Long feared to be a dead series, the announcement of The 3rd Birthday caused no small amount of surprise and delight amongst fans of Parasite Eve. Unfortunately, the finished product cannot be said to have the same effect. Featuring an overcomplicated mess of a plot, suicidal AI, and an actively hateful interface, The 3rd Birthday has fundamental issues that really prevent it from being enjoyable. There are some good points, of course: the game is great at creating a sense of tension, has a huge amount of replay value, and it presents some unique ideas in gameplay. It’s unfortunate that these ideas are buried under the weight of the game’s less player-friendly elements, to the point where it becomes difficult to recommend The 3rd Birthday even to fans of the series.
Aya Brea, the battle-scarred heroine of the previous two Parasite Eve games returns for this entry, riddled with amnesia and surprisingly short on self-confidence. The plot drops her into a world battered by the appearance of the Twisted, a group of otherworldly monsters that erupted from huge root-like structures about a year before the game begins. The Twisted have destroyed much of human civilization, and the only hope remains with an unusual time machine known as the Overdive machine, which allows Aya, by virtue of her unique mitochondrial abilities, to plant her own consciousness into that of a person in the past. Thus, Aya is tasked with jumping into the past and finding a way of stopping the Twisted.
|Aya’s dramatic change in personality does eventually make sense, but it can still be grating at times.|
The constant alteration of the timeline that comes from Aya’s Overdive tinkering results in a story which is extremely difficult to follow. From Aya’s perspective, each Overdive results in an adjustment of the timeline, with some people who were alive and well dying while others are suddenly and surprisingly alive, and from their perspective, have been all along. It also creates a series of stable time loops, which more or less form the point of origin for The 3rd Birthday’s entire plot, plus several major character developments and the surprising reason for Aya’s amnesia and simpering attitude. While a complex plot is not necessarily a bad thing, The 3rd Birthday does a fairly poor job of making itself understandable, and it comes off as muddled at the best of times. It is possible that the developers may have been counting on The 3rd Birthday’s focus on multiple playthroughs to eventually force the story through, but on the whole, it just does not work.
The 3rd Birthday features a highly unique and, it must be said, extremely creative combat system. Based around Aya’s ability to swap bodies at a moment’s notice, players are expected to switch between hosts frequently in order to use the various weapons each soldier is equipped with to deal with the situation at hand. Combined with the very active nature of combat, The 3rd Birthday sets a frantic pace which is very good at creating tension.
The combat system has a number of good ideas that play off the main body-swapping mechanic. For example, if given a moment to pick a target, Aya can direct the soldiers around her to focus their fire on a particular enemy. The power of this attack, called Crossfire, is based on how many allies Aya has around her, and so it encourages players to bounce from soldier to soldier, keeping them alive for one big attack. Certain allies also carry specific weapons and equipment, meaning that keeping your allies alive is often the key to hitting an enemy’s weakpoint. Once an enemy has been brought down to critical HP, Aya can use her Overdive ability to destroy them from the inside with an implosion. Called an Overdive Kill, this is the only real way to gain certain weapon upgrades, and it becomes quite critical late in the game as some Twisted can only be destroyed by doing so.
Unfortunately, The 3rd Birthday’s combat system is ultimately just as disappointing as the plot. The central body-swapping conceit of combat is seriously undermined by the atrocious ally AI. Allies will frequently walk into enemy attacks, ignore basic defensive measures, and in general act like suicidal cannon fodder. Given that these soldiers are, essentially, your HP meter wandering around getting turned into meat jelly, their inability to avoid death causes a significant jump in difficulty. Added to this is the terrible camera control, which forces the player to leave themselves vulnerable in order to realign their field of vision. The camera also has trouble with the sniper rifle: rather than realigning the camera view to whatever direction Aya is pointing the gun, going into scope mode instead drops a cut-out crosshairs over whatever position the camera is currently in. With some of the most challenging and difficult bosses requiring the player to snipe specific weak points, the inability of the interface to cope with these basic mechanics generates a significant amount of frustration.
There is also, it must be said, a certain lurid component to some parts of the game. For a start, The 3rd Birthday takes the concept of equipment degradation one step further, showing Aya’s clothing falling to pieces as she takes damage. This can get so severe that Aya is essentially walking around in her underwear and a few scraps of whatever she used to be wearing. Combined with the new outfits Aya can pick up, which includes things like maid outfits and a spy catsuit, the fact that a certain amount of clothing damage is inevitable means that this particular game mechanic can come off as creepy voyeurism.
Perhaps the strongest part of the game, The 3rd Birthday’s soundtrack features both new music and a selection of remixes and callbacks to the music of earlier games in the series. Primarily composed by relative newcomer Mitsuto Suzuki, whose most memorable recent contribution was to the Dissidia OST, the soundtrack is very good at being creepy when it needs to be, and exciting when the battle starts. The soundtrack also features contributions by Tsuyoshi Sekito and Yoko Shimomura, but for the most part, the callbacks to earlier Parasite Eve games comes from Suzuki’s compositions. On the whole, The 3rd Birthday’s music is very solid, and it stands out as one of the most enjoyable parts of an otherwise unremarkable game.
|Monster design is a high point of the visual design, with the Twisted coming off as incredibly otherworldly and chaotic predators.|
The 3rd Birthday has some excellent visual design and solid execution, though the overall atmosphere is hampered by the extremely linear layout of individual areas. The design of the Twisted are particularly imaginative, with each variety having its own unique spin on the spiral motif of the species as a whole. The color palette of the game is muted, largely grey set off by bright red and white, a choice that sets off the desperate atmosphere, but the limited color palette does occasionally make it difficult for significant creatures or areas to stand out from the pack.
While The 3rd Birthday does feature a selectable difficulty level, the game defaults to Hard mode. This is extremely telling of the overall philosophy it has towards challenge. On Normal, players who fail to keep their stats and weapons upgraded will find themselves at a significant disadvantage very quickly, and even Easy mode should provide a fair amount of pressure. This is further compounded by the game’s interface problems, which can turn an otherwise straightforward fight into a desperate one. The 3rd Birthday is a fairly short game, eventually topping out around 15 to 20 hours, with very little in the way of things to sidetrack players. There are, however, a long list of rewards for players that replay the game multiple times under various challenge conditions. The end result is that there is actually a fair amount of content for players that don’t mind going through the game over and over again.
In the final analysis, The 3rd Birthday comes off as a bit overly ambitious. It has some unique ideas which, had they been implemented better, may have made for an enjoyable and unique game. However, as they are, The 3rd Birthday works at cross-purposes against itself, with terrible AI and interface decisions rendering otherwise interesting ideas intensely frustrating. There are some bright spots to be seen, mostly in the visuals and music, but for the most part, The 3rd Birthday is just frustrating, confusing, and poorly executed.
This game was played to completion, and reviewed using a review copy provided by the publisher.