Parasite Eve was one of the final games in Squaresoft’s golden age, a period in the 1990s when its creators’ pretensions hadn’t yet outpaced their ambitions. A retelling of a popular Japanese novel and film, the so-called “Cinematic RPG” was a mishmash of then-popular tropes and playful experimentation. Much as Parasite Eve embodied Square’s work of that era, the sequel, The 3rd Birthday, embodies the Square of 2011. It’s a work of technical prowess brought low by an emphasis on turgid narrative and pandering to the worst in its audience. Few third-person shooting games are as shallowly satisfying or as bankrupt of meaning as Square’s latest for the PSP.
Though billed as a spiritual successor and not a follow-up, The 3rd Birthday could hardly be more of a sequel, for reasons that go beyond the giant red “3” in the title. You once again play as NYPD-cum-special-agent and genetic-engineering experiment Aya Brea. The game technically takes place in 2014, years after the game’s principal antagonists—bug/plant/people monsters the Twisted—have started taking over New York City with their giant spindly towers, known as Babels. An amnesiac Aya, found bloody outside a massacre at her wedding on Christmas Eve in 2010, is forcibly added to the anti-Twisted task force CTI for her special abilities.
Rather than consciously controlling her mitochondria to shoot lasers out of her hands as in past entries, Aya can now Overdive—with the aid of a machine made by CTI director and mentor Hyde Bohr, Aya can project her consciousness into the past and inhabit others’ bodies. This defines the central play in Birthday; Aya leaps into previous conflicts with the Twisted, inhabiting the bodies of National Guardsmen in order to change time. Shootouts are populated with multiple soldiers—if you run low on ammo or health, dive into another body with the click of a button. The game’s aggressive enemies and limited resources make the Overdive system tense and satisfying, albeit simplistic. You also have perpetual access to a stock of three upgradeable guns chosen from an ever-expanding arsenal of purchasable firepower (another series staple), in addition to a single gun carried by each soldier she jumps into.
But there are many contradictions in the game’s internal logic, starting with the fact that Aya has access to weapons that weren’t already available in the era she jumps to. Everything starts well enough during the first three of the game’s seven levels—it’s coherent, though a bit oblique, with much menu-based exposition clarifying the clipped, somber cutscenes. By the end of episode three, however, Birthday has plummeted into complete incoherence, only growing more aggressively depressing and bizarre as it goes on. It would be digestible if the story-to-play ratio were better balanced, but more than half of the game’s eight hours are spent listening to its characters awkwardly jabber about plummeting into time and such. There is no goal in 3rd Birthday, and nothing clear is at stake. By the game’s ending—a cutscene gauntlet so uncomfortably stupid, it would make Southland Tales blush—it’s hard to remember the fun moments.
There are other problems. Aya looks like she went to a Halloween store and bought the slutty Chrissie Hynde costume, a combat-wear choice made even more ridiculous when it’s repeatedly ripped off her body by damage, for no other reason than to show off her underpants. That’s small potatoes compared to the alienating narrative, though. It’s a shame. Yoko Shimomura and Mitsuto Suzuki’s soundtrack is wonderful, the shooting really is a joy, and the visuals are remarkable for the platform, but there is no soul in this husk. Like its protagonist, The 3rd Birthday is a pretty body with nothing inside.