The Parasite Eve series has made a name for itself as a shape-shifter. The original title, released on the PlayStation in 1998, was rooted in the role-playing genre. Its sequel, Parasite Eve II, made a move towards action survival-horror when it landed two years later. After an extended hiatus, this much-loved franchise is making its return, again in a new format. Originally developed as a game for mobile phones in Japan, the title has changed gear to find a new home on Sony's PlayStation Portable handheld and is being reborn as a third-person shooter with tactical elements.
During a recent trip to Square Enix in Japan, we got our hands on a chunk of the single-player campaign and took Aya Brea and friends for a spin around an infested New York City. The game opens with a beautiful (and lengthy) cutscene introduction filling in some of the story gaps between games and setting the scene for the gameplay. We were blown away by the visual quality of the animation and left wondering if this was a console game ported down to a handheld.
Though the version we saw hadn't yet been localised for English, we had no trouble coming to terms with the basics as we were introduced to the action. Targets are locked by holding the right shoulder button, the square button fires your selected weapon, and the X button is used for Aya's more acrobatic moves, such as rolling forwards, jumping over cover objects, and dodging incoming danger. A handful of weapons can be carried at once and are selected by holding the left shoulder button and pressing the face button corresponding to the item you wish to use. During our play we had a chance to use shotguns, assault rifles, submachine guns, and a pistol with unlimited ammo that serves as your mainstay sidearm when you run out of everything else.
Ammo conservation certainly wasn't our biggest issue while we played, with swirling aqua-coloured columns of light scattered throughout the levels and being able to replenish our stocks simply by locating and walking over them. Since the game lets Aya switch bodies at will, should you find yourself running low on bullets, you can always vacate and jump to your next host by pressing the triangle button to target a nearby friendly, taking their form and resuming their weapon loadout via a move called "overdive." We wouldn't go as far as to call it bullet time, but the world slows down slightly when you engage overdive, giving you enough time to escape a hairy situation by tapping left and right on the D pad to locate the nearest replacement body. This becomes particularly crucial later when you use hosts spread out through the environment to gain tactical advantages on the battlefield, claiming an elevated position or hiding safely behind cover.
Overdive isn't limited to friendly teammates, though, and at times during combat your selected targets will change from a square to a triangular reticle, indicating you can dive into their bodies to deal damage. In pseudo quick-time-event style, you'll need to recognise and press the triangle button quite quickly, but doing so in time rewards you with a flash of white light and a temporary teleport into their skin, returning you to human form immediately afterwards and taking with you a chunk of their life bar. Though we didn't see it, we were told that repeated use of the mechanic would have some kind of penalty in the form of a detrimental effect on Aya, but perhaps that occurs later in the game.
Regardless of which body you've snatched, you stay as Aya and have the ability to order other squadmates around by targeting without firing. Doing so uses the linking ability, filling a progress bar and commanding your buddies to focus their fire on a particular enemy rather than spread the bullets over the entire field, granting an additional firepower bonus in the process.
Cover is valuable, but this isn't a dig-in-and-shoot-from-safety kind of game. Liberation mode is another feather in your cap, and it lets you tap the triangle and circle buttons simultaneously to unleash slow-motion attacks. Zipping around the environment at lightning speed, your shots gain additional punch and your dodging is done automatically, but you can use it for only a few seconds, and your meter needs to replenish over time by dealing damage before you can use it again. Liberation becomes particularly useful when you find yourself surrounded by groups of enemies, trying to avoid crushing blows from fast-moving foes, and for flanking to gain a strategic advantage.
Before each mission, you're given access to a tactical menu that lets you customise your equipment (Aya's clothing) and weapons as well as tweak and modify your DNA. Genetic modification is possible by collecting "over energy" chips from the dead, using them as currency to unlock combat skills and ability upgrades. Chips can be stacked to improve your preferred talents, while combining them in a particular order or mixing and matching different types of chips yields different bonuses.
As beautiful and fresh as the combat felt, we did run into a couple of minor quirks we're hoping are ironed out before the game ships. While open areas were well lit and easy to navigate, hallways in one section were almost too dark to see, forcing us to rely on hugging walls and glancing at the minimap to find our way. Cover too was at times a little more finicky than it needed to be, and while the majority of the time approaching a safe resting place would stick us and keep us out of the hurt, a few times we didn't snap properly, leaving us exposed and forced to move away and return to our original spot before it would take. Targeting is for the most part solid, latching onto things we wanted to shoot, but it wasn't without its faults. Inactive hives off in the distance would sometimes be locked onto, while active aggressors like an enemy in the foreground would be ignored.
Like the game's visuals, the audio is another standout element of The 3rd Birthday. The inclusion of a pumping Japanese pop/electronic soundtrack fits perfectly with the slight futuristic edge of the game, blending a real-world setting with the science-fiction elements of the alien invaders.
Quirks aside, we walked away from our hands-on time pleased with the beautiful, action-fuelled ride, and we're eager to uncover its cryptic storyline further. With the series having lain dormant for over a decade already, fans shouldn't have any trouble sitting tight until the game is released exclusively on the PSP halfway through 2011.