Title: Binary Domain
Platform(s): PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Developer(s): Yakuza Studio
Genre(s): Third Person Shooter or Japanese Crossover
Release Date: 24/2/2012
ESRB Rating: M for Man is Metal
Overall Rating: 4/5
Japanese Game was one of my favourite bands. They played a very
unique brand of music that was completely bonkers when viewed through
the lens of Western sensibility, and they gained a big following of
people like me who enjoyed the obscure and the weird, but this wasn’t
enough for Japanese Game. They wanted a bigger audience, so they began
to take on outside influences and stopped sounding like Japanese Game.
So far it hasn’t worked for Japanese Game, and while gaining no new
fans, they have lost a lot of their old fans who feel betrayed and are
well aware that they can listen to a more authentic brand of Western pop
made by Western Pop Artist—they’re my favourite Western pop band.
Binary Domain is Japanese Game’s latest album and the good news is that front man, Toshihiro Nagoshi, has managed to keep the obscure soul of Japanese Game alive and kicking, while also (intentionally or otherwise) satirising Japanese Game’s international influences.
You see, the cast of Binary Domain is a hodgepodge of
international stereotypes. There are the two gruff, tough, and obnoxious
Americans (including a token black). There’s the snotty English MI6
guy, the big lesbian (okay, that’s a sexual stereotype) and the alluring
Asian gal who is sexually harassed mercilessly by the two
Americans. The characters’ interpersonal relationships are relevant not
only to the story, but also the gameplay. You play as Dan (one of the
Yanks) who, while not being the ranking member of our band of
heroes—naturally the snotty Brit gets that honour—calls the shots.
Several of your squad mates will join you on and off, and each of them
will have their own trust level.
One of the ways that you raise their trust level is by talking to them when there are lulls in the action. Usually the answer that will raise their trust level is obvious (or you could simply insult them if you want to lower it) but things become complicated when you have clashing personalities in the squad; a little bravado might improve the trust level of one of your team mates, but lower the trust level of the other. It’s an excellent mechanic that sadly ends up meaning very little because there’s another thing that improves your squad mates’ trust: playing well. This means that it won’t be long before everyone trusts you implicitly; as long as you’re an adequate marksman. Nevertheless, even if it ends up having little effect on gameplay (if a teammate doesn’t like you, they are less likely to do what you tell them too, and you will want them to be under your spell because they have a nasty habit of running in front of your line of fire; being able to tell them to retreat is a necessity) it does help develop the characters.
As you would expect from a Toshihiro Nagoshi game, story and the
characters take centre stage. Due to the setting there is less room for
character development than in Yakuza because there is less time
for meticulously planned betrayals and touching bonding when you’re
constantly being chased by murderous robots; the story is simpler too,
but that is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a satisfying mixture of
Blade Runner (with a post-Darwinism twist) and other Sci-Fi tropes with
the obligatory destroyed, rebuilt, and under nuclear threat Tokyo, that
is a requirement in all Japanese stories of this sort.
But it’s the personal touches that one expects from Toshihiro Nagoshi that makes things far more engaging: the characters might be stereotypical, but there is certain a degree of satire to their portrayal; even the Japanese stereotypes are presented somewhat unsympathetically, which is a change from Yakuza where loyalty and honour are presented in black and white, and the shades of grey explored through the characters; here often the opposite is true due to the more limited setting. Still, there’s plenty of room for a small aside about the Western world stealing Japanese technology and claiming it as its own; perhaps it’s a pertinent time for Toshihiro Nagoshi to be declaring his loyalty to Sony first and foremost, though he should spare a thought for Ralph Baer.
Unfortunately this sense of worldliness that works so wonderfully where the main characters are concerned doesn’t quite carry through to some of the extras. In between some of the chapters you will have a chance to speak with the locals. Most are dyed-in-the-wool Japanese, but at best sound like Westerners putting on a false Japanese accent (complete with “lobot” which doesn’t sound so bad when the person saying it actually sounds Japanese) and at worst American stereotypes for the equivalent social standing handpicked from a mediocre American anime dub. The Japanese extras with American accents might be a comment on globalisation, but come across as jarring due to the disparity in the quality of the voice acting when compared to the main characters where such changes in language or accent are seamless and convincing.
But of course it’s not the still-very-Japanese-story that is the main change in aesthetic aimed at bringing in a broader Western audience: Binary Domain is a third person shooter. But it’s one that fails in aping Western game design, and retains a Japanese feel.
The game starts off in very narrow corridors; perhaps too narrow to be considered a corridor shooter—tight rope shooter might be a more apt description. They are actually highly reminiscent of the “dungeons” that one encounters in Yakuza; a few set pieces along a single unchanging pathway form the battlefield.
