Reviews, Video games

Video Game Review: Binary Domain

Now that I’ve beaten Binary Domain, now is as good a time as any to give my thoughts on the game.

Binary Domain, at the time of its release, felt like a game that was deliberately designed to be a Japanese response to cover-based shooters like Gears of War, to show that Japanese game developers could compete with Western Triple-A developers on their own turf. Having played the game now, with a distance in time from my original impressions, I can say with a degree of certainty that particular perspective isn’t that far off.

Where Binary Domain really differs from Gears is that Gears puts a lot of focus on its visual esthetic. Epic put a lot of work into what they described as the game’s “ruined beauty” style – the idea that the game’s world was very visually beautiful, before everything went bad, but without too much worldbuilding as to why things went bad in the first game. Instead, Binary Domain puts more focus on the narrative worldbuilding and storytelling instead of visual worldbuilding.

The plot is based around the idea that the future humanity has developed semi-sentient AI, and the nations of the world have signed the New Geneva Convention to prevent research into truly sentient AI. When a group of synthetic humans who don’t know they’re synthetic (like the Final Five Cylons on New Battlestar Galactica), known as “Hollow Children” are discovered, the US government blames the isolationist Japanese government in general, and an industrialist named Yoji Amada in particular for their development. A group of  anti-robot hit teams called “Rust Crews” are sent to infiltrate Japan to find Amada, confirm the development of the Hollow Children, and bring him to justice.

On paper, this is an interesting narrative concept, as New Battlestar Galactica (nBSG) demonstrated. However, the game doesn’t quite take the time to do anything with it. The story has a few moments where it uses the concept fairly well – taking the idea that Amada is able to take control of any Hollow Child at any time, without the original being able to do anything to stop it – showing that the Hollow Children are a threat. However, however, the game’s main narrative drops its big story bomb very late in the game, and then absolutely proceeds to do anything with it in this game. It introduces the idea that the Hollow Children can have kids, and that they would be a sort of human-robot hybrid, stronger, faster, more resilient than normal humans – and that one of the members of your team is one of these hybrids.

This comes up extremely late in the game, and the reaction from most of the members of your squad is incredibly racist. Further, the governments of the world come to the conclusion that all of these hybrids must be hunted down and killed – in spite of the fact that these hybrids cannot be controlled by Amada. The repercussions of this decision are not explored or discussed, and outside of our immediate squad, we see no dissenting voices. This feels like something that was meant to setup a sequel that never actually got made.

As far as the game itself goes – it’s a fairly conventional cover-based shooter – with a few notes that make it different from Gears – some for the better, and some for the worst. Unlike Gears, killing enemies generates currency, which you can use to buy upgrades for your gun. By the end of the game you can get some very precise shots off with your gun, with some heavy damage, and lots of ammunition in the weapon, along with more power for the weapon’s alt-fire and more ammunition for that. Compared to the fact that your standard lancer in Gears pretty much operates the same way at the end of the game that it did at the start, that’s a rather nice shift.

Additionally, the game provides a lot of options for you to command your squad. While you can’t command your squad members to take cover behind particular points or to attack particular targets, it’s a good first execution. Related to this – in theory you can give your squad orders using a connected microphone and voice commands. However, as I was playing the game for a LP (which readers of my blog might have noticed), I was not able to experiment with this, so I can’t tell you how well it worked.

Binary Domain also uses a “trust” mechanic, where you build trust with your squad mates based on your responses to dialog prompts and your actