The declining popularity of Japanese videogames and their perceived inability to compete with the thrills of their foreign competition has been an increasingly pressing topic over the last few years. Japanese games, the story goes, are hide-bound, traditionalist and lacking in the thrill factor of foreign action titles. It’s ironic, therefore, that the newly-rebranded Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, makers of the solidly formulaic (also brilliant) Yakuza series should have delivered such a striking and enjoyable shooter on their first attempt to address this issue.
Binary Domain is set in 2080, in a world where most manual labour is performed by intelligent robots and global warming has caused sea-levels to rise, flooding most of the world’s major cities. The action centres on Dan Marshall, a member of a United Nations special forces team tasked with gaining entry to isolationist Tokyo and retrieving rogue roboticist Yoji Amada, who is suspected of developing human-like robots in violation of the New Geneva Conventions.
Binary Domain is not quite the first foray into shooter-territory that Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio have made, of course. Last year’s Ryu Ga Gotoku: Of The End (released next month in English as Yakuza: Dead Souls) saw the team dip a toe into action game waters by substituting the series usual random fisticuffs for third-person shooting that sometimes sat a little awkwardly with its established conventions. Those awkward first steps, however, have turned into a confident stride. Mechanics first tentatively experimented with in Of The End – third-person shooting, A.I. squad-mates – have developed into a much more confident and imaginative use of the possibilities of the form.
In strict control terms, this is all fairly familiar stuff to anyone who’s been playing shooters over the last few years – holding the left trigger/L1 snaps into fine-aim mode, the right trigger/R1 fires; you can take cover behind obstacles and walls, dive to avoid fire, and sprint across open areas. Very little has been added here that wasn’t in Gears of War, or indeed Resident Evil 4, which is the godfather of the modern genre. Where Binary Domain differs is in the tactile destructibility of its enemies and its focus on colossal boss battles.
Because every foe in the game is a robot, the developers have been able to go to quite some lengths in allowing you to physically dismantle them. As the first volleys of shots tear into them, their armour flakes and cracks and flies away from the endoskeleton, with sustained fire eventually causing physical dismemberment. Pump enough fire into a leg and it will come off, forcing the robot to hop. Take off the other leg and now he’s crawling across the floor to grab your ankles and blow himself up with a grenade. Blow off the gun arm and he darts across the room to retrieve the fallen weapon with his other hand. In perhaps the best use of the feature, blowing off a robot’s head causes him to go haywire and attack any other enemies in his vicinity. It is both an excellent piece of tactical game-design and an antidote to the usually dissatisfying lack of reactivity found in robotic shooter enemies. Combined with the generally excellent A.I., it also makes for some engagingly frantic and furious battles.
Destructibility is blown up to a larger scale with the game’s frequent boss encounters. The first of these is a comparatively simple battle with a ten-foot monstrosity whose weak point is located on the top of his head, only accessible by leaping from the roof of a nearby ruined building. With each progressive battle the size of the enemy and also the length of the fight tends to increase to the point that some, such as a running clash with a giant killer tricycle on a motorway, can last upwards of twenty five minutes. Though the scale and ambition of them is commendable, and their difficulty is generally well-balanced, the sheer frequency with which they appear does eventually become rather wearing and they end inspiring a kind of grudging sense of toil rather than the playfulness found in ordinary battles.
The main unique selling-point of the game is its support of voice controls for your squad members. Interestingly, rather than simply giving you a set vocabulary of phrases to utter, the developers have made some attempt to recognise a wide range of inputs. This is, in practice, something of a double-edged sword, since the game is, as a result, slightly over-eager to interpret any sounds within its hearing as a command but it is also never quite able to decide which command that should be. Even simply sticking to the suggested phrases leads to difficulties, as finding the correct calibration balance is a fairly difficult task (oddly, switching to Japanese voice inputs produced slightly better results, perhaps because of that language’s more regular pronunciation patterns).
If you can get it working to your satisfaction, it produces a considerable feeling of identification with your squad and also reduces your reliance on button presses in the heat of battle. Thankfully, those button-presses are economical and user-friendly, so those without a headset, or who don’t have the will or the patience to get it working properly aren’t disadvantaged.
If certain aspects of the gameplay are a qualified success, the same cannot be said about the story. That is because it is totally brilliant – a warm-hearted, pacy, exciting and characterful blockbuster that benefits enormously from a tremendously capable localisation. Rather than the slightly lifeless translations that too-often bedevil Japanese videogames, the English version of the game has been skillful adapted with a script that manages to be witty, likeable and creative while still being unabashedly mainstream in the best way. It’s characters are consistent and distinctive and its friendships and rivalries develop believably.
The developers have considerable experience with crafting engaging narratives and loveable characters across six (not counting PSP titles) Yakuza games, and it’s refreshing that western audiences now have the chance to enjoy their work in a form which is as good as the original, if not even better. Were it a little more seamlessly integrated into the gameplay, it would be on a par with the high benchmark set by the Uncharted series. As it is, Ryu ga Gotoku Studio will simply have to settle for being the second-best cinematic videogame storytellers in the world.
Graphics: 3.5/5 - Not at the bleeding edge of the technology, and indeed looking as though it is probably still running off a modified form of the Yakuza 4 engine. It is still, however, a well-realised game with the studio’s usual flair for creating a digitised recreation of Tokyo that frequently inspires a kind of wonder at its palpable sense of place.
Sound: 4/5 - Fine soundtrack and effects work help to highlight important information in the thick of a frequently noisy battle, though the music is entirely forgettable. The voicework is excellent in whichever language you might choose to play it (I’ve given it a go in English, Japanese and French).
Gameplay: 3.5/5 - Clattering and destructive gunplay combines with simple squad-management to create a pacy and frantic experience, which unfortunately also sometimes suffers from a slight clumsiness at close-range or in confined spaces. The inclusion of upgradeable weapons and character skills also helps to keep the shooting fresh in its later stages.
Longevity: 3.5/5 - The storyline is reasonably lengthy and substantial for this kind of game (perhaps eight hours) and the ability to choose your squad-mates offers some replay value, as the game will play out slightly differently in some areas depending on who is accompanying you (you can only sleep with one of them, for example). Online multiplayer modes, both competitive and co-operative, are also included and they are a capable, enjoyable and, importantly, highly-stable experience that nonetheless lacks much in the way of unique features compared to, for instance, their nearest competitor Gears of War and are thus not hugely likely to pick up a long-term following.
Overall 4 out of 5
Regardless of whether or not that was the developers’ intention, Binary Domain will likely be perceived as a test of whether or not Japanese game-makers are capable of creating international-focused mainstream action thrill-rides. Thankfully for them and for us, it’s a test they’ve passed with ease. Binary Domain doesn’t reinvent the genre or show us anything staggeringly new, but it does provide an engaging, extremely likeable action-adventure of the kind you are extremely unlikely to find in the cinemas unless you get hit by a car and wake up in 1985. “Holler if you’re dead!” cries Marshall at numerous points in the story. Based on this evidence, the Japanese games industry will be staying quiet for a fair while longer.