First Samus Aran, now Aya Brea. In Parasite Eve and Parasite Eve 2, the former NYPD detective kicked monsters up the Bronx and down the Battery with her mitochondrial super powers and customizable weaponry. Now, in The 3rd Birthday she’s kept locked in a prison cell and only let out to get her clothes ripped off.
How the mighty have fallen.
The same could be said for developer Square Enix, which disappointed the entire damn
world Internet with their recent Final Fantasy games, not to mention the Final Fantasy games stuck in development hell, and Final Fantasy games with goofy titles. Square Enix and I had our run-ins in the past (I like Final Fantasy VII just fine, by the way, did that not come across?), and I’ve defended them many times before (Final Fantasy: 4 Heroes of Light is a damn good time), but that gets difficult when something like The 3rd Birthday comes along.
Announced way back in 2007 for Japanese cell phones, it made the leap to PSP in 2008 before landing with a thud here in the present. That’s an awful long time, longer when you consider Parasite Eve 2 came out in the year 2000. So, it’s been a decade. And this is what we get.
The 3rd Birthday‘s story gets my goat the most. A terrible time travel “mystery” story, Aya’s back in an apocalyptic Manhattan, invaded by tentacled monsters called the Twisted that only she can defeat by traveling backwards in time to affect specific battles in hopes of changing the present for the better. The story and gameplay mechanics are connected, which is something that Square’s always been good at (Materia in FFVII, Aya’s powers in the original Parasite Eve), as Aya actually “dives” into the soldiers who fought these past battles, and then dives between them to stay alive during gameplay. It’s like Quantum Leap if all Sam did was leap into soldiers with dumb AI.
It’s an interesting premise, but nothing is done with it beyond a dinky nod to Groundhog’s Day. This is no Chrono Trigger. Hell, it’s no Timecop. Typical of scripts from Square Enix these days, the writing is nothing but empty-headed buzzwords and vague nonsense masquerading as deep (cheap) emotion. There are no characters in this story, only blank cut-outs. There’s a character named Blank. Not that he matters, since he and everyone else around Aya appear and disappear without warning. Did that person just die off? Who was he? Who knows? Who cares?
And it’s all presented so poorly. You know immediately who the Big Bad is, especially if you’re familiar with Square Enix games (beware the long white hair), and seemingly huge events happen off-screen, while many others are explained in staid, boring exposition. The ending takes the (birthday?) cake, when in the game’s exasperating final minutes there are four or five revelations heaped upon each other one after the other. It’s horrendous storytelling that will confuse many and absolutely infuriate anyone familiar with Aya Brea and her past exploits.
What happened to the mature, realistic woman we were promised? Instead we get another submissive doormat who cries and whines and whimpers the entire game, and yes, there is an actual reason in the story for that. And it’s awful.
The actual game’s pretty awful, too. Ignore the pretty graphics and decent soundtrack, that stuff’s just there to lure you in. They can make a good-looking game, but this one is a frustrating bore. Maybe they looked at videos of Resident Evil 4 or Gears of War, or heard of them, but they didn’t get what made those third-person shooters work. They’re empowering, well-paced action experiences. 3rd Birthday does everything it can to keep the player feeling weak and unrewarded.
Aya’s main power, the ability to dive into other soldiers, goes unexplored after the first two hours. It’s neat at first, diving from one guy to the next to move them to strategic spots on the battlefield, or to gain access to new weapons like sniper rifles and grenade launchers, but that’s it. Beyond the first boss encounter, which requires diving between guys on two different floors of a parking garage, that’s all the game does with the system. There’s nothing interesting done with level design, as it’s all flat arenas with the occasional upper tier for that sniping position. But those go away after a while for the sake of more dull monster arenas.
It’s possible to dive into enemies after “staggering” them, but only after pumping them full of lead for far too long. Enemies, and the bosses especially, have a shitload of HP, so fights aren’t difficult, just laborious. One boss encounter, where Aya floats in space and can only shoot — she can’t move — just had me pressing the L and R buttons forever, waiting for the damn thing to die. It’s possible to dive into other bodies at this point, but there was no need for that most of the time. I was aghast at just how big of a slog it was, and to have that same boss show up again towards the end was like a slow-motion kick in the face.
Besides diving, there’s shooting. Lots of shooting. And grenade tossing. And dodging. Normally all the makings of a fine game, except you’re doing this in repetitive, dull environments (the New York City setting is wasted) while at the mercy of a finicky lock-on system. Often it would lock on to an enemy behind Aya while there are four bastards charging at her from front. When there are games like Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker that offer a surprising degree of manual aiming on the PSP, it chaps my hide they’d go with a botched auto-targeting system. Besides that, every other cliche from the Modern (Warfare) Shooter Manual shows up: death ray satellite gun, long-winded and unwelcome vehicle sections, chest high walls everywhere, C4-planting tedium, and locked doors that can be unlocked by killing every enemy in the room. Hum. Drum.
Not that it matters since Aya never feels like she’s stronger, but there’s a basic weapon upgrading feature, and a DNA augmentation board that grants random passive abilities during battle. It grants only the chance of stuff like critical hits and ammo regeneration happening during battle, and that part of the game isn’t even explained in the main story anyway. It’s clearly optional, and with no control over the abilities, it might as well not be there to begin with.
The much-criticized clothing-tearing feature has no bearing on the gameplay. Aya’s health is relative to the soldiers she inhabits, so she could have full health one moment, half the next, or next to none the next. The ripped jeans and bra-revealing tears really just comes off as otaku pandering. Nothing more. The useless costumes that unlock after beating the game confirms it. They’re great for anyone who likes to play Barbie, but useless for anyone who wants an ounce of substance from their games. Aya’s fetish costumes are not like the camouflage from the Metal Gear Solid games, or say, armor from any number of games. They don’t grant any advantages. There are no new skills, or spells to learn. Or anything. The game is the same at the beginning as it is at the very end. Yet Square Enix wants Japanese players to replay the game an astounding 30 times to unlock Lightning’s threads from Final Fantasy XIII. Sounds like a special rung of Hell.
Unless you’re really curious (despite what the devs may have said in Famitsu, this is definitely a sequel to Parasite Eve 2), I’d avoid this barebones, threadbare shooter with what is probably the worst story Square Enix has ever penned. It’s intolerable. One of the most joyless, unpleasant experiences I’ve had in a while.
And this baby only took ten years to deliver.
Originally published April 13, 2011.