Super-divisive, But I'll Give This Game a Nod
WARNING AND APOLOGY: IN AN EFFORT TO EXPLAIN THINGS CLEARLY THIS REVIEW WILL BE VERY, VERY LONG, EXHAUSTIVE AND WILL BE ORGANIZED INTO HEADERS. IF YOU WANT A QUICK BREAKDOWN ON THE SCORE SCROLL DOWN NOW TO "THE BOTTOM LINE". ALSO, SPOILERS APLENTY!!
Have you seen the Gamespot review about the 3rd Birthday on YouTube?
As I write this review, more reviewers DISLIKE the review then liking it. Except for some spamming/fake videos, I rarely see a video that much hated and panned. The venom in the comments section is very obvious; from the voice and opinions of the Gamespot reviewer, everything was contested, slammed onto the debating forum and ripped apart with fatal efficiency.
That video, in my humble opinion, is the microcosm surrounding the opinions on The 3rd Birthday, a Third-Person Shooter on the PSP and a sequel/spiritual successor of the then-dormant Parasite Eve series. As a relatively inexperienced game reviewer, I haven't really seen a game like The 3rd Birthday that stirred that much divisions between reviewers (professional and amateur) and between them, fans and gamers. The difference of opinions in Gamespot, Gametrailers and IGN (the main review sites I look at outside of Giantbomb) shocks me. The scores range 5.4 to an 8.5/Editor's choice.
Wow. Huge gap.
So yes, I am here to put my opinions in the intense line of fire, and this is how I see things: While there are some key issues that needs to be addressed (like the ones pointed out by multiple reviews I've seen on the Internet), I found that The 3rd Birthday is actually an enjoyable game that has some neat concepts to be intense and exciting (albeit brief).
Before I go on, I would like to point out that the game has one of the most exciting introductions I've seen in a long time. The very first intro has you seeing beautifully rendered cutscenes that gives enough exposition to understand the general flow of the story (you fighting giant, otherworldly monsters) and pumps the gamer up to play the game and see what's up. The intro also has my favorite soundtrack of the game. It's an addicting and creepy mix of rock guitar and generic haunted house organ music which again gets the player excited to play the game.
The second introduction, which depicts New York turning from Xmas-centric city to Twisted Hellhole, with all the mysterious, alien beings called Twisted destroying buildings and gruesomely decapitate New Yorkers and co., is once again a great start. Like the first intro it exposes just enough to set a general direction for the plot, and hides just enough info to ensure that players will play to unfold the next line of the saga. Though the soundtrack is not as impressive, the cutscenes still look very beautiful and the gamer will get the impression that the Twisted are a force to be reckoned with.
Needless to say, the intros are great and well done. Now if only the other aspects of the game can maintain that momentum...
I am now approaching one of the most divisive subjects on the game. And quite frankly, after watching the story a couple of times, I think the subject is a little too scrutinized. I wholeheartedly agree that the story isn't perfect. But I think that 90-95% of the whole story actually make sense. Let me use 5 sentences to describe the whole story in general except for the ending (which will get its own section and is a huge point of discussion)
- Mysterious beings called the Twisted invade New York City
- Aya Brea is an amnesiac, and the only one who can enter subconscious of other people's minds (technique is called Overdive), and can go back in time via a time machine from a govt. agency.
- Aya goes back in time, using Overdive to destroy Twisted so to improve the present-day war between humans and Twisted
- As Aya goes through more missions, Aya regains portions of her memory (of her sister Eve, and her fiancé Kyle)
- In present day, Aya defeats her ex-boss (who has something to do with the Twisted) and saves the day.
There. I think the story is a simple tale that has one main plot (altering the timeline) and one subplot (Aya's amnesia). And for about 90% of the way, I never saw much of the story as a convoluted mess. Sure, there are instances where there are time paradoxes that is caused by Aya's time-travelling escapades, but I was able to get what was going on thanks to the numerous (and I do mean numerous) data files that contain information and exposition. If you're the type of guy who likes reading those types of things, then you should feel right at home. Even then, I don't think the story is that complicated.
Aya Brea- Action Heroine?
