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Ron’s Retro REVIEW #8 – The 3rd Birthday

by Ron Duwell | February 1, 2015February 1, 2015 8:00 am PDT

I think it’s safe to say that The 3rd Birthday doesn’t really enjoy a good reputation in the video game crowd, especially those who are hardcore fans of the Parasite Eve franchise. Times I have mentioned it in the past have been met with negativity in comments, and its aggregate scores hover just around the border between good and bad.

Square Enix’s attempt to revive the franchise did not go over as well as planned. Amazing production values that pushed the PSP to its limit were just not enough to recapture the spirit of what made the PlayStation originals fantastic.

I’m speaking generally, of course, because I’m going to come out and say it. I really enjoyed my time with The 3rd Birthday, much more than I had anticipated I would have. Unlike fans who picked it up when it first came out though, I was prepared for its frayed-edges and off-the-wall storytelling thanks to its poor reputation.

My expectations were not exactly high, meaning I could approach it differently than if I had I played it back in 2011.

However, I think there are quite a few misconceptions about this game, and I’d like to approach these in this Retro Review today. At four years old, this is the newest game I’ve tackled, but I’m going to toss it up the “retro” category because it stems from a franchise near and dear to my teenage years.

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Hajime Tabata

Before we jump into my opinions though, I need to give a bit of context as to why I dove into The 3rd Birthday. Curiosity of its quality aside, the game finds itself more relevant than ever this year thanks to the name of its director, Hajime Tabata.

Those who have been following Square Enix’s news as of late might recognize him as the man who has been handed the gargantuan task of directing Final Fantasy XV, now that previous director Tetsuya Nomura has moved on to work on Kingdom Hearts III.

From what we’ve seen in interviews and lectures so far, Tabata is a very humble and soft-spoken guy who is just gracious to be working on video games. He hosts reddit AMA’s to address the concerns of fans, encourages guerilla marketing and ironic memes, and all in all, he’s an average guy who knows how to work the modern gaming crowd.

In other words, he is the polar opposite of the ivory tower elite that make up the old ways of doing things at Square Enix.

And you know what? He also finishes his projects on schedule. In half the time-span between Final Fantasy Versus XIII being announced and him being tapped to finish it as Final Fantasy XV, Tabata completed three full games and nearly completed an HD console port of his favorite.

Before working on Final Fantasy XV, Tabata handled smaller handheld projects at Square Enix. Each of them can be picked up and enjoyed anywhere while still retaining the grandiose feeling that you are indeed playing a Square Enix game. Production value is as important as ever to the company, and even the budgeted handheld releases he’s worked on look marvelous!

Tabata is credited as the director of three games on the PSP: Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, far and away the shining beacon of the otherwise dreadful “Compilation of Final Fantasy VII,” Final Fantasy Type-0, the elusive action RPG finally making itself available to English speaking audiences this March on the current-gen consoles, and this, The 3rd Birthday, the “spiritual sequel” to the classic RPG/survival horror franchise, Parasite Eve.

Why the name change? Square Enix suggests that The 3rd Birthday is not a true sequel to the original games, and it just stars the same characters. The real description though? Square Enix lost the trademark for Parasite Eve to the original book’s author, but it still had the rights to the original characters in the game.

The 3rd Birthday also enjoys a distinction among Tabata’s work as the only one which is available digitally! You’re going to have to dig out your PSP to play that physical copy of Crisis Core of yours. The one gathering dust in a closet or on a shelf in your parent’s house.

Thank goodness for this digital support too because while it might have been a terrible PSP game, The 3rd Birthday was clearly created with PS Vita on the mind. Sony’s handheld successor does wonders for this game, and gives it enough support to warrant a widespread re-evaluation.

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better

Right away, the most glaring fix is the addition of a whole other analog-stick. The PSP was created with the intention of giving the AAA gaming experience in the palm of your hands, however, it forgot one crucial element: a second analog stick. Some games, like The 3rd Birthday, used the D-pad to simulate the functions of a second analog stick, and it proved to be the least-terrible option for a lot of PSP shooters.

The PS Vita though allows the functions of the D-pad to be mapped to the second analog stick, giving players the chance to turn The 3rd Birthday’s camera like they would any modern day shooter. Of course, the PS Vita’s analog sticks are super sensitive and cause the camera to fly everywhere with the slightest touch, but it becomes natural eventually.

Not that The 3rd Birthday needs to be like a typical shooter. One of the main criticisms of Tabata’s spin with protagonist Aya Brea was exactly that: It’s not a typical dual-analog shooter. Instead, it employs a lock-on system that gives Aya the ability to run around her enemy, dodging and shooting without ever losing sight of it. Many felt this was restrictive to what they believe the game should have been.

Of course, anyone with knowledge of Japanese gaming history knows that many shooters from the country employ the targeting system rather than manual aiming. It’s been that way since Ocarina of Time, Mega Man Legends, Metroid Prime, Demon’s Souls, E.X. Troopers, both of Tabata’s PSP Final Fantasy games, and pretty much every Japanese game I went hands on with at TGS 2014 last year.

