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A week is a long time in politics, it's often said. Whilst the happenings of the gaming and governing worlds aren't an exact temporal match, I'd wager that for the most ardent of fans, the eleven year wait for a new Parasite Eve must have seemed like an eternity. The acclaimed RPG/survival-horror hybrid was last sighted on the PSOne back in 2000 in the guise of Parasite Eve 2, but though players have been denied the dream a full-blown sequel, they can at least get their hands on its long-in-the-making "spiritual successor" The 3rd Birthday, which arrived on the PSP a few weeks ago. The chameleon-like series this time takes the guise of a third-person shoot 'em up, but revisits characters and themes of the earlier games and, of course, sees Aya Brea back as the lead protagonist.
The 3rd Birthday garnered a mixed response critically. Discontent stemmed from the game's perceived failure to live up to its predecessors, with many disappointed fans citing that it didn't "feel" like a Parasite Eve. Strictly speaking, both assertions are correct: it doesn't play like its predecessors and neither is it as involved, but then, as it's slightly ambiguous name might suggest, T3B is a different kettle of fish. It's neither complete success nor complete failure; whilst the shooting is lightweight next to modern home console equivalents, it boasts plenty of neat new ideas and design that is both adventurous and, on occasions, inspired. The biggest drawback is the game's relatively limited shelf life.
The convoluted story (and that's putting it mildly) sees Aya battling an invasion of "Twisted", a bunch of creatures who rose from the ground one Christmas and attacked Manhattan, killing many and generally wreaking environmental havoc. As time passes, the outbreak of Twisted grows to near-epidemic proportions, but thankfully, New York has Aya to thank for her awesome abilities. Able to detach her soul from her body, she can "Overdive" into that of another and thus manoeuvre around environments with near-omnipotent speed and ease, using handily-placed soldiers as portals. She becomes a part of a Twisted-fighting organisation, which in a useful coincidence, have the means to send her soul back in time where, as they rightfully suspect, she can alter the events of the past. All of this means you've seriously got to have your thinking-caps on to keep up with the ever-altering and consistently confusing narrative. Aya is driven by troubled memories of her sister Eve, the fidelity of whose existence seems to fluctuate as the story unfolds.
As is increasingly becoming the case with Square Enix titles, the story is as much posturing, pseudo-deep nonsense as it is legitimate narrative and rather ties itself in knots. The sub-standard group of support characters irritate, either through caricatured voicing or with their need to spout hollow clichéd proclamations ("trust can sometimes be a dangerous thing!"). Nevertheless, Aya is still as cool as she ever was; like Japan's own sophisticated, less chest-heavy variant on Lara Croft, and it's through her that the player experiences some really good levels.
Whilst the aiming has its limits, the shooting still packs a punch, and is neatly configured to the framework of the PSP's controls. To compensate for the majority of the firearms adopting an auto-aim function, battles encourage the player to make full use of their surroundings; keeping on the move, finding cover and positioning teammates in such a way as to give your squad a tactical advantage. Holding down the aim button (L) brings up a "crossfire" bar which, after a few seconds, can be deployed to focus your team's firepower in one concentrated burst, whilst critical hits allow Aya to break a foes defences and "dive" at them to cause damage, and her "Liberation" special move grants a short period of extreme speed, power and critical-hit capabilities and is a frequent life-saver against bosses. The battlefields are impressively large, and it pays to "dive" around to find a soldier in an ideal spot - sometimes it's a place of relative safety where you can make use the slow but powerful sniper rifles, or there may be a soldier with a massively powerful weapon, such as the magnificent Satellite Cannon which sends a massive burst of energy down from the heavens, frying anything unlucky enough to be in its path. It certainly takes the kitchen-sink approach; some really cool bits even allow Aya to dive into tanks with armed turrets or helicopters with missiles - especially useful for taking out one gargantuan airborne boss.
