The 3rd Birthday Review
This is not Parasite Eve III. Yes, it looks a whole lot like Parasite Eve, it has nasty gooey Parasite Eve-looking monsters, it does the Parasite Eve action-game-meets-RPG thing, and it stars a leggy blonde named Aya Brea, just like Parasite Eve. But it is not Parasite Eve III, and the Square Enix legal department resents the implication.
No matter what it’s called, this is a pretty decent 3D shooter, and there aren’t so many of those on the PSP. That singularity helps overshadow some of the game’s stranger little quirks.
This maybe-sequel begins the same way Parasite Eve did, with giant nasty slime-beasts pulling a train into New York City. Then it takes off in a different direction—a year after the disaster, Aya is part of a shady campaign to retroactively save the city. By loading herself in a widget called “Overdive,” she can take over the bodies of people in the past and try to do a better job than they managed the first time around.
In gameplay terms, this works like a cross between Gears of War and Omikron or Messiah. Aya can hop back and forth between any of the “divable” characters in her immediate area, who handily tend to be National Guard and Special Forces troops with lots of big monster-whacking guns. Any soldier she isn’t controlling fights alongside her, and there are a few simple mechanics for guiding and directing their fire. Focusing enough of Aya’s attention on a particular target causes the AI allies to join in and catch it in their crossfire. Do enough damage that way and Aya can take them out with a nifty one-shot kill, “diving” into the enemy and blowing them apart in classic Alien style.
Sony’s portable isn’t usually the friendliest platform for this kind of run-and-gun adventure: The lack of a second analog stick tends to create a lot of problems with the camera. It’s awkward to try and manually direct the perspective with something like the D-pad, and automatic controls aren’t always programmed well enough to keep the camera pointed in the right direction.
3rd Birthday does its best to solve the problem with intelligent level design. The stages are laid out to neatly funnel the player’s attention and movements toward the next enemy or the next objective, so the action tends to naturally flow. It doesn’t work perfectly all the time. A few areas and set-pieces need more cues to point out the way ahead, and killing monsters involves irritating gimmicks that take too much trial and error to figure out. How often the level design does work just right, though, comes as a pleasant surprise.
In between gunfights, the game has a touch of RPG flavor. There’s a nice degree of freedom to building Aya’s destructive potential. You can spend points on expanding her physical arsenal with whatever kind of guns suit your tastes, and the system for developing her otherworldly DNA abilities leaves a lot of room for customization. Fitting together little genetic Tinkertoys gives Aya different advantages in combat, some of which might interact with each other in weird and unexpected way.
As for the story, which advances in between missions, determining exactly how the plot of 3rd Birthday fits with the other Eve games is a waste of time. (A certain set of fans probably will waste an incredible amount of time and love every second of it.) Sometimes just making sense of what goes on in 3rd Birthday is a bit of a brain-twister. The characters spend a lot of time swapping totally straight-faced dialogue in hopes of tying the shootouts and chases together, but is there a coherent plot? Stare at it long enough and something will come into focus, maybe. Playing through a second time might help, too, and it won’t take much time—decent action gamers can clear the main campaign in a few hours or so.
Those willing to play through the story multiple times will earn interesting rewards. Clear the game on the more murderous difficulty levels and Aya will receive a closet’s worth of extra costumes, ranging from the obvious (swimsuits, etc.) to the bizarre even by Japanese fetishist standards (what is a “Titanium Bunny”?). The truly insane can play through 50 times and unlock a hidden shower scene. Then they can slap themselves on the forehead for not watching it on YouTube.
If that sounds kind of creepy and exploitative, it is. We haven’t even mentioned the way Aya’s clothes gradually disappear into ragged shreds over the course of a firefight, an extra that must have taken hours of modeling and texture design. It makes for a funny contrast, really—at times 3rd Birthday seems like it wants to be taken seriously; other times it’s a B-grade midnight movie. Quality issues aside, it’s a fun 3D shoot-‘em-up, and the PSP could use a few more of those.