Another huge debate topic has to deal with protagonist Aya Brea, who (from what I hear, you can correct me) was a tough, no-nonsense, too-cool-for-school NYPD-cop-turned-science subject in her previous outings in the Parasite Eve series. This game's Aya is nothing like that, at least from the beginning. In the initial episodes of the game, she fits the descriptions given by many game reviews: a submissive, weak-willed girl. I do agree with those opinions, but I think the main problem with these assertions is that they are probably based off of the cutscenes. When you are actually in the game, you are Aya Brea shooting down thousands of Twisted and saving humanity. Let's face it: Her missions are so crucial, she is probably under some real pressure to get the job done, and she needs to pull out a gun to mow down mysterious beings. I believe that her courage to see things through have to account for something.
Another talking point concerned with Aya is her sexualization. The cover of the manual is the first hint (Google it, if you want to see what I mean). There are also her outfits, which were supposed to consist of material that is meant to protect Aya from injury and damage, that are simply skimpy and (at least some) suggestive in a way. Then the way those outfits get torn apart as Aya sustains damage is also another example. Admittedly, I wasn't that disturbed and I laughed off the outfits and the torn up bits (kind of seeing them just as fan service, and just for your information, I always stuck with the original outfit) but what did grate on my nerves a bit was the voice. It contains so much suggestive squeals that at one point I considered turning off the sound. It was then that I believed that Square Enix pushed the sexualization bit a bit too far. Don't get me wrong: I credit them for being opportunistic, but as Jeff Gerstmann famously said in his Soul Calibur IV review: "There's a limit. There's a line."
(Note: I haven't unlocked the shower scene; it will come when it comes, but again another example of sexualization)
But I think this whole sexualization overshadows Aya's character development, because I have never heard a word about it from any review I saw (or maybe, to the other reviews' credits, they don't see some portions as such). After the investigation team she's working in (CTI, Counter-Twisted-Investigation) she goes rogue and tries to take on the Twisted herself (and with another scientist but he's out of the picture most of the time). It is refreshing to see Aya show more personality and smile a bit more often at that time, characterizing her to be something more than eye candy. In addition, the squeals that I mentioned earlier are gone. You hear? Those suggestive moans and groans that Aya utters early in the game are replaced with more professional, calmer lines such as "Target acquired", "Contact" etc during the game. I wonder why people forget to mention that. It's a really nice, subtle touch.
Another part that people don't mention is the scene with Kyle at the later portion of the game. Aya, armed with a gun, goes up to Kyle. But Kyle, who was once Aya's fiancé, tries to woo her, and even tries to get her to kiss him. When I first saw the scene, I thought Aya was really going to cave in. But instead, it was all an illusion. She first shoots Kyle's foot, tells him off, and proceeds to shoot him a couple more times that leads to the boss battle. So, recalling the decries of Aya being a sex object, how is that scene depicting her as such? I think the scene goes a long way to denote Aya's change in personality and behavior.
I was pretty lukewarm about Aya when I first started playing, but as she grew more and more I began to really like her as a character. I will be lying to say that her beauty wasn't a factor, but seeing her grow out of the sex object moniker (at least in my eyes) made her more endearing, a tad bit more interesting and realistic. But this attachment came crashing down due to...
The ending has certainly put Parasite Eve fans in arms, and although I myself was not involved in the series, I could see why people leave the game with a sour taste. When I first saw the ending, I first thought it was too long and that there was too much infodumping going on. I was barely able to understand the story because the ending drags on for way too long. But I think the shocking nature of the ending made me a bit more indifferent to the story.
In general, what happens is that the game goes back in time when Aya and Kyle are getting married. Apparently, a SWAT team came and killed both of them (exactly why the SWAT team came in anyway is not explained). Eve, Aya's sister, made the first Overdive, shattering Aya's soul and turning them into the Twisted. Eve's body formed the High Ones, another species that is mentioned near the end of the game. Aya goes back in time to stop all this from happening by swapping bodies with Eve and pressuring Eve to shoot her. So, to sum everything up, you are actually Eve in Aya's body. And even before the ending you realize that the game tricked you into thinking that it's Aya when it fact it was Eve all along. Yeah.
Now, I wouldn't go out and condemn the ending for that plot twist only. If anything, it was really good at shocking the audience. But like I said, I liked Aya as a character and to see that she wasn't even there in the beginning was a bit off-putting. The fact that there's a last sequence where you need to shoot her is also a bit painful and disturbing. As a personal preference, I would've preferred Aya just saving the day and moving on from there instead of the ending that the game has. And if it was Aya all along, wouldn't that be a feel-good story about a fallen heroine redeeming herself? It's cool that Eve grew as the game went on, but I think redemption, rather than sheer growth of character, makes for a better story in this case. However, if you don't feel attached to Aya in any way, then you should be OK with the change. Parasite Eve fans must be warned, though.
Combat System- Shootin' up them Twisted
I am already over 1300 words, and I haven't even touched on the gameplay. Again, I apologize for the length of this review, but this is because I believe that many of the subtle yet crucial points weren't mentioned. With that out of the way, let's get with talking about the actual combat itself.
As stated earlier, The 3rd Birthday is a third person shooter. But there are also some mild RPG elements sprinkled onto it. Basically, you play as Aya Brea going to various places in New York City shooting up aliens and the orbs that spawn them. The game uses a very handy lock-on system that can enable Aya to easily aim her guns and fire upon the Twisted. You might think that a game with this control scheme would be easy since you are just aiming the reticle, but far from it. 95% of the Twisted are super dangerous and can easily kill you if you stand still. Aya can also do a dodge roll and you are limited to only doing three at a time before briefly recovering. I think setting a limit on the number of consecutive rolls is a nice addition; it prevents the game from being too easy. Even with the roll and the numerous barricades scattered throughout the game, however, the enemies can still really find ways to deliver punishment. They can of course break the barriers, but a lot of them can also home in on their attacks so projectiles can veer straight towards Aya even after a dodge roll. So that means you need to move constantly to kill the Twisted and stay alive.
As mentioned earlier, Aya has the Overdive ability, which allows her to move between soldiers and civilians in the midst of battle. This is an essential mechanic since it allows Aya to gain a strategic advantage in a firefight and to use weapons that other soldiers have (like a handy rocket launcher or sniper rifle). However, in addition to moving around people, Overdive can also be used to go into enemies, implode them from inside and deal a ton of damage. Another offshoot of the Overdive is Liberation, where Aya turns super quick for a short period of time and uses energy shots from her pistols. Finally, there is Crossfire, when Aya issues a command for other soldiers to fire continuously at one specific enemy for a time The combat is at its best when you are (forced into?) moving from person to person and shooting enemies from multiple angles, because the battle becomes more frantic, frenetic, and, in my opinion, fun and engaging. The other fun parts of the game are when you use vehicles like tanks and helicopters to fight large enemies. They increase the variety and have a larger sense of scope since the enemies are so much bigger and more dangerous. Otherwise, most (although not all) of the portions of game are pretty good.
Another nice touch from the game is that there is a grading system. While it doesn't make sense sometimes (like, how do you get a couple of C-Grades and end up with a B) I do like how the game challenges you to prevent as many soldier deaths as possible, meaning that you'll need to Overdive into those wounded men and get them out of the line of fire to recover their health.
There are some problems to the game however. The main one I hear about the most is the camera. You use the D-pad to control the camera, and so it can make for some awkward jerking around when you are trying to move and move the camera at the same time. Sometimes you can't see what you're shooting (although I think those are rare cases) and I actually think it's more due to the fact that there are so many off-screen attacks than anything else. Personally, the camera can get clunky, but you can cheat your way out of it by holding down triangle and using the joystick to alter the camera perspective. Once you find the angle you press down on the d-Pad and the camera will stay in that perspective (what's even better, time slows down when you do this so you're in less of a hurry).
A problem I also had was some of the boss battles. Some of them really drag and overstay their welcome. In a battle against the Reaper (one of the most powerful Twisted in the game that was impervious to bullets) you can only use 1 gun to deal damage to it. Moreover, the damage is very gradual and slow. If the Reaper manages to get that soldier with the special gun (and it will unless you lure it away) you'll need to wait for another soldier with the same gun to enter the battlefield. Losing those soliders with those weapons (there's another similar battle earlier with a different Twisted enemy) is annoying and can drag a battle on for too long. The battle with The Queen is totally uninteresting, because it only really consists of you holding down the R-button for very long stretches. That's the worst boss battle in the game, and in the other 2 battles you need to really know what you are doing to make the battle as short as possible. If that occurs, you will only see 2 truly bad battles (you fight the Queen twice).
But I think the key problem with the game is the level designs, especially when you are dealing with large enemies. I have no problem with the game being linear and forcing you to push forward, and the game for the most part offers a reasonable challenge, but you have so little room to manoever that you can easily get killed. In the first chapter (2nd stage) you go toe to toe with the Reaper. You can only run, and sooner or later you are temporarily trapped in a room. If Aya gets cornered or trapped the Reaper will absolutely demolish her. I remember that I was so angry and frustrated at the point because the room had too little room. In the final battle with the Reaper you have plenty of room and so the battle was easier. However, more often than not, when facing off against the better Twisted, you will find yourself backed into a wall and getting severely dismembered. It'll much less frustrating (and better for the game) if the environments are more spacious.
