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PSP Review: The 3rd Birthday

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It’s taken more than 10 years, but the much-anticipated third entry in the Parasite Eve series is finally available in North America. I’ve been looking forward to this release for a year myself, and have been chomping at the bit as the official date neared. Aya Brea is a bit of a cult favourite among RPG fans in the know, and I’m no exception. Of course, the return of a beloved character can be a double-edged sword. The anticipation for this release has been palpable, but the expectations have also been high. Will long-time fans be pleased with Aya’s latest adventure?

Let’s start with the visuals. Tetsuya Nomura returns as art designer, and the only major creative force to be involved with all three games. As a result, Aya Brea still looks like Aya Brea, but sharper and sleeker. Character designs are all very good, while backgrounds serve their purpose. Cutscenes are as good as it gets with the current generation, not only for handhelds, but home consoles as well. The in-game graphics are at about the limit of the PSP’s abilities.

A nice surprise upon first firing the game up is hearing “Primal Eyes,” one of the themes of the first game, subtly remixed. Additionally, the “Parasite Eve Main Theme” on piano also makes a reappearance in this game. Yoko Shimomura returns to the franchise as one of the composers of this game, bringing back the old favourites. So far, so good.

However, get into the game itself, and the familiarity soon fades. Square-Enix has made a point of the fact that this is not “Parasite Eve 3.” It’s the third game set in the Parasite Eve universe but not necessarily the third entry in a strictly linear series (despite following the previous entries in chronological order and featuring the same protagonist). The gameplay is entirely new and the Twisted, the antagonists of this game, show no apparent relationship to the mitochondria-controlled mutants of the first two games. And the world of the game, a post-apocalyptic New York, is also very different. Three years before the events of the game, the Twisted appeared literally out of nowhere and overran the world.

The crux of both story and gameplay is Aya’s (new) ability to “overdive,” to take over other people’s bodies, jumping from person to person when they are near enough for her mind to make the jump. The entire game is played as Aya Brea, but almost never in her own body. Through the use of a machine controlled by a surviving government organization, she is also able to overdive back in time, to gather intelligence, and, potentially, change the course of a battle in the humans’ favour.

This makes for an interesting hybrid of straight-out shooter and co-operative gameplay. One battle consists of Aya diving from soldier to soldier to keep the enemy’s attention, blasting away with whatever weapons the individual soldiers have, or unleashing her own special attacks, like diving into a Twisted to blow it up from inside. Staying alive means making sure she doesn’t run out of live humans to dive into, which is sometimes harder than you might think.

It’s not clear why Aya has this ability, or why the remnants of a government agency happened to have a machine for travelling through time that only she can use. Aya herself isn’t sure how things came to be as she was found wandering the streets around the time of the first Twisted incident with no memory of how she came to be there, or who she is. Pieces of the puzzle are revealed throughout the game, though they seem to raise more questions than they answer.

This is where the game lost me. With none of the producers, writers, or directors from the first two games involved in this non-sequel, it just doesn’t feel like Parasite Eve. Aya has always been a strong female character, but in this game she is confused and hesitant, following orders passively without knowing why. The supporting characters also are uniformly creepy and difficult to relate to, in a way that characters in some Japanese animes sometimes are. Maeda, one of the major secondary characters from the first game, makes a reappearance in The 3rd Birthday, but his personality is so wildly off that it only serves to exacerbate the feeling of separation from the original series.

It also doesn’t help that the plot is such a radical departure from the previous entries. The core idea of the original game (and the novel that preceded it) is the symbiotic relationship between eukaryotes and mitochondria, and the speculative idea that we might not be the ones in control. Aya is special because of her specially-evolved mitochondria, but this is all left by the wayside in the new game, which feels more like fantasy and less like science fiction. Suddenly we have time loops, monsters from another dimension, and body possession. That being the case, why bother telling this story in the PE universe in the first place?

I have a nagging suspicion that somebody wanted to make an entirely different game, and the Parasite Eve shell was slid over top of it only after the fact (I can find no proof of this, but still harbour the suspicion). The surface-level similarities to the earlier games, contrasted with a complete failure to remain true to the characters, mood, or history of the game has Doki Doki Panic written all over it.

And if, instead, this is simply a case of a writer or director getting too caught up with doing his own thing, and convolution for convolution’s sake, the result is the same. Our hero has lost her soul, and our series has lost its identity. The storyline is an abuse of logic, and the suspension of disbelief is sinking into the depths as water pours in through the myriad plot-holes.

The Third Birthday has some interesting features, and the production values are top-notch. But I picked this game up for its characters and story, and I couldn’t get invested in either.

The 3rd Birthday is rated M (mature) by the ESRB for Blood, Partial Nudity, Strong Language, Violence.

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About J.J.S. Boyce