The 3rd Birthday Review
I was a big fan of the original Parasite Eve. It remains one of my favorite games of all time. And while PE2 adopted a real-time mechanic and made it feel too much like Resident Evil, I still enjoyed myself. Therefore, I’ve been looking forward to The 3rd Birthday ever since Square-Enix announced it, and the return of the super-cute Aya Brea could’ve made my day. And while the game features insanely high production values and has a lot of strong points, the biggest downfall centers on the gameplay…which only reinforces my belief that PE should’ve retained the hybrid mechanic found in the first title. This game is just begging for a chance to pause and assess the situation, and that’s primarily because the control is always iffy and the frustrating moments pile up quickly.
The graphics are one area where Aya’s new adventure is distinctly Parasite Eve in nature: the in-game visuals are good but not quite outstanding or impressive, while the cut-scenes are drop-dead gorgeous. Some of the hardcore Aya fans (who really wish they could propose to a virtual creation) will want to struggle through some of the more difficult sections just to catch the next cut-scene. We’re talking pure portable brilliance. Beautiful. On the other hand, the gameplay graphics aren’t quite as detailed as I would’ve liked, and for some reason, I thought the design of the basic enemies was a tad uninspired. The bosses are cool, though, and both the effects and area construction are solid. The truth is that there are many highlights to be found when playing – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – but those cut-scenes are the cream of the crop.
The sound is yet another combination of peaks and valleys. As for peaks, I’ve always thought these games had great music, and Square-Enix doesn’t disappoint. I certainly wanted more tracks, especially when engaged in combat, but the score is both appealing and fitting. The effects are better than decent, too. The voice acting is hit or miss but there’s one annoying tidbit: whoever voiced Aya is excellent. She really is. Unfortunately, she has nowhere near enough lines because Aya’s character just isn’t fleshed out enough in the story, and we’ll get to that in a minute. Some voiceover performances are average or even mediocre, but the music and effects – which are always quite prominent – save the day. And really, Aya finally has a voice, and it’s a fantastic one…and she rarely speaks. Whatever.
It’s the not-too-distant future in Manhattan, and a plague is terrorizing the city. The “Twisted” are responsible for this plague, but few know how to stop it, and people are dying left and right. At the start of the game, you see gigantic dark tentacles exploding out of the ground; at one point, you catch a glimpse of a terribly ensnared Statue of Liberty. This problem requires more than guys and guns; it requires someone with a very special ability; someone who can alter her DNA and turn herself into a 100 lb. fighting machine. Aya Brea returns as the protagonist and despite being plagued by visions and dreams that hearken back to her hazy past, she presses forward with her dangerous assignments. Not only can she change her DNA on a molecular level to be more effective, she can also “Overdive,” which is essential to survival.
During this third-person shooter quest, Aya is more vulnerable than you might think. Although she can take refuge to allow her health to slowly refill, most enemies are quite capable of taking her down in only a few hits at the start of the game. She’ll level up and get stronger, and you’ll amp up her capabilities via the aforementioned DNA alterations, but it’s still a challenge. When she’s in trouble, there are two things she can do- the first is that Overdive, which lets her immediately jump into an ally’s body…kinda like “The Matrix.” Thing is, Aya isn’t really there; she is sent back to the past, before the world reached a critical state. Therefore, she can do cool stuff like this but she’s hardly invincible; if she dies out there, it’s all over. And no, none of this can be considered “spoiler-ific” because you learn all of it within the first hour.
Now, the gameplay controls: you move with the analog, which works fine. You aim with the L1 button and it’s usually a lock-on feature for most weapons. Aya will automatically put the nearest enemy in her sights, and then you just tap (or hold) the R1 button and fire away. She can swap weapons at any time with the directional pad and tossing a grenade is as easy as aiming with L1 and pressing Circle. She can execute an evasive dodge roll with the X button and when near a defensive barrier, she will automatically crouch behind it for the sake of cover. The camera does a good job of keeping up, even if the auto lock-on can often leave you disoriented. But there are a plethora of issues, and that includes the fact that some cover doesn’t always work; if you’re not flush against it, you can still be struck.
Also, the running speed seems slow and the quick-fire roll is jarring in comparison, and can easily screw with your sense of direction. Allies will sometimes get in the way, too, especially when trying to take cover; I had to Overdive into some guy who just wouldn’t move. Now, on top of it all, add some majorly frustrating elements: the problem is that you don’t always know what to do, and the hints they give you don’t help much. Certain bosses will leave you scratching your head, and because your health can’t regenerate unless you’re staying still, you’re constantly concerned about getting hit. One solid strike can end the game immediately, and that gets more than a little irritating. Lastly, for some reason, I just couldn’t stop my fingers from cramping; I’m not suggesting the button layout is bad, but the gameplay speed is demanding.
In regards to the story and as I mentioned above, Aya is just too passive to be an engaging main character, and she apparently has no personality of her own. Regardless of what people say to her – and that can include some highly suggestive remarks – she responds in much the same way…which is to say, with a little sigh or surprised expression, and very few words. The story is good but you don’t really have any idea what’s going on until the third or fourth hour or so. Therefore, this story-driven title stumbles a bit right out of the gate; with Aya’s great voice and alluring good looks, you would think she’d be more of a highlight. But she’s basically just eye candy who suffers from torn clothing when damaged (which isn’t anywhere near as big of a deal as the media made out) and does what she’s told.
That all being said, I imagine many will have fun playing the game. I did, even if I was close to tossing the unit at the wall. The challenge isn’t overly crazy, the balance and pacing seems just about right, and I very much liked the philosophical and scientific concepts in the story. Extra depth via DNA boards and unlocking, purchasing and upgrading weapons is much appreciated, and makes it feel more like an action/RPG. Overdiving is a sweet feature – especially when you Overdive into a foe to implode it – and the developers make good use of it. The story, despite being too much undercover early on, is intriguing and even surprising in some areas, and the writing isn’t terrible. The dialogue isn’t great but then again, I wasn’t really expecting it to be. Lastly, I should add that nothing about the gameplay can be considered “broken;” it can only be dubbed “erratic” or maybe “eccentric.” If you can deal with that, you’ll enjoy yourself.
The 3rd Birthday has a lot going for it, but it falls short of being a top-notch production due to significant control issues, a high level of frustration, and a main character that looks and sounds great, but doesn’t contribute much. The cut-scenes really are mind-blowing, the story is a plus provided you stick with it, the design, pacing and structure are all good, and some of the boss fights are borderline memorable. You just have to find a way to stay alive… I still say that, although every single game must have some “twitch” element these days, the “old-fashioned” mechanic from the original Parasite Eve would’ve worked wonderfully here. Yes, Square-Enix, I’m aware of your new “direction.” I still don’t like it. But this game isn’t bad.
The Good: Stunning cut-scenes. Great music and main character is voiced well. Design and pacing is solid. Storyline gets more interesting with time. Some nice ideas and features. Atmosphere and style is always appealing.
The Bad: Takes too long for story to get going. Aya isn’t a fleshed-out protagonist. Control is a definite issue. Frustration is inevitable.
The Ugly: “Yup, dead again. Way to go, cutie.”
3/30/2011 Ben Dutka