The challenge in the gameplay is not in using your environment (though naturally you can, and have to hide behind obstacles if you don’t want to die) but tactically taking down your enemies, whereas in most Western shooters the opposite is often true: blast everything that moves indiscriminately but move smartly, and keep track of where everyone and everything is. Here, if you shoot a robot in the leg then it will drop to the ground and crawl slowly towards you, if you shoot off a robot’s head then it will attack other robots and not you. It won’t do much damage, but it will distract the surrounding robots which gives you valuable time to kill them or blow off their heads too.
As you gun down enemies you get credits (naturally you get extra if
you take ‘em out with headshots or in other devious ways—in fact the
biggest profit is gained by shooting off their heads, their arms and
their legs!) which you can use to upgrade character traits through
nanobots for Dan or anyone else on the team. You can also upgrade Dan
and his squad mates’ main weapons (each character has one default,
unchangeable weapon, and one slot for a spare gun that you can buy or
pick up from downed robots) but when Dan’s gun is fully upgraded it
makes the gameplay a tad unbalanced. Not only is his rifle highly
powerful, it’s also incredibly accurate which means that it’s hollow
child’s play to blow the heads off a whole squadron of enemies then
watch them stumble around stupidly; harmlessly.
But it’s not too much of a problem (and on the hard difficulty level isn’t a problem at all; the aggressive AI never relents, and headshots can be a challenge even with upgraded weapons. Hard is not for the faint of heart, but is an intense experience for those who dare give it a go) because later in the game enemy encounters like that are little more than filler with the main focus falling squarely on bosses; another gameplay feature that helps steer it away from Western sensibility and give it a firmly Japanese feel.
The bosses are never more complicated than shoot the weak point(s) until the boss dies, and their patterns are usually simple (though often require skilful movement, and timed bursts of shooting to avoid death—however with Binary Domain’s lenient medkit healing system [each character has three medkits which they can use to revive themselves or a team mate] the game over screen can, at times, be hard to come by) but they are tightly paced so just as you think you’ve reached the end of your tether you start to gain the upper hand.
On top of that they are a visceral delight to destroy: despite being robots the bosses feel highly organic; there is no health bar, but you can tell how close you are to killing them by how aggressive they are, and how much of their armour you have shot off—often an enemy is nothing more than a metal skeleton as it finally dies—and even then! Let’s just say that metal skeletons need to be blown up, and not presumed dead! Your squad mates will also comment on the progress of the battle which helps add to the organic feel. The previously mentioned seeming invincibility of many of the bosses helps build a hateful, but respectful relationship: it’s a joy to come across a boss that has been such a pain in the past knowing that now will be your chance to turn it off for good.
Though the game is short (probably around eight hours on normal
taking into account cutscenes and time spent dead) the narrative is
paced in a way that the concise gameplay benefits from. Never do the
cutscenes or the downtime sections where all you can do is wander around
and talk interrupt the action; instead they only follow on from the
climax of one movement of action—a small breather is appreciated, and
gives you a chance to reflect on what has just happened both
narrative-wise (with your squad mates) and gameplay-wise (with your
brain). Sure there are a few brief cutscenes within the levels, but they
are given a feeling of authenticity thanks to a false sense of
interactivity through brief QTEs. Luckily they serve their purpose,
without being frustrating, and if you fail them you usually only a have
to sit through a few seconds of previously seen cutscene before you can
There is one rather jarring interruption to the narrative, however. Unlike the very Japanese downtime sections, this is lifted not only from Western gameplay design, but from a series of games that many consider to be the pinnacle of Western design: Half-Life. Unfortunately instead of taking on some of Half-Life’s finer points Toshihiro Nagoshi decided it would be better to include a vehicle section.
It is not quite as boring as the vehicle sections in Half-Life, but it makes up for what it lacks in boredom with frustration. The camera seems to lag behind the jet ski and the water seems to be a mixture of jelly and butter because it is thick and slippery. If you crash, it takes awhile to get going again as your jet ski gets stuck in the jelly, yet it slips around loosely as you steer it on the butter. Things get even worse after you’ve veered slightly off course, crashed and died, and you realise that all the events on this little jaunt are scripted down even to the enemies’ lines of fire. It might mean that at least you know where to avoid during the next run, but the feeling of frustration and despair is magnified tenfold when something goes wrong en route and you end up floating uncontrollably towards the bullets of a robot shooting at the water. You die, Dan screams in excitement as the whole ordeal begins again, and you can’t help but scream too—only not out of excitement.
Thankfully it is a brief section of the game that (if you are lucky) could only last a matter of minutes, but if you happen to spend any longer on it than that then you can end up stuck in a vicious cycle of failure and frustration.