The range of weapons is extensive, as are the range tune-ups you can perform on each. Impressively, the upgrades are tailor-made to specific preferences and situations, so you opt for either a bigger clip or a greater total number of bullets; bullets with greater power or better critical-hit rates; more penetration at range, or a sturdier aim and so on. These are supplemented by a range of DNA-strands attained from foes, which can be placed on a 3-by-3 board, combined with other strands to attain greater potency, and grant a whole range of abilities. You can get stuff like heightened healing rates, enhanced power and defence in certain situations, powerful supplementary moves linked to the "Liberation" special and many more besides - it's got a lot of depth and can make the difference in battle if you can find some good combinations.
Annoyances take some of the sheen off the gameplay. Aya has a bothersome habit of remaining standing whilst reloading a gun when you've been firing it from cover, which causes unnecessary damage, and some foes are rather too liberal with their use of instant-kill moves. All difficulty settings above "Easy" (there are several) provide good, tough action but are often undone by some teeth-grindingly awkward boss battles. The majority of the foes are a tough yet fair match-up, but the Reaper's are needlessly cheap, and an unnecessary hassle given the frequency with which you're told to escape these formidable creatures in the beginning. One must be killed late on with a laser weapon that very few soldiers have and if a holder is killed, you have to wait for reinforcements to bring another. In the meantime, said Reaper is happily plucking soldiers from the ground and not only instant-killing them, but replenishing health at the same time. This is one instance that exposes the cumbersome nature of the manual-aim special weapons; frequently being chased by a super-fast enemy usually means the camera is facing in the opposite direction to the way you want to shoot, and trying to swing the camera around with the D-Pad whilst on the run with the analogue is an agonising process. The sharp difficulty also leads to a disparity in the usefulness of any weapons carried. Heavy reliance is placed on the two custom weapons you choose to take into battle simply because of their upgrade capabilities. The default handgun and single weapon specific to each soldier you "dive" into are, in later levels or indeed on stronger difficulty levels, all but useless.
It feels like a long time ago now, but Parasite Eve once had a penchant for memorable, show-stopping full-motion video sequences; the mass-combustion of a theatre audience in the original for instance, and who could forget the freakish creature bursting its way out of a diner's face in part two... Ahem. Happily, The 3rd Birthday follows in this fine tradition, and from the moment you see Manhattan being torn up and the Twisted smashing through a nightclub, you know it's going to be a visual extravaganza.
Square Enix have long since reached the pinnacle of the PSP's graphical capabilities of course, but whilst the character models seem a little rough around the edges, there's no denying that the environments, and indeed the fluidity within which the action takes place, is superb. From the eerily quiet, Christmas snow-fall in Manhattan that plays host to the game's prologue, to the bright lights and disco-décor of Club Sacrifice and the dingy subways that follow thereafter, there's an attention to detail and depth to each individual location that shows a real mastery of the hardware. One particularly clever touch involves Aya's outfits; you know there's been a tough battle from the shredded look of her clothes, an indication of compromised armour. Enemies are varied and challenging, there's a generous helping of mostly impressive looking (and large) bosses and due to the positioning of your teammates, there are many ways of going about each encounter. The music is occasionally guilty of simmering away anonymously during the longer fire-fights but the title theme in particular is a chillingly impressive composition and the tunes generally make up for some inoffensive though rather morose voicing.
There's no denying the quality of the craft on show in T3B, but whilst fans dreaming of a new Parasite Eve may bemoan the lack of puzzles or atmosphere, in reality its biggest shortcoming is that there isn't enough of it. Whilst it took me around 13 hours to finish the game, it should be noted that the majority of that was spent replaying earlier levels in order to gain more points for upgrades. The six missions typically last around 45 minutes first time through, except for the finale which can be polished off in 10, so you're looking at no more than 4-5 hours of unique playing experience which isn't much. There is some value for the hardcore fraternity, who will note the healthy hoard of extra goodies and difficulty levels as incentive enough to carry on past the credits.
As a potential test-pilot for a console outing, The 3rd Birthday's "dive" ability and team-elements undoubtedly show potential, and with the addition of online functions and more favourable shoot 'em up controls, the idea might be worth revisiting one day. However, it's tough to fully recommend due to a lacklustre storyline, poor characters and a fleeting lifespan. Square Enix have done a commendable job in building a solid shooting engine, but even with all of the bells and whistles, it will likely leave fans of Aya Brea's earlier adventures wishing for a return to the quirkier genre-hybrids of the past.