The 3rd Birthday doesn’t fit the bill of a typical AAA third-person shooter because it isn’t a typical AAA third-person shooter. It is very Japanese in its design, and oh my goodness! It’s a Japanese game! Go figure!

Which comes full circle to another common complaint I see about the game, which is that it is too much like a typical shooter and not enough like a Parasite Eve RPG. It is a shooter, it isn’t a shooter. Make up your minds, please!

After two playthroughs, it is very easy to see that those who approach The 3rd Birthday with the intent of treating Aya Brea like Nathan Drake or Lara Croft are going to have a bad time. Unless the game is in “Easy Mode,” Aya herself is a very weak character. Her guns do little damage, and only with the aid of her Overdrive ability will she ever succeed in battle.

Overdrive!

What is Overdrive? This is the game’s main gimmick, a useful mechanic that allows Aya to inhabit the bodies of other characters on the map. Essentially, it has three purposes. The first is a quick transport to a different location. As long as there is another soldier in her presence, Aya will be able to swap locations to get a new vantage point on a weak spot or dodge a dangerous attack.

Of course, the soldier she inhabited before will take the full brunt of the hit, but who cares right? He’s just fodder.

This brings up the second usage of the Overdrive, which is a 1up system. Again, Aya is a pretty weak character and she takes a lot of damage from normal hits. Taking one too many will kill the soldier she has inhabited, but if she can Overdrive away from his dying body before the Game Over screen pops up, she lives to fight another day. If she runs out of back up to sacrifice, well, then it’s Game Over.

The last usage of the Overdrive is actually an offensive mechanic, not a defensive one. Remember, Aya’s bullets do little damage to her enemy’s health, but they are good at chipping away their defenses. When enough damage has been dealt in succession, every enemy will expose its weak point, represented by a triangle, and well-timed Overdrive into the beast’s body will do massive damage.

These are the three main components of combat, but there are other obstacles to look out for as well. Allied soldiers’ placement is crucial for taking advantage of the “link attack.” Aya can target an enemy, and any soldiers already facing its direction and be commanded to attack in unison once a meter fills up, allowing for an easier exposure of the enemy’s weak point.

Aya can also take cover behind chest-high walls, but unlike the immaculate protection Marcus Fenix and his buddies receive, Aya’s is only temporary and can’t repel too many attacks. Needless to say, she can’t stay in one spot and chip away at enemies. Staying in motion is crucial to success.

No enemies are the same either. Each has dreadful attacks that can catch Aya off guard if she is not careful, and each requires a different set of tactics to bring down. Far and away the most challenging segments of the game, and there are plenty of those, come from when two powerful enemies of different natures come into the fight at once, and players will have to swap between two different sets of tactics.

Combat isn’t the only situation Square Enix puts Aya through as well. Sometimes she’ll have to rescue citizens, other times she’ll have to escape from enemies she can’t defeat. Sniping segments benefit greatly from the Vita’s larger screen and smoother controls since Aya no longer has to aim at tiny pixels with a D-pad. There’s a bit of annoying trial and error to these segments, but once it’s learned, it all becomes natural.

For such a simple shooter, there is an awful lot to keep track of! No wonder the PSP struggled to capture all of this! It just can’t be stated enough how much smoother of an experience the Vita makes this game. Clearly, Square Enix had to have known about its existence and was hoping the game would catch on after Sony released it.

Tabata probably just works too fast, and his game beat Sony’s device out of the gate, forcing Square Enix to release the game early!

What The Heck is Going On

The 3rd Birthday (1)

Bringing us to the second main contention many people have with the game: Its story. I won’t even try to defend it. This game’s narrative is a mess, but I’m not entirely sure it’s the story’s fault, but rather just the wretched way in which it is told.

I’ll be the first to admit that I would rather just see Aya Brea putting to rest another biological attack on New York City, but the writer clearly had a much more convoluted vision in mind for this game. The 3rd Birthday introduces time travel into the franchise for the first time in a way similar to Assassin’s Creed.

Aya dives into the past using a machine that amplifies her Overdrive ability to bend space and time, taking her to the events prior to the destruction of New York. Her mission is to set the situation right before it even happens, but unexpected consequences turn up when her comrades in the present start to appear on the battlefield. Aya’s changes of the past create new situations in the present when she is pulled from the machine, creating a kind of Butterfly Effect situation.

Again, it’s a pretty clever story that just gets lost because of being way too overwritten. Not only must we contend with differentiating between the past and an ever evolving present, as well as the complicated rules on death, exposition cutscenes are also thrown into the mix to show the lead-up into the events of the present, and Aya also has frequent flashbacks to a past which she has forgotten due to amnesia.

Take into account that nothing about time travel is properly explained, characters are left uncharacterized, and the fact that you never know what timeline you are watching, it all devolves into a huge mess. Again, I like the idea of the story, but what were they possibly thinking? I can only attest to the trend toward convoluted storytelling in anime at the time as the inspiration for this nonsensical farce.

