Version tested: PSP
For the survival horror hardcore, a new Parasite Eve game has been a long time coming 11 years, if you haven't been keeping up. Well, you can keep waiting, because The 3rd Birthday bears very little relation to the series that provides the game's sighing, whimpering lead character, Aya Brea. No wonder Square Enix has positioned it as a spin-off.
On the plus side, you can dive into The 3rd Birthday's intertwining narrative without feeling like you've missed anything: you really haven't. For Aya Brea's part, she couldn't fill you in on what happened anyway. She wakes up in a blood-soaked wedding dress in 2010 without a single memory of what came before, or why she can transfer her soul from body to body. Maybe someone played Especially For You as the first dance music by mistake.
With this 'Overdrive' ability, Brea subsequently becomes an essential part of the Counter Twisted Investigation's fight against the towering 'Babel' roots that inexplicably burst out from underneath Manhattan a couple of years later. As a seemingly unending army of Twisted organisms starts spawning, aiming to take down snivelling humanity, she finds herself embroiled in a nightmarish, body-surfing, time-travelling shootout to prevent the whole sorry chain of events from ever occurring.
Its hilariously convoluted premise aside, The 3rd Birthday is a brain-optional affair. Once the basic mechanics are nailed down, it quickly boils down to a relentless and ultimately repetitive series of stiff encounters against the Twisted masses. In its favour, the ability to instantly dive into the body of any of the human allies that populate the environment is a pleasant distraction from many of the game's more irritating tendencies of which, more in due course.
If any of your AI helpers happens to be in your immediate proximity, a quick stab of the triangle button sends you directly into his or her body, and serves as a handy means of topping up your health and ammo. After a period of the game shouting at you to take advantage of flanking positions, it settles into a pleasantly restless groove where you're constantly sizing up whose body to occupy next.
This positional strategy becomes especially apparent on some of the game's more testing encounters in which you essentially play tag-team bash-the-weak-spot. With numerous soldiers to switch between, you might need one of them, for example, to stray from the pack and leg it up to a vantage point before you can start to do any real damage. Once the boss turns its attention on him, it's usually a good idea to swiftly switch back to someone on the opposite side to continue chipping away at its distressingly multi-layered health bar while the opportunity presents itself.
You're occasionally allowed to, essentially, psyche out enemies when prompted by the gigantic triangle icon that appears. If you activate it quick enough, you'll Overdrive into them and carve off a significant chunk of their health in the process. Another neat albeit risky tactic involves invoking a coordinated Crossfire attack by locking onto the enemy for a brief moment without shooting. Once the bar fills up, everyone blasts furiously on the target at once.
While we don't mind a fair challenge now and then, The 3rd Birthday delights in cranking the difficulty up to levels that appear specifically designed to give you a deeper understanding of Wayne Rooney's inner turmoil. Like Wayne, part of the problem comes down to the age-old issue of not having adequate control over the camera.
To give Square Enix its dues, it has done a reasonable job of shoehorning a third-person shooter onto a one-stick handheld. Most of the time, the game's lock-on serviceably snaps the reticule to the nearest enemy, but it all starts to unravel as soon as you need to manually adjust your aim or target specific body parts of an όber-boss. Even a split-second's hesitation while you fumble with the d-pad to cycle through the available targets is enough to get you into trouble when coupled with Brea's slovenly running pace.
In a game featuring such aggressive enemies, her casual jog seems completely at odds with the gravity of the situation, leaving you cursing. It wouldn't be so bad if the scantily clad saucetress could stand up to the Twisted masses just a tiny bit. But in a game where up to half of your health bar can be whittled away by a single hit, mistakes can be punishing especially once you factor in the ineffectual recharging health system.
In sections where you're fighting alone, with no chance to Overdrive, it's particularly aggravating to persistently fall foul of the game's anachronistic harshness. 11 long years might have elapsed since Ava last saved the world, but evidently the game's designers are still firmly rooted in the conventions of the late 1990s. Anyone who pines for the days when you used to have to battle vicious enemies with minimal health and without the safety net of sensible checkpointing will be in their element. The rest of us might struggle to resist the urge to hurl the PSP at the nearest wall.
If you can calm your inner psycho long enough to reach a chapter's conclusion, there's masochistic satisfaction to be had. You can bask in temporary calm, take in the game's bewildering DNA upgrade system, and spend some of your hard-earned cash on the usual assortment of weapon upgrades. Eventually, you might even find yourself powerful enough to make light work of some of the game's early encounters, but the incentive to overcome your boiling frustration and make that happen is limited to say the least.
If you're really invested in the completely cracked storyline, you can also immerse yourself in the unending character bios and logs about things that presumably will make at least one person in the world feel a more complete human being. The respite is all too fleeting, though, and soon you're sent off on another against-the-odds round of predictable combat encounters.
Eventually it becomes clear how Aya developed her Overdrive ability, and who she was getting married to, and what the Twisted are all about. The problem is, it's hard to ever truly engage with it when so many of the The 3rd Birthday's key encounters are fundamentally spiteful. If you're really determined to eke some enjoyment from the rubble of frustration, there are a few moments that might make you feel like it's worth it. Sadly those occasions don't come along nearly enough to justify all the joyless attrition en route.
6 / 10