So the Yakuza guys made a cyberpunk game, huh?
Which immediately strikes me as kind of an unfair statement to lead in with. Yes, this is made by the Ryu ga Gotoku team, the group behind one of my favorite video game series, Yakuza. Yes, that fact is what made me pay attention to the game in the first place, and it one of the features that most makes it stand out in a market, but honestly, that doesn’t have a whole lot of bearing on the end product. Some teams, studios, designers, etc stick to a really distinctive design. Hideo Kojima makes a game, you know it’s going to be full of giant cinematic cutscenes, swap between the bizarre and the realistic freely, and you will be lectured on Kojima’s moral stands through the characters. If Bioware makes a game (well, pre-MMO Bioware, who knows where their design sense is now) it’s going to have expansive dialogue choices and convoluted plots. Platinum Studios makes a game, its action will be extreme and fast and tense, and its plot and visual design will be waaaaaay over the top. You know these things.
Some developers and studios, however, don’t stick to just one thing. They’ve got some variety to them. You wouldn’t think Ryu ga Gotoku studios would, given that they have one franchise that they keep churning out on a regular basis, but as Binary Domain shows, they really do. This game has very little in common with the Yakuza series that the studio is based around. It’s a completely different genre. It’s distinctly made for an international audience whereas Yakuza is extremely Japanese. It’s in an entirely different setting, requiring a very different visual design, and is structured completely differently. Its takes a completely different path of play. It does carry through the overall ethos of character design, with people that include just the right amount of visual flaws to look super realistic, and the very appropriately placed product placement, but that’s really all I can pick up on that’s carried over from the Yakuza series.
So its pedigree gets the attention, but the game stands on its own. How well does it do at that?
Lets start from the top. Binary Domain is a third person cover-based shooter, which is a genre that academically I know was the big thing towards the end of the previous console generation but really, it didn’t actually pop up that often in the games I played so I can’t really compare it to anything else without losing every shred of respectability I have. So yeah, Binary Domain is a lot like Gears of War. You have a gun. There’s some mean robots on the other side, and a bunch of conveniently placed waist high obstacles between you. Your goal is to shoot all the things until the credits roll.
Well, maybe it’s a little more complicated than that. Ok, let’s talk premise here, so you know why we’re shooting all the things before we get into more detail on the gameplay. It’s the future. I don’t remember exactly when in the future, all those future years kind of blur together for me. We’re not in space yet, but global warming is happening. Sea levels have risen, everyone’s lost some territory, and they’re building new cities on top of the old cities just to make room. Japan’s isolated itself from the rest of the world, for… reason. Because it can. One day, an assassination attempt is made on the owner of one of the world’s foremost robot manufacturers by a Hollow Child, a robot that not only looks like an actual human, has actual manufactured memories and believes itself to be human until its activated. This is a problem, because the New Geneva Convention outlaws having robots that look like humans. In fact, there’s tons of these Hollow Children around, unassumedly infiltrating every level of everything never realizing that they are not in fact human. Various governments track down the source, a single company in Japan whose owner and head has not been seen for decades. So they dispatch a multinational strike team, a Rust Crew, to infiltrate the isolated Japan, get the guy, and bring him to justice.
And when they’re going for an international appeal to this game, they commit to it. Your team is of very diverse national origin, and incorporates both the good and bad stereotypes of their country in a way that actually makes for a very good mix. Your lead is Dan Houser, one of the two Americans of the group who are both very outspoken and by no means subtle, yet are constantly driven to do the right thing and save the day. Your British folk are reserved and by the book, yet are very effective and calmly hold it together when things go south. Etcetera. Given the game’s Japanese origins and the way basically everything made by the country that stars a foreign character has them being half-Japanese, the Japanese characters of your crew actually make for a rather minor presence. They make for the main antagonist of the game and some side characters, but really, the leads are all western.
So that’s the framework. How’s the substance? Well, like I said, I don’t have a lot in this genre to compare it to. I never even played Gears of War. So basing it largely on it’s own merits, the game is a little bit janky, but overall still very fun. The controls aren’t as tight and the action isn’t as fluid as it really should be. Moving and aiming is serviceable, but not perfectly smooth, and there are a few moves, namely your melee attack, that seem a lot clumsier than they really should be. However, the gamefeel goes a long way towards saving it. Robots make great enemies in games, because they can fall apart, get crushed, react to your blows, without it being over the top gross. It just feels good to shoot your bang-bangs, knock off some robot heads with precision fire, or smash them apart with your melee attacks. Gameplay is deliciously tactile.