Parasite Eve Maeda

Also for kicks and giggles, the Japanese scientist from the first game, Kunihiko Maeda, also returns to be Aya’s support in the second half of the The 3rd Birthday. Remember him? He was the charming bow-legged nerd in the blue jacket that knew a lot about mitochondria, and he had a cute little crush on Aya. Here though, he is just flat out creepy, stating weird things about how he both still wants to get with Aya and experiment on her at the same time. Aya? She just laughs it off as normal.

Totally out of left field. Totally different character.

Again, what’s wrong with just Aya taking to the streets of New York? Monsters come, she and a much more toned down Maeda turn up to save the day. That’s a little safe of a plot for a Parasite Eve game, but risks obviously don’t always pay off. Good story lost under layers and layers of blubber.

Package Deal

Gameplay is a “yes,” but storytelling is a “no.” Something has to give The 3rd Birthday an extra edge to make me like it so much if it can’t tell a story to save its own mitochondria. Readers might know that I like games that make me feel like I haven’t had enough by the end. If I beat a game and immediately feel like I want to play it again right away or in the future sometime, a game has done its job.

The first Parasite Eve, one of my favorite games, is a perfect example of this, and The 3rd Birthday also joins it.

After wrapping the game up, I just wanted to experience it once again right away. Why? Because I left a mountain of content untouched, a deep and highly customizable RPG system relatively untapped, and my own battered soul wanted to run through the New Game+ on “Easy Mode” just once so enemies could feel the same levels of pain from my powered-up Aya Brea as I felt my first torturous time through.

The 3rd Birthday is a “full package” game, one which you can’t see to its entirety on a single playthrough. Beating the game once opens up cheat codes, new DNA for your RPG table, new weapons, new outfits, new feats, new difficulty modes. At least 60 percent of the game’s full content is unlocked at the close of a first playthrough.

It’s a game you can pick up and play, and always unlock something in an ultimate goal of completion and making Aya an absolute goddess on the battlefield. Every little bit counts in this game. A “full package” that’s more than just the main game, and the built in achievement system and promises of more, better content is very alluring… if you like the main game that is.

I’ll throw a brief nod to the wonderful soundtrack from the one and only Yoko Shimomura, one of the most talented composers in video game history. Her work with this game is chilling, and it really gets the nostalgia flowing once you find a groove in the combat a remixed track from the original Parasite Eve game kicks in. Excellent feeling.

Graphically, it’s hard to find a comparison on the PSP. The 3rd Birthday is a gorgeous game with excellent art direction, top of the line character models, and a great sense of effort put into making every pixel count. Some might understandably have a problem with Aya losing pieces of her clothing after taking damage in battle, but it’s not overly distracting when you are more worried about the Rollers crushing you or incoming acid bubbles from the Beans.

It’s Not What You Think

Again, I think a lot of people made a mistake with The 3rd Birthday. Some wanted a sequel to Parasite Eve II, which isn’t even that great of a game anyway, and some wanted just a straight up AAA third-person shooter experience on the PSP. Really, it’s neither of these. On the surface, there isn’t a whole lot of other games like it out there, and that’s a wonderful thing!

Once you start to dig into this game though, you’ll discover a deep RPG that doesn’t quite compare to the Mass Effects and Fallouts of the world. However, it is built with both portability and replayability in mind, and most importantly, it is hard!

Not to point too many fingers, but I get the feeling that the steep learning curve is the source of a lot of frustration and negativity towards this game. Not that it’s unexpected since both Parasite Eves and a lot third-person shooters are all instantly gratifying. The 3rd Birthday does require a lot of work to fully appreciate, but practice, repetition, and multiple playthroughs should help bang out those dents.

It’s a game that gives up its rewards to those with a lot of patience, and those are the best kind of game.

The 3rd Birthday a lost style of Japanese shooter that sadly disappeared after Western studios took over the genre, and it benefits greatly with Square Enix’s penchant for production value, excellent RPG mechanics, and the superior hardware of the PS Vita. If you’re a Parasite Eve fans who’s avoided it because of its poor reputation, I would say give it a try on the Vita or even the PS TV. The Dual Analog 3 and 4 fit this game’s control scheme like a latex glove, even if the resolution takes a hit on a big TV. Not a bad trade-off.

Iif you played this game on the PSP and hated it, the introduction of these two new pieces of hardware should be strong enough to change up your opinions of it at least a little.

More importantly, it could be an essential look into the tight, simple gameplay theories of the man who could be Square Enix’s next rising star. Tabata’s ideas when it comes to creating a game stem from a relatively tight and simple structure on the surface, but can be manipulated in many ways to an infinite level of depth. In other words, fun to play and even more fun to master.

He’s perfect for Vita and Nintendo 3DS releases, but we’ll see how these ideals found in The 3rd Birthday carry over into a massively ambitious project like Final Fantasy XV, by far the biggest and most challenging game of his career.


Ron Duwell

Ron has been living it up in Japan for the last decade, and he has no intention of leaving this technical wonderland any time soon. When he's not...

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