Sure, series protagonist Aya Brea is present in all her impossibly pretty glory, but this is still not a Parasite Eve game. Those expecting a long anticipated return to the survival horror origins of the cult Japanese series will be disappointed — The 3rd Birthday is a third-person shooter that bares few similarities to the franchise it's born out of. It's a spin-off then, which is probably for the best. Eleven years have passed since the last Parasite Eve — it's time to move on.
The game opens with Aya Brea in a blood-soaked wedding dress with few recollections of her past. Set in an alternate future where inexplicable "Babel" roots have emerged from beneath New York City, Aya's Overdive ability becomes pivotal to the Counter Twisted Investigation's battle against the paranormal. If none of that last sentence makes sense to you — don't worry. It barely means anything to us either. The 3rd Birthday's plot is stacked full of buzzwords and terminology that are hard to keep on top of. The game does provide you with plenty of background material to read through, but the narrative isn't interesting enough to make you want to discover it. All you really need to know is that Aya's tougher than her petite looks lead you to believe, and she's pretty good at shooting up waves of grotesque monsters.
The 3rd Birthday's campaign will take you around eight hours to complete on standard difficulty. A pool of unlockable costumes and weapons add to the replay value.
The 3rd Birthday is easily one of the best looking games available on the PSP. While it never quite matches the scale of Monster Hunter nor the fidelity of Ghost Of Sparta, this is a fantastic looking game. The environments are rich and detailed, the frame-rate is smooth and the cut-scenes are top-tier Square Enix fare. For a PSP game, The 3rd Birthday is also surprisingly packed with set-piece moments. One mission has you floating through a spectral void, unloading ammo into an enormous boss monster. Another puts you in control of a helicopter, spitting rockets at unusual clam like beings. There's a consistency to the art-style that's unmistakably Japanese, and all the more intriguing for it. The 3rd Birthday's not necessarily a horror game, but the enemy species — known as the Twisted — are genuinely disgusting, often resembling little more than biological blobs. The character models are fantastic too. Protagonist Aya Brea moves with the kind of girlish energy that you don't typically associate with a third-person shooter, highlighting the character's vulnerabilities without shoving it down your throat.
While The 3rd Birthday is primarily a third-person shooter, there are some tactical elements to its arcade inspired gunplay. Aya Brea's primary hook is her ability to assume the body of another human being. This is phenomenon is confusingly dubbed "Overdive" by the game's self-indulgent terminology. The game is typically set-up in closed off battlefields where Aya will be approached by enemies from all angles. The trick to staying competitive in these scenarios is to dive around the environment, assuming the bodies of different soldiers positioned around the battlefield. This gives you a tactical edge over your dim-witted biological foes, allowing you to, for example, jump behind enemies to hit their weak spot, or quickly find a route to safety. Overdive can also be used to finish off stunned enemies too. If Aya's using a weapon with a high Bullet Impact, she can stun opponents and quickly dive into their body to finish them off. It's a really fun mechanic, but it's a shame the game doesn't do a better job of explaining everything to you. It took us a good couple of hours through our own perseverance to learn the intricacies of the gun-play, and even then we didn't feel entirely comfortable in battle. Adding to the confusion, there are even more options for you to consider when you're taking down the Twisted. Crossfire allows you to command all nearby soldiers to focus their attack on a specific target, while Liberation unleashes a super-powered burst of shots that's capable of really giving you the upper hand in a battle. When you understand all of these concepts, the gun-play comes together in a really unique way. It feels fast, snappy and satisfying. Ignore the mechanics though, and you're not going to stay alive long. The 3rd Birthday is at its very best when you're dashing all over the environment, weakening enemies and finishing them off with special attacks.
Being a Square Enix game, The 3rd Birthday presents plenty of player progression options. Not only does Aya have an overarching level system, but so too does the weapon types she uses. The more you use of a specific weapon, the more options you'll get to upgrade it — increasing its power, impact, capacity and accuracy. There's a risk-reward component to each of these upgrades, usually stemming around Bullet Power and Bullet Impact. Bullet Power allows you to take down foes more quickly, while Bullet Impact opts for stunning methods. Rarely will you find a weapon that's capable of both, so it becomes a case of deciding which weapon type you prefer. Typically we went out into battle with a Power and Impact weapon, giving us the choice of both, but you might prefer to focus on one particular type. The game also features a DNA ability system, which works a little bit like Call Of Duty's perks. This gives Aya additional abilities in battle, usually when specific conditions are met. For example, one DNA slot might recharge your health when you complete a crossfire kill, or randomly make you invincible after Overdiving. The system is pretty baffling at first, but as you settle into the game it becomes a necessary distraction from the gunplay.
The 3rd Birthday is so bad at telling a story that you'll often feel like chunks of narrative have been removed. We tried really hard to understand the game's plot. We read the game's manual. We read Wikipedia. We read almost all of the title's in-game documentation. But we still couldn't tell you what The 3rd Birthday is about. It's a time-travel plot, so some confusion should be assumed, but man, this game is literally all over the place. The cut-scenes look pretty, though.
Adding to the woes of the game's abysmal story-telling, The 3rd Birthday has some of the worst voice acting we've experienced this generation. It's PSone bad. Yvonne Strahovski — who played Miranda Lawson in Mass Effect 2 — voices Aya with an irritating disconnect. But she's actually the pick of the cast. The stutter of bumbling Japanese scientist, Maeda, is so exaggerated that it's almost comical, whilst the bravado of other periphery characters such as Kyle and Blank become grating. Then there's the unnamed soldiers that you encounter in battle. "Yeah, we did it," they scream in battle with all the jubilation of a Monday morning. At least the music's good, eh?
While The 3rd Birthday's core combat mechanics are definitely good fun, the game becomes so repetitive in its final hours that pushing to its conclusion becomes a bit of a chore. Enemies seem to have never-ending health metres that take an age to whittle down, while the core structure lacks variety. Typically you run into a room, kill a wave of monsters, run into another room, and kill some more. Then you'll reach a save point, watch a cut-scene and do it all over again. The format never changes, and the whole game lacks variety. Some helicopter and tank missions provide some much needed relief towards the end, but it's not enough to stave off the repetition.
The 3rd Birthday is hard. Spitefully so at times. The game wants to kick you at every opportunity, and you'll spend a good amount of time looking at a Game Over screen. It feels pretty throwback in that regard. One hit can wipe out half your health meter, while an entire clip of bullets will often only etch away an eighth of your opponent's vitality. It can leave you feeling significantly underpowered, even when you take advantage of additional abilities such as Crossfire and Overdive. If you're masochistic, playing The 3rd Birthday on its higher difficulty levels might fulfil you with some form of sadistic pleasure. But it also makes you a little bit weird.
The 3rd Birthday is a real mixed bag. The game's production values are through the roof, proving once again that six years into its lifespan, the PSP is capable of producing cutting-edge visuals when it needs to. But while the game's blend of fast-paced arcade action is satisfying in short-bursts, uneven pacing quickly leads to repetition in the combat. Meanwhile poor voice acting and a self-indulgent plot severely limit the potential of the narrative.