The 3rd Birthday might be better known to some PS1-era Square fans as a new sequel for the Parasite Eve series. That's essentially what this game is, as it features the same protagonist — heroine Aya Brea — and parts of the story tie directly into events from Parasite Eve 2. Apparently, Square Enix lost the rights to the Parasite Eve name at some point, and that might cause some fans to scratch their heads about The 3rd Birthday, but I assure you that it is sequel and not some sort of reboot. Even though it has ties to a series that was last released nearly 11 years ago, I think newcomers will find that the game is pretty accessible. The gameplay mechanics are completely overhauled, and while there are some ties to the second game, the story is kind of a mess anyway, and there's a good chance you'd be a little lost regardless of how familiar you were with the series.
The story for The 3rd Birthday picks up a couple of years in the future. It's 2014, and the world has be devastated by an attack from the Twisted, a monster that invaded the world without notice and pretty much obliterated most of humankind in a matter of days. A small group of people, one of whom is Aya Brea, is working to defeat the Twisted. They're doing this by sending Aya back in time to the point of the invasion in an effort to beat the initial wave of Twisted. See, Aya has a unique ability called Overdive, which allows her to take over the body of anyone nearby, essentially replacing their soul with her own. Does this kill them? Where does their soul go? That's not explained particularly well, but don't get too hung up on that. After all, the game developers didn't.
Along with Aya's ability to Overdive into other people, the group has developed technology that allows her to travel back a year in time and Overdive into people present during the initial invasion. Each mission involves sending Aya back to specific, key events in the first invasion that humanity lost. With Aya, they're hoping to change the results. Things start to work out well in that regard, but some trickery and backstabbing come into play to cause their forward progress to slowly unravel. The story takes a few twists over the course of its six-mission structure, not all of which makes a lot of sense, but let's just say that things don't go quite as planned.
Aya's ability to Overdive also plays directly into the gameplay. When you start a mission, you're equipped with a few weapons: a basic pistol with unlimited ammo and three other weapons that can be culled from a variety of assault rifles, grenade launchers, shotguns and some unique weapons, such as lasers. Aya can only take so much damage, and most of the Twisted enemies hit pretty hard, so at multiple times, you'll need to switch Aya out of her current body and into a fresh one. Throughout the game, you're typically accompanied by AI-controlled soldiers, who help you attack the Twisted. Their primary purpose is to become cannon fodder for Aya to jump into when she's wasted the resources of her current host. Some enemies, particularly the bosses, require Aya to jump from body to body pretty often, mostly to set up spots to take advantage of a hidden weak point or a particular weapon in a soldier's inventory that you might not have possessed before the fight.
You can stay in these bodies for as long as you like, provided your health holds out. You have an on-screen meter to show how much health you have left, and once it's completely diminished, you have a short amount of time to jump out before getting hit with the "Game Over" screen. Aya can allow her health to recharge slowly by standing still, and since most enemy encounters occur at scripted points, it can be a good idea to stand around a bit before moving to a new area, essentially catching a second wind. Also, the missions are divided into chapters, usually by small rooms that supply you with a save point, ammo recharges, and fresh bodies for Overdiving. The game can be pretty punishing on the default medium difficulty, and I suggest playing through on Easy first, if for no other reason than because you get a New Game+ once you finish, and that allows you to take a leveled-up Aya into the harder difficulties, making the game a little more manageable.
Fighting the Twisted actually seems simple at first. The majority of the weapons you use don't allow you to aim the gun on your own. Instead, the game uses a lock-on feature that automatically targets the nearest enemy. You can cycle between targets easily enough, but you're not going to be aiming for headshots, separate limbs or anything like that. While that might seem like a piece of cake, most Twisted take a lot of damage, and the difficulty comes from staying alive long enough to take them down. In essence, you'll spend a whole lot of time jumping from body to body, using this as a way to evade enemy attacks. Aya has a limited roll function to dodge, but for some of the bigger Twisted enemies, it's almost useless to bother.
The combat is really a lot more fun than it sounds, and switching between weapons to find the one that creates the most damage against your current enemy is also a key factor. Finally, once an enemy is damaged enough, you get a prompt that allows you to Overdive directly into the enemy with Aya, causing a massive amount of damage to the foe but briefly stunning Aya and rendering her open to attack. Overdiving into enemies is pretty important, though, as it's often the best way to get some of the rare item drops that Aya can equip.
Aya can obtain new weapons by jumping into the soldiers that carry them, and when she reaches a save point, she can spend in-game currency to unlock the weapon for later use. Also, all weapons have a number of things that can be customized, allowing for improved accuracy, ammo count and damage. Along with the different weapons you can unlock, Aya gains DNA that can be slotted into a 9 x 9 grid and equipped to provide different effects. This element isn't explained very well in the game and is probably my biggest complaint. Essentially, every piece of DNA you collect comes with its own properties. You'll occasionally gain pieces that have two or three DNA spheres, with each sphere taking up a spot on the grid. Each sphere is colored blue, green, orange or red, and they each have an ability as well. Some increase damage, provide quicker health recharges, defend Aya from enemy attacks, etc. Laying these pieces on the grid is not the only way to gain the abilities, either. Sometimes you need to mix and match pieces, essentially layering them on top of each other to create different abilities by combining them.
Honestly, the whole process is still a bit of a mystery to me. There's nothing in-game to really explain how the grid works, and aside from short descriptions of each ability, it's hard to figure out which ones are more useful than others. Individual levels can be increased by chaining them together on the board and placing them next to one another, and sometimes, combining two abilities increases their level as well, but the effect often seems random. Also, while you only start with one DNA grid at the beginning of the game, as you progress, you'll unlock a second one, and when you finish the game, you unlock even more. I suppose the idea is to make them focus on a central ability and then swap them out as needed, but I'm scratching my head in regards to how they even work.
Besides that and the somewhat incomprehensible story, I found myself really enjoying The 3rd Birthday. The combat seems deceptively simple, but it becomes pretty hectic and involved as you progress through the missions. The Overdive ability is pretty unique, and jumping from soldier to soldier to flank an enemy works really well. The controls are easy to use on the PSP, and like most Square Enix titles on PSP, the game looks amazing. It's definitely worth checking out for PSP owners who are hungry for new games on their handheld. I absolutely suggest checking it out, even if you have no prior experience with the Parasite Eve series. The gameplay is what really sells this game, though, so don't come into this title expecting to be wowed by the future exploits of Aya Brea.
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