April 6, 2011
Set in New York City, The 3rd Birthday spans over several years, and no, you won't necessarily be experiencing them in chronological order. You play as Aya Brea who, as mentioned earlier, is a CTI agent with a special ability called Overdiving that lets her jump into the body of another person and assume control for better or for worse. New York's been overrun by an unknown, ferocious entity known as the Twisted. As a CTI agent, Aya's been tasked with jumping back in time to alter the course of history in order to learn more and, potentially, prevent the Twisted outbreak. It's an interesting concept and one that works relatively well, both in terms of narrative and gameplay.
Aya has no recollection of her past beyond her own name. It's a long story, one that's covered throughout the plot. I won't spoil anything here, but let's just say there are enough twists and turns to keep you engaged throughout the whole game, which is surprisingly long. The story's so big that Square Enix had decided to, yet again, explain a good chunk of the game's premise through the in-game database - a little something I like to call the Square Enix Narrative Syndrome and the previous culprit was Final Fantasy XIII, but I digress. While not necessarily a bad thing, the earlier portions of the story are quite brief, leaving you to read through a ton of database entries between replaying missions in order to get up to speed. Not to mention, the whole pseudo time travel bit just made things even more confusing.
It would've been nice if all this extra information was fleshed out in the story. Regardless, once you wrap your head around the basic premise of the narrative, things will start to fall into place, so long as you do your reading. And despite the time travel portions making things really confusing, it still manages to provide plenty of "what the hell" moments and, I will admit, it is something that makes the game feel rather nostalgic.
The conundrum lies in the gameplay. The 3rd Birthday is basically a third person shooter mixed with RPG elements. There are plenty of times when the game design just works like a dance and then there are the times when you question those very same design choices. Jumping in, the first noticeable thing is that there is no direct control for the camera. Granted, the PSP hardware is quite restraining, but when the camera starts to get freaky and, trust me, it will, it's difficult not to question why other PSP games can still cope rather well, while the 3rd Birthday doesn't. Locking onto a target works well in open spaces, but throw in tight corridors and corners and you'll be looking down at Aya's cleavage instead of the hordes of Twisted coming at you. The problem is only amplified when you have to Overdive with twitch reflexes.
Speaking of Overdiving, this is a key aspect of the game's combat and you can expect to use it in every single battle. To be frank, this is a really well done aspect of the game and it creates a huge tactical dynamic on the battlefield. When I say tactical, it doesn't mean slow. Quite the opposite, in fact, the game is extremely fast and tense. Shooting isn't so much as important as placement of troops and knowing when to Overdive into them. To compliment this, Aya can also command allied troops to focus on a single target; this is called Crossfire. Simply aim at a Twisted and if you have troops in cover, a Link gauge will fill up, allowing Aya to use Crossfire. Aya can also Overdive into enemies and destroy them from within. Overdive Kills deal, dare I say it, massive damage. The more you use Crossfire, the more likely you can dole out the ODKs.
Those expecting The 3rd Birthday to be a core shooter will be disappointed. In fact, running and gunning is a sure-fire way to get you killed. Clustering troops together will yield the exact same result. The key to victory is using Overdive to place them in strategic locations and literally play monkey with the Twisted. The game isn't afraid of throwing waves upon waves of enemies at you either. There's a good amount of variation in enemy types, each with their own unique characteristics and each requiring you to adapt your strategy around their weaknesses.
There are also several on-rails vehicle segments where Aya gets to pilot an attack chopper, as well as exploit the heavy firepower of a machine gun on the back of a hummer. It mixes things up a bit and I can't say it doesn't do it well, especially when seeing a hummer roll in during the middle of a desperate struggle.
In addition to the combat and Overdive mechanics, The 3rd Birthday is also heavy on RPG elements. Overdiving into soldiers and Twisted will earn you Over Energy Chips that you can use on a 9x9 board to upgrade Aya's abilities. There are various OE Chips, ranging from normal to rare and even "Evolved" chips. Combining these, or synthesizing for you RPG buffs, will yield a large range of results and can sometimes create all new abilities that'll come in handy when tackling the tougher missions. Unfortunately, the game doesn't even offer a clear explanation of how to use the Over Energy system, so expect a lot of trial and error and you tinker around with it.
You'll also be able to acquire a variety of weapons. These can be bought from the shop and customized to your liking with add-ons like stocks, increased ammo capacity and weapon power. Weapons will level up the more they're used. The higher the level, the more powerful weapons you'll unlock as well.
The game's presentation is top notch, with some really breathtaking visuals that are complimented with great voice performances. Square Enix went the extra mile in this department and kudos to them. Aya has always been an iconic, sexy character and Square Enix weren't afraid of showing that in this game. From the way she walks to the way she talks, Aya just screams sexy. In a more fan service approach, Aya's clothes will rip as she takes damage. She won't ever be butt naked, but take enough damage and she'll be showing plenty of skin. Unfortunately, and this is really subjective, but Aya's running animation can be really suggestive to the point that it becomes quite off-putting. Not to mention there is a ton of heavy breathing and gasping going on throughout the game that borders on the nasty. All in all, the game is still one of the best looking titles on the PSP to date.
That's not all there is to The 3rd Birthday. There are plenty of goodies to unlock, including a variety of outfits for Aya. These can be obtained by simply beating the game, completing Feats and clearing the game on different difficulty modes. The steamy shower scene is apparently up for viewing if you can clear the criteria or beat the game 50 times. The game also features a New Game Plus mode, letting you carry over your progress from your last game.
I'm surprised The 3rd Birthday isn't a console title. It looks great for a PSP game and has a pretty big story to tell. However, the narrative is confusing and the gameplay is really quite hit and miss, with parts that work extremely well and parts that don't. The shoddy camera, or lack there of, doesn't help either. Overdiving is always fun though and makes the game far more strategic than your standard third person shooter. The RPG elements also really add to the skill progression, making The 3rd Birthday more than just another shooter. It's also great to see Aya return in a brand new game since the classic Parasite Eve titles. Here's to hoping that Square Enix moves to making another adventure with Aya on home consoles.