Outside of Combat
When you are not gunslinging you hang around the CTI base. You are allowed to talk with fellow CTI agents, lending to some characterizations and expositions, and even go to the rooftop to see a ruined NYC. There is also a weapons locker to buy and test out new guns and a large changing room to change attire. However, these rooms are quite meaningless since you can just go to the main menu in the Overdive Room and do all that, but at least it adds a little to the atmosphere of the game.
My favorite part of the gameplay when not fighting is buying and customizing the guns. While the guns are sorted into different basic categories (shotguns, assault rifles etc) their attributes, such as ammo reserves, accuracy and amount of damage it can dish, can be modified / improved. Also buying and collecting all the guns (there are a lot of them) and their parts is a nice, completionist hobby.
A unique part of the customization is in modifying Aya's DNA board. Essentially you have a 3 by 3 grid that have orbs denoting a perk. You can add orbs that you get from Overdiving for new perks or improving old ones. For example, one orange orb allows Aya to potentially heal herself after an Overdive. Another orb allows fellow soldiers to heal when executing a Crossfire. The list goes on and on. What is interesting about this mechanic is that sometimes two different orbs can by mixed to form one new orb with a new ability (you can even make orbs with detrimental abilities, such as decreased movement and slower reload times). What I don't like about this mechanic, however, is that the system is hard to understand and depends on luck to much. When you insert orbs they can typically mix into a good or bad orb, and you can press the square button to retry the mix, possibly altering the combinations. It's all very random and there are no set behavior patterns when orbs mix with other orbs (not even the data files helped. I've checked when reading the Over Energy Seminars 1-11) All in all, it is just tedious and unless you are into improving a specific perk you don't have to worry too much about it.
If I haven't hinted it earlier, the presentation is rendered beautifully. The cutscenes are the highlights, but the in-game graphics are not too far behind. The Twisted are pretty well-designed enemies and they look very threatening. The character models are pretty good, although the environments, especially the urban ones, could look much better. The soundtracks are also nicely composed, with a variety of tracks that fit many moods: Downtrodden, creepy, tense and so on. Like I've said earlier, the intro music is the best since the multiple genres really blend in well together.
Bonuses, Alternatives and Replay Value
From start to finish The 3rd Birthday is actually pretty short. The first playthrough will probably take around 5-10 hours, but the game is actually meant to be played more than once. Several unlockables are available and some guns can only be accessible after you beat the game more than once. I've also talked about the data files and the numerous texts (and I can't stress enough that there is a lot of texts to read), four difficulty settings (at least one needs to be unlocked), and multiple cheat codes. Also, there are many side quests and challenges during the combat that can test really good players. And, yes, the shower scene is also an unlockable.
So, give credit to Square Enix in trying to spruce up the package. That, however, doesn't excuse them for making the basic game very short. I would've really liked to see them insert more long chapters.
The Bottom Line
While there are some really annoying parts in The 3rd Birthday, I actually ended up liking the game. The positives of the game easily outnumber the negatives, even though the ending is a sour taste.
However, the split opinions of the game show that the variables can easily affect the satisfaction the player. When judged on its own merits and standards, this game is good. But of course, your enjoyment also hinges on how you get along with Aya Brea and how much do you like completing things (like collecting all the guns, for instance).
Aya Brea is a better protagonist than people think, but the long, dragging ending really ends the game on a bit of a down note
Although the claustrophobic environments are a detriment, and some boss battles drag to often (The Queen) the shooting is well complimented with a mostly reasonable difficulty, interesting additions (Overdiving, LIberation etc) and some really intense and engaging firefights.
The cutscenes are beautiful and the soundtrack is versatile enough to fit various moods of the game
Favorite soundtrack: First introduction's music. Blend of genres to make a really awesome and addicting piece.
Bonuses, Alternatives and Replay Value: 3/5
There is a lot of depth and secret items in the campaign, but the campaign itself is really short, although it is evident that completing the game to its fullest will require more than beating the game once.
Final Score: 15.5/20 (or 3.875 stars, rounded it to 4 stars)
A good game with some issues, that has more ups than downs. A nice addition to the PSP, especially for people who want a solid/good third person shooter on the PSP. Parasite Eve fans need to be warned, however, that Aya is not really there.
Word count (excluding this part, photo subtitles): 3950