It would be a sour note to end on, because it only leaves such a
bitter taste in one’s mouth due to the high level of polish of the rest
of the game; the controls are excellent—it’s effortless to move from
cover to cover, and there’s a sense of weight to Dan as you sprint
around. The guns don’t have a particularly unique feel to them as you
would expect in a Japanese game, but they are all responsive and
accurate to use, and the aiming is calibrated excellently. Issuing
orders in the heat of battle (even without a mic) is easier than you
might think when you consider that you have to hold down L2 then press
one of the face buttons, and while it’s not the longest shooter going
around there is solid potential for replay value (in the arcade sense
of the term: your skills and upgrades don’t carry over—though you do get
a reasonable trust level and level 2 upgraded weapons by default—if you
choose to play an individual chapter or start a new game; this might be
a disappointment to some as you probably won’t be able to pony up the
cash to upgrade everything in one playthrough, but it actually gives you
an extra challenge which is perfect given Binary Domain’s
arcade sensibilities) after you’ve completed the game; there are secrets
hidden in each level, not to mention the arcade feel of the shooting,
and design of the levels.
But I couldn’t end on this note either, because there’s another side to Binary Domain: the multiplayer. The gameplay is turned on its head online; no longer is the focus on slowly dismantling robots, but learning the maps and knowing how to handle your weapons, character class, and the unique upgrade system. The unique upgrade system? Well, apart from the nanobots for skills system that carries over from the single player (and I may as well go into a little more detail; you have a six square grid that you fill up with nanobots. Some nanobots are one dot, some are two and they come in a variety of shapes, so it’s not simply a matter of finding nanobots and levelling up, you must also fit them together. Think of it as item management for skills) there are also the extra weapons, grenades and items to contend with. You start each match with zero credits, and gain credits by killing people or doing well with objectives, and these credits can be spent on better weapons, health packs, and the like.
This means that everyone starts on a relatively even playing field, but the more skilled players are still rewarded because they will make credits faster than the chaff. It’s a clever system that means battles always start off interestingly.
While the tactical basis for most matches (environment/movement) is not as unique in the context of a third person shooter than some of the design quirks in the single player are, it still has a very distinct feel due to the very heavy movement, and quick sprinting of your avatar. People don’t die after a couple of bullets to the toe, either, so you have to keep your wits about you even when shooting someone in the back because they can easily spin around and shoot you in the face! Which is incredibly satisfying when you’re the one who has been shot in the back!
Even when your adversary has been downed, the battle isn’t over (unless downed by headshot) as they’ll still be able to fire off a few shots with their pistol or heal themselves if you don’t finish them off on the ground, which once again helps keep up the level of intensity, and of course it’s highly satisfying to take down your murderer just before you finally die.
Multiplayer is not all about shooting each other, though, there’s
also the obligatory horde mode. It starts out rather slow, but once
you’re dealing with legions of every type of robot you could imagine it
suddenly becomes quite the challenge, and it’s incredibly satisfying
making your way through level to level; plus beating all fifty of them
in the one sitting? Well, that’s a mammoth task.
There are two major problems with the online, however. There are only three maps, and while they’re all cleverly designed (the perfect mixture of corridors for the sneaks, and open areas with plenty of cover for the snipers and grunts) and each has their own unique feel, three maps hardly seems enough when stretched across all of the many different game modes, which leads us nicely into the other major problem: I was unfortunately unable to play the majority of game modes because there simply weren’t enough other people online to get a game off the ground.
It’s a damn shame too, because due to the unique feel of the movement, and the solid map design, Binary Domain’s online deserves, at the very least, a cult following. Plus, many of the modes that I could not get a game in sounded very interesting indeed!
And now we’re back on something a little sour, eh? Well, let’s make the conclusion fittingly sweet then. On the surface of it Binary Domain might look like it should alienate fans of Japanese games, and bore fans of Western ones. The latter is true, which means that thankfully the former is not. While it might be a shooter, Binary Domain is a Japanese shooter (if such a thing can exist) and all the touches that you would expect from a Japanese game (and a Toshihiro Nagoshi one at that) are all present and accounted for. If you can get past the cultural movement that it is a part of, then you will find just the type of game that an otaku would, or at least should, enjoy. Or should I say an obscure music fan?
To sum things up…
It’s not quite what you would expect from a Japanese developer—less so from a Western one—but in its attempts to identify with another culture it has formed its own unique identity, and failed to cover up its roots; which is just what we all want.
A brief, but intense Japanese take on third person shooting that is as much about deconstructing robots piece by piece than blowing them up.
Robots’ armour crumbles beautifully piece by piece and many of the bosses are a joy to behold. However when things get hectic there is noticeable, though minor, slowdown.
An international cast of voice acting across several languages that is brought together superbly, but let down by the comparative lack of effort on the integration of the extras. The music is a mixture of techno and dramatic orchestral that sets the tone nicely.
An anime-style interpretation of bioethics, Phillip K. Dick and Darwin. There’s a bit of a limp romance in there too, but thematically it hits the right notes, if not romantically.
Entertainment Value 4.5/5
It’s fascinating seeing the Japanese lampoon Western aesthetics while also taking them on in earnest; oh, and shooting robots is a violent and oily exercise in reverse engineering.