Many European players may not have heard of the series or this title as the original Parasite Eve was not released outside of Japan and North America and the sequel, which was released more globally, is good ten years old. Luckily then players new to the series won't need to have played the original titles to understand the plot of The 3rd Birthday. Set in the snowy suburbia of New York, deadly monsters known as the Twisted have suddenly started attacking the city. A new Counter Twisted Investigation (CTI) organisation is set-up and the eye-catching but powerful Aya Brea returns as the female protagonist for the third time.
The 3rd Birthday is primarily centred on gun-action gameplay. Aya can switch between four weapons with her arsenal including hand guns, shotguns, machine guns and even a grenade launcher. Combat is done in real time and aiming is all done automatically via a lock-on system. This allows the player to concentrate on battle tactics, which The 3rd Birthday does well with some original tactical concepts. Sadly here I'm going to have to cut a long but interesting story short: our heroine Aya unknowingly acquired a special genetic structure when she was young. Not only does this DNA prevent Aya from wrinkling and going grey but it gives her special abilities from that of a normal human being.
The biggest of these in The 3rd Birthday is the "Overdrive" ability which allows Aya to switch with the body of a CTI team member. These NPC team members will aid you in combat but you can swap with them to hijack their health and weapons for the greater good. This also allows you to quickly nip around in a battle situation and target the weak points of various Twisted enemies. Put simply, if an enemy is strong at the front but weak at the back, rather than trying to sneak around Aya can simply switch with a well placed combatant. Aya can also use this ability on enemies, causing large amounts of damage from within. This might all sound rather ridiculous but this method of combat is actually quite satisfying.
There are also a few RPG elements to give a feeling of progression and keep the battles fresh. Aya will gain experience points, level up and then learn new abilities - such as an invincible mode - or just upgrade existing ones. In the meantime, the controls are well mapped and the graphics, although nothing special, are respectable for a hand-held game and it is clear to make out what's going on screen. Being on the PSP I feel The 3rd Birthday will act well as a drop-in drop-out game as well as being a more involving long term game.
My play test opened with a fierce fight in a large open courtyard with Aya and a handful of CTI members battling a swarm of Twisted monsters. I fought through them using the cover based combat and the various weapons and then destroyed their nest to prevent any more from spawning. Once I'd mopped up the remnants I was then faced with a large Twisted monster boss. Here I could really put the Overdrive system to good use as I jumped to different locations around the fiend, avoiding its phases of attacks and dealing effective damage at the same time. Amusingly I could also passively command these soldiers. For example I climbed up to a platform above the monsters and then swapped places with a CTI member. This NPC then starting shooting but stayed put which gave an extra dimension to our attack.
Unfortunately by the time I took down the boss we'd run out of time. Listening to the developer and playing for about 20 minutes I conclude that The 3rd Birthday already plays well and seems to have a decent premise. I would hope that the story will be strong throughout and the combat remains engaging, however it difficult at this time to gauge how well The 3rd Birthday will eventually turn out once released in around 3-6 months in Japan and then 2011 for the rest of the world. However, with a development team including Yoshinori Kitase (Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 6-8) as executive producer and Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts to name just one) as composer The 3rd Birthday is shaping up to be an absorbing game just nicely.