Parasite Eve as a franchise has suffered a major identity crisis over the years. Once a strong, confident horror-themed RPG, in its rough teenage years she caved to peer pressure, trying too hard to fit in with the cool kids in the survival horror clique. So she dressed just like a Resident Evil game, did drugs (developed by Umbrella), showed off just enough skin to keep the boys interested, and severed all ties with her good friends, “breakthrough battle system” and “well-written plot.” And sure, we were all interested for a while, but then we realized she was just a poor imitation with nothing of her own to make her unique. Then in 2010, twelve years after the release of the original game, Square-Enix releases The Third Birthday. How has our old friend fared in the intervening years? Did she reconnect with her old interests and go on to lead a successful and productive life? Or is she running around, still acting like a teenager trying too hard to get the boys to like her? Take a wild guess.
Nothing like a really bad extended metaphor to open an entry, right? The problem is, Square has gone through a similar sort of identity crisis, distancing itself from all the dice-rolling fun of fantasy RPGs it enjoyed in the nineties and started producing games that more resemble Michael Bay’s 10-hour wet dreams than a game appealing to their traditional fan base. (Who would have thought that having my interests go mainstream would actually make me more of an outsider?) I can recover from that. The bright side? PS4s are expensive and now I won’t have to buy one. Unfortunately, they took Aya Brea, the only girl I loved in high school who didn’t try to push me down a flight of stairs, down with them. I played The Third Birthday with the intention of using it for an October entry, but it turns out the game has fewer horror elements than a Victoria’s Secret catalog.
The story begins with Aya Brea, more than ten years after her last adventure, and follows her as steadily and coherently as a schizophrenic schnauzer after drinking a bottle of tequila. I tend to criticize games that require you to read the in-game encyclopedia in order to understand what’s going on. The Third Birthday lowers the bar even further as reading the files leaves you with more questions than when you started, and most of those questions fall on the lines of, “Did someone actually write this story, or did they just paste together scraps of paper from the dumpster behind the Call of Duty development team’s building?” It really does feel like everyone in the building was told they had fifteen minutes to write a paragraph from a paramilitary adventure, and when their time was up, whatever they had done was coded into the game. In order to get a rough feel for what’s happening, you have to finish the game. Only in the ending sequence does the Third Birthday give any semblance of actually having a plot, but because it plays the same scene about five times, each with alternative events, Square could have displayed the games coding and I’d have a better idea of what they were going for.
As far as story is concerned, The Third Birthday passes Star Wars prequel level of bad, overtakes the Force Awakens easily, and heads right on into Matrix: Revolutions territory. The awkwardly charming Maeda from the first game is now a horny, giggling mad scientist, and you have to put up with the douche bag from the previous game as a major character. It contains all the standard Square-Enix tropes: a bad guy who turns out to be good, a good guy who stabs you in the back, and a fair amount of Judeo-Christian pseudo-symbolism with as much cogent meaning as a bag of scrabble tiles thrown into a wood chipper. But if you can ignore that, it makes for a pretty good action game. Coming off of Final Fantasy XIII the year before, Square was still high on its discovery of hallway-based gameplay, and hadn’t yet figured out that linear level design is about as likely to make a comeback as bell-bottoms, cod pieces, and the sheepskin jerkin. Aya moves from one room to the next, fighting monsters. She can pick up occasional “ammo recharge” items and can crouch behind small barricades, but can otherwise interact with the environment about as much as a polar bear trapped on an ice floe.
But while all of those seem to detract from the ability to have any fun in a game, The Third Birthday focuses entirely on Overdive combat. After stripping away any mention or implication of mitochondria from the game, Square gave Aya the ability to jump into the past by jacking into the Matrix, where she can spontaneously possess anyone around her like Agent Smith in a disintegrating tank top. The national guard is present for nearly all battles, and Aya can dive from one to another in order to exploit an enemy weakness, access a new area, or evade attacks. While dancing around, wearing these soldiers like a Halloween costume, she uses their health bar and has access to whatever special weapon they had equipped (a feature that can be exploited for extra ammo). If you don’t think too hard about Aya blood-bending these guys like an evil puppeteer, leading them into dangerous situations and then abandoning them to their deaths, this gives the game a fast-paced strategic element. You have plenty of combat options at any time, and the enemies fall just on the inside of being too difficult to enjoy. If I did have one complaint about the battle though, the guns hit the monsters with all the destructive force of a spit ball. No matter how fun the combat is, whittling down an enemy’s health by lobbing styrofoam packing peanuts at it takes a lot of time, which feels especially tedious in the more difficult battles. I would have been perfectly fine with enemies dealing more damage if it meant I could load my guns with something a little stronger than Nerf.