I had high hopes for this game. Truthfully I did.
I can’t comment on the gameplay. It’s a modern action/shooter game. I’m terrible at modern action/shooters. I’m bad at navigating 3d space, I’m bad at using cover, I’m bad at optimizing weaponry… I’m bad at pretty much everything in the modern action/shooter toolbox. I played the game on the easiest difficulty setting and still died about a dozen times in each level. When I died, it was often because I couldn’t tell what I was doing or where I was physically standing. The lock-on button helps, as does the soul-zipping Overdive mechanic, but I was still really bad at the game and therefore am the wrong guy to ask how it was.
I didn’t hate the gameplay, mind you. As action/shooter games go, the mechanics in this one are somewhat unique. The core feature is the protagonist’s Overdive ability, by which she jumps from one body to another. If there are six soldiers on the battlefield, she can leap back and forth between all six. Lots of levels are based around the idea of positioning your soldiers in tactically advantageous positions, or finding the one soldier on the field who has the weapon you need, or even just abandoning your current soldier as a means to avoid damage.
Oh, and the game has a lock-on feature, so you don’t have to manually aim most of your weapons. I mean, the really crazy stuff? Grenade launchers and laser beams and air strikes? You have to aim those. But you’re not running through the levels launching grenades; you’re mowing down monsters with an assault rifle. One of the most difficult parts of these types of games is simply finding out where the monsters are, and a button that automatically snaps to the nearest one is a huge help.
(An on-screen mini-map showing monsters as red dots would have been better, of course.)
There are lots of RPG elements. The heroine levels up, her guns level up, her DNA levels up. You can replay levels as much as you want to more efficiently make these level-ups happen. I more or less just ignored these aspects of the game. I never stopped to power-level (who wants to do that in a shooter game, anyway?), and always gave myself the strongest gun I could afford (why wouldn’t you?). That was enough for me, and would certainly be enough for anyone who is better than I am at shooters. Which is to say everyone on the planet.
The real draw to 3rd Birthday, for me, was the story. Well, no, that’s not strictly true; I knew the story was going to bite ass. The real draw was re-visiting Aya Brea, one of my most fondly-regarded video game heroines. I’ve been jonesing to spend some more time with Aya pretty much ever since I finished up her second game way back before the PS2 launched.
The first major change to Aya’s character is that she has voice acting now. This being a Japanese game, that means she spends an enormous amount of time gasping, shrieking and whimpering. I don’t know what it is about Japanese voice acting, but for some reason their characters always sound like they’re having half an orgasm. The effect is, as Aya makes her way through the game world, each and every action makes it sound like she’s wincing in pain. Or constantly catching her breath. Or on the verge of tears.
The second major change is, as Aya sustains damage, her clothes fall off. I made her run around most of the game in panties and half of a winter coat for no reason other than it amused me to do so. Come to think of it, maybe my diminished armor rating explains why I died so often on the later stages. It was worth it for the perfectly-toned nubile buttocks.
One aspect of Aya that hasn’t changed is her looks. She’s still the smokin’ 20-something year-old woman she was back in the first two Parasite Eve games, despite 3rd Birthday taking place some ten years later. All of the other returning characters have aged appropriately (or as close to appropriately as is reasonable in a video game world), but not Aya. The writers actually established a canonical reason for this back in PE2; something to do with her magic super-blood wanting to keep her young-looking for its own evolutionary benefit. It’s fanservice-y, sure, but who’s complaining? Certainly not me.
What I really wanted from 3rd Birthday, first and foremost, was a satisfying return to the Parasite Eve mythos. The first two games have always been pretty far off-the-rails as far as sci-fi stories go, so I suspended my disbelief from the very highest spot I could reach before even firing up the game. And I’m glad I did; an hour in you’ve already wrestled with amnesia, body-swapping, time travel and outright betrayal. It’s fluff, sure, but it’s handled quite well at the outset. For the first few missions Aya is sent back in time to change… whatever it is that needs changing. Upon returning, her laptop has a convenient timeline she can check, with all the relevant changes highlighted in red. It’s a neat way to keep the varous timelines and events straight, and if the whole game had been structured like that things would have been fine.
The whole game wasn’t structured like that.
Halfway through the game, the time-travel plot is traded out for an almost entirely unrelated “final strike against the eldritch horrors” plot. The event that triggers this switch-over is the slaughter of Aya’s entire team inside of their own headquarters… which happens offscreen. Offscreen. The game fades out on one chapter, then opens up with a “several months later…” message. “Remember when everyone you knew was killed?” someone asks. Just like that.
I was almost able to stomach this, since the switch-over comes part and parcel with the re-introduction of Maeda, the goofy scientist from the original Parasite Eve. I thought for sure this was an indication that the plot was about to tie itself in with the earlier games, but no, Maeda is here only so fans of the original games could point and say, “Look! It’s Maeda!”
Even that would have been okay, though, if Maeda hadn’t been cast as the absolute skeeviest piece of trash in existence. Oh my god, the tripe that comes out of this guy’s mouth. This guy’s nervous, filthy chuckle will make you wonder if he keeps locks on the outside of his windowless van. The game is never particularly clear whether he wants to help Aya or dissect her. He comments, in one absolutely revolting scene, about how delightfully sweet Aya’s tears must taste. While she’s in the room.
I… I don’t know. In Parasite Eve Maeda was this geeky little stick figure who was very obviously uncomfortable around pretty ladies. But in that game the things he said and did were endearing. He gifts Aya with heartfelt trinkets in order to bring her good luck. He’s apologetic when he has to prick her finger to draw her blood. He gets so tongue-tied he can’t even hold a conversation with her at the opera during the epilogue.
In 3rd Birthday he can’t even get through a sentence without reminding everyone how big of a boner he’s always got. It’s icky, and I don’t like it.
In the end, Maeda isn’t even important to the plot. The story drops him once it doesn’t need him any more, and the game finishes up with some incredibly stupid malarky about lost and/or shattered souls, evolved god-beings and time-that-isn’t-really-time. There’s a half-decent explanation as to why Aya acts more like a scared schoolgirl than the tough cop we’ve come to expect, but if you’re still paying attention at that pont, you’re part of the problem.
Actually, I think I’ll go ahead and spoil the ending. Don’t worry; it sucks, so you won’t care. Here’s what happens: it’s Aya’s wedding day, when suddenly a SWAT team bursts in and shoots up the joint. This causes a sequence of mind-numbingly retarded events that causes Aya’s little sister Eve to trade bodies with her, whereupon Eve’s soul gains the ability to Overdive, and Aya’s turns into a trillion time-traveling monsters. Eve then wakes up in Aya’s body without any memories, and the game takes over from there.
Here’s the obvious way to conclude this story: Eve (now Aya) has the ability to time-travel. Once she learns about the SWAT team, by all means, go back in time and stop them! Figure out why they’re firing on civilians in a church! Find who hired them! Who put them up to it! Prevent Aya, her fiancé and an innocent priest from being murdered!
We never find out why the SWAT team is there. Nobody thinks to ask, let alone work up a plan to fix it. Because, see, that’s just the kind of story this is; the SWAT team isn’t a real story element, it’s just a contrivance to make the rest of the story “work”. Which, of course, means no part of the story really does.
So upon finishing 3rd Birthday I was pretty actively disgruntled. Yes, I would say with confidence that all my grunts had been thoroughly dissed. I said “This is stupid,” out loud more times per hour in 3rd Birthday than I did throughout most of Metal Gear Solid 4. Kojima could only dream of a plot this terrible. Aya doesn’t even have nanomachines to blame her mess on.