PSP Review – The 3rd Birthday

Indecision can be a horrible thing. Imagine you’re on a freeway veering to the right, but suddenly can’t decide if you’re going to exit now or hit the next one. You wait too long to make your move either direction, and what happens next? You smash into a median, with neither the benefits of the early exit or the faster travel of staying on the freeway. A decade after its last outing, the Parasite Eve series has made a comeback in what was originally announced as a cellphone game… and then a multiplatform game… and then a PSP exclusive. This game jerked a lot of people around. In the end, it’s obvious that a little more direction and a dev team with a more specific idea of what it wanted to do, and how it wanted to do it, could have taken a sub-par game and made it into something really good.

But at first glance, The 3rd Birthday doesn’t look like a car crash, as its visuals are one of its best features. Say what you will about Square Enix, but those guys don’t mess the hell around when it comes to making fantastic-looking games and adding quality soundtracks while they’re at it. The graphics and music team up to create immersive environments all throughout this game and add to the enjoyment of the story in a big way.

The 3rd Birthday has familiar heroine Aya Brea back in New York City after whatever that desert business was in Parasite Eve II. I say “familiar” with a touch of irony, as this Aya is not the Aya gamers know from two PSOne action RPGs. This woman is… I don’t know who this is supposed to be. The devs have taken Aya from one cliché into another, as she’s transformed from a hardnosed ass kicker into a fragile, harmless kitten. Formerly NYPD, she’s now working with CTI, which is sadly not a combination of Jack Bauer’s CTU and David Caruso’s CSI, but she’s in the Counter Twisted Investigation. The “Twisted” are basically the names of the monsters this time around, and Aya defeats them by a combination of her supernatural (yet government-aided) Overdive/Liberation powers and good old-fashioned shooting crap in the face. Overdive (not to be confused with overdrive; one is for a car, one is for killing mutants) allows Aya to take control, or “dive” into, another person’s body via the triangle button, and use their body (though it looks like Aya) to fight the Twisted. In a sense, anybody in the area of a fight against the Twisted could be kind of viewed as an extra health meter and ammo pack. Learning to strategically use the Overdive system is vital to success, even early on.

Battles are where the game lives and dies. At its core, The 3rd Birthday is a third-person shooter with an RPG’s progression system. Players can freely run and shoot enemies while switching among any of up to four guns or tossing a grenade. It starts out pretty basic and stays that way all game long, which is good and bad — good because the learning curve is quick and easy, bad because, well, there’s not a whole lot of variety to the combat. There’s quite a bit of the stereotypical action RPG dodgeroll, dodgeroll, empty a clip, dodgeroll, dodgeroll, dodgeroll, bang bang bang, dodgeroll, dodgeroll, dodgeroll, shoot a bit more, repeat. In that way, a lot of the fights felt like Kingdom Hearts boss battles, but with more guns and less hair gel. Though there are also several moments of pop-n-shoot, which for some reason never fails to remind me of old Western films.

What messes up most of the fun the combat tries to provide, however, is the camera. Good freaking luck when fighting in anything other than Yankee Stadium, because confined spaces seem to be where the camera acts more like a cinema and less like a video game. Fitting, since the original Parasite Eve was billed as “The Cinematic RPG,” and yet not fitting because a cinema is hands-off, while a video game generally requires someone to interact – and that interaction is hard when the camera is constantly taking the enemies out of view with its wily rotation and unexplained swooparounds. Managing it oneself is possible, but made tough when the other acts associated with staying alive already take up most of one’s available gaming fingers. I made use of “The Claw” more than once in The 3rd Birthday. Still, it’s hard to dodge an attack you can’t see, and often times, the camera doesn’t let you see enemies that are approaching, targeting, and attacking Aya. So the player will resort to random dodgeroll when enemies are off-camera, but ask yourself…why am I dodgerolling? The answer, inevitably, is that it’s because there may or may not be an attack coming, but you can’t be sure. You can’t be sure because you can’t freaking see anything. Is not the function of a camera something that allows one to see? So we’ve got a camera not doing what cameras were invented to do, in turn requiring players to take random defensive actions based on the game’s broken nature. In online games, sometimes you’ve got to take measures against lag, but in a single-player experience like The 3rd Birthday, there’s no excuse for this — not in 2011.

When I played a demo of this game in the fall, I forgave its controls and camera in favor of blaming myself and the circumstances. It was about the millionth new PSP game I’d played that day, and the Tokyo Game Show is by no means a quiet place where one can really focus on the task at hand. It was disappointing to play the full game and realize that no, I wasn’t wrong back then. It actually is this awkward to control, and the camera really is that bad.

That said, many people will probably cite the story as the best reason to play. Gameplay is nothing that can’t be found elsewhere, often better and currently, cheaper. I for one was wondering why Aya was so…different than I remembered her. I should say though, that while it was jarring to see Aya so different, she was still a good character and it was still easy to care about her story and fate. The characters, strange hints at the origins of things, presentation, atmosphere, and overall decent quality of the plot were respectable. It wasn’t quite clear going through the game, but true to the modern Square Enix practice, it all came together in a big cascade of revelations, twists, and counter-twists right before the highly excellent, satisfying ending. It just kind of stings that getting to that great ending requires 12-25 hours of wrestling with a camera which has seemingly hired monsters to distract you from your fight against it. Wait, I might have gotten that backwards.

Honestly this game should have been on a console. At TGS, it was one of very few PSP games I could comfortably play while looking at the big screen instead of the PSP screen. Most other PSP titles just got too pixellated on the big screens they were hooked up to, but The Third Birthday held its own, showing that it could have really been something amazing if developed for, oh, let’s say, the PS3. That decision would have also added two shoulder buttons and another analog stick, which might have eliminated the control and camera problems that bog down the fun of the combat. Gameplay in this third Parasite Eve boils down to the common action RPG or third-person shooter, plus the Overdive system and minus knowing what the hell is going on.

Some of the first magazine advertisements for Parasite Eve, back in the late 90’s, used the tagline, “The Worst Foe Lies Within the Self.” How oddly ironic that all these years later, a new Parasite Eve game should come out in which the worst foe truly is not a monster, but flaws within the design of the game itself. That’s heavy.

PlayStation LifeStyle’s Final Score

-Even if it did have better control and a vastly improved camera, the gameplay would only be so-so.  As is, it’s bad.

+Good story punctuated by a great ending.

+Square’s usual level of graphic/audio mastery

4 out of 10