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The 3rd Birthday – hands-on with Parasite Eve's portable progeny

Tentacles. If there’s one overall impression we took away from our hands-on with The 3rd Birthday, it’s tentacles. This game is full of them. They’re snaking out of various monster appendages, they’re grabbing people and turning them into meat showers, and – oh God – one of the early bosses has several of them dribbling out of his gaping mouth. It’s almost indecent.

Above: In reality, Aya is 39 years old, but she looks younger because of her mutated DNA

We are of course talking about the long-awaited latest entry in the Parasite Eve series: The 3rd Birthday. It’s been ten years since we last saw FBI operative Aya Brea defending New York from genetically mutated monsters, and finally she’s back to do it all again, third person shooter style.

This time around, it’s the future – the 24th of December 2012 to be precise. Except the war against the Twisted (those tentacles we mentioned) hasn’t gone so well and they’ve take over the Big Apple, as the game’s gorgeous opening cutscene depicts. Aya is now part of the CTI – that’s Counter Twisted Intelligence – and the only one who can use their mysterious soul-transporting machine to ‘dive’ into other people’s bodies. Not only that, but she can dive into other people’s bodies in the past. No, really. So she uses this power to travel back in time to key points in the battle against the Twisted.

This diving power (proper name: The Overdive System) is 3rd Birthday’s biggest selling point. By tapping the triangle button, you can deftly take over an allied AI’s body and carry on the action. Use it wisely, and you can really gain the tactical advantage. One of the earlier levels demonstrates this perfectly, where Aya and several soldiers are trapped at the end of an alleyway, forced to fight waves of oncoming Twisted. By diving into the body of a solider stationed on a nearby rooftop, Aya gains a height advantage, perfect for picking off the enemy. Furthermore, different soldiers often have stonger guns (like semi-automatic rifles or shotguns), or more health.

Better still, if you wear down a monster’s health, you can dive into their bodies and kill them with an instant chest-splody KO. The genius of Overdive system is that it really helps 3rd Birthday overcome the physical limitations of the PSP – the lack of a second analog stick means that free-aiming your gun is out of the question, and simply relying on Aya’s lock-on system (which has you holding down the right shoulder button) would be far too boring. But both the enemy and ally AIs are smart enough that you really need to master the Overdive to make it out alive.

Above: Bosses have several health bars, meaning be prepared to be in for the long run

If there was one worry we had, it’s that the gun-and-run action could become a tad linear if not broken up with a few surprises. The levels we saw were interestingly designed – snowy streets lined with Christmas decorations, a disco-balled dance club, NYC rooftops – but the shooting could start to become a tad repetitive if that’s all there is. However, we already came across a tidy sniping section, so fingers crossed that there are more varied bits like this, because then, the action will be flawless.

3rd Birthday absolutely oozes style. Aya herself is a sharp dresser (who just happens to get into so many explosions, so it’s not really her fault that her clothes keep falling apart and she’s often left with nothing but a scrap of denim between her and her modesty). Meanwhile, cutscenes are achingly cool. One such clip opens in Club Sacrifice, where gig-goers are attacked by a wall of hungry tentacles. Aya is knocked over, which cues a gratuitous shot of her pistol very sloooooowwwllllly falling into a pool of blood, while sparks rain down around it. It’s a real moment that somehow comes off as cool instead of cheesy.

Above: No, this isn’t from another game. You really will take to the skies in a gunship as well

If ever you needed a reason to fire up the ol’ PSP after finishing the recent crop of holiday games, 3rd Birthday is undoubtedly it. It’s a powerful shooter with tidy customisation options, beautiful levels and stunning cutscenes. In all honesty, it’s shaping up to be a firm rival to last year’s best-in-show, Metal Gear Solid: Peacewalker. We’ll be there March 31, when Aya lights up the candles.

Jan 25, 2011