odd (and gratingly annoying) remix of Christmas music. I hope Square Enix never does that again.
I'm torn when it comes to The 3rd Birthday. I'm intrigued by the storyline and presentation, but can't stand what they've done to the main character. Even though the game can be excruciatingly frustrating, I still say it's worth playing. The big action set pieces are undeniably impressive, even if they're marred by some weird gameplay quirks. Aya definitely deserves better, but this is a good first step at resurrecting this worthwhile franchise. Hopefully everybody learns their lesson before making The 4th Birthday.