Gameplay-wise, it’s largely your typical cover-based shooter, at least as far as I can tell with my limited knowledge. It plays very similarly to Mass Effect 2 and 3. And… other games! Probably! I would say the main thing that sets this game apart is its affinity system. Each character on your team has an affinity ranking with Dan. Whenever you get a performance-based bonus, whether by getting a headshot, killing an enemy in melee, or scoring a multikill, you get a random chance of all your current party increasing their affinity with you. Or, in and out of battle, party members will strike up a brief conversation with you, and answering appropriately will raise it as well. On the flip side, answering wrong or accidentally hitting your teammates will lower it. You can issue orders to your teammates in battle, either by voice command or by button press, but really by button press because nobody’s going to get that voice thing to work. The higher your affinity with someone, the more likely they’ll be to follow your orders. Affinity also effects the story, as well, with certain levels actually changing plot events. To get the best ending, you have to have all your party members on their last pip, even the ones that don’t actually make it to the end, which seems like a really tall order as you’re playing through the game, but I ended up being able to do it without trying that hard towards it. There’s a few spots where enemies will keep respawning, offering some limited grinding opportunities, but on almost all of them your team will eventually stop reacting so there’s a cap on how much you can do. Thankfully, given that it seems that it feels like affinity is advancing a lot slower than it actually is.
You have an upgrade system. You earn money by breaking parts off robots and getting special kills. You can put that to upgrading your team’s main weapons, or buying them nanomachines to equip for stat boosts. It makes a big difference as you go through the game. Specifically, your MC, Dan, is permanently equipped with an assault rifle that’s barely worth anything at the beginning of the game, but will turn into an incredibly precise, hard-hitting, rapid-fire death machine if you sink the money into it. It’s also equipped with a charge attack that leaves him open and out of cover for a while but easily knocks over a depth of enemies in front of you. You need to collect canisters to keep it going, but it can be helpful in a pinch.
You get a surprising amount of depth to your enemies. Most of them are humanoid robots, whom you have the most options with. Going after any of their extremities gives you a handful of beneficial effects. Shooting off an arm will make them break for a moment while they recover their gun with their other, while both arms will limit them to melee attacks. Taking out a leg will drop them and significantly limit their mobility. The head’s where the money’s really at, as that causes them to switch their targeting parameters and go after their fellow robots, which distracts all of them from firing at you. Head shots can be your key to surviving intense firefights, as it interrupts the enemy’s pressure like nothing else. Your enemies will be really varied in their strategies, as well. Some of them get into the traditional cover-based firefights with you, some charge and get in melee, some snipe, some swarm, etc. Enemy types are very visually distinct, so you can tell at a glance what you’ll be dealing with, and adapt accordingly. The game presents you with some really varied situations as well. For as simple and standard as the gameplay really is, the scenario design gives you an incredible amount of variety to how you actually play through it, and it keeps it feeling really fresh.
I have to give a big word up to the boss fights, too. There’s a lot of creativity and energy going into them, and I’d call the bosses the highlight of the game. Again, you get a lot of variety with them, although most of them do fall into the routine of ‘shoot the weak point until they die’. Still, getting to that weak point can be rather exciting. Some of them are better in concept than in execution, some of them are good in both, but all of them will bring something really new and rather exciting to the gameplay.
The plot progression can be kind of hit an miss. I find it really notable that it’s a cyberpunk game that’s actually rather optimistic. You rarely ever get one of those. But here, yeah, people in the undercity aren’t living good lives by any means and it’s full of the typical government and corporate corruption, but otherwise, there’s good people living good lives out there, and they’re the ones that prevail. This is a cyberpunk setting where there is room for positivity, where doing the right thing wins out, and where values truly mean something. So good points in its favor there. The plot as a whole is rather simple, not super twisty and turny. It is interesting watching the various personalities grow together over the course of the game, given how distinct and often clashing they are, yet they do seem to come together realistically. There is one major twist towards the final act of the game, and it’s… a doozy. I’ve got a pretty generous suspension of disbelief, but the twist here puts the story well beyond that. I don’t really want to spoil it here, but it rests on something that seems completely and utterly biologically impossible, and it relies on there being a fictional prejudice that I just don’t understand and the game ends up being very ham-handed with. So… not really a game if you want a good story.
As far as robot shooting action goes, it’s pretty solid, though! It’s big on its set-pieces, moves at a really quick pace, and has a lot of variety to it. It’s not a long game, it took me about 8 hours to get through, but honestly, these days that’s a point in its favor for me. If I can get a good complete experience without a huge commitment, I’m all for it. Gives me more time for the millions of other things I’ve got in my backlog. It’s not the most technically sound experience you’ll have, and there’s probably a lot of ‘better’ cover based shooters out there, but for my money, I had a lot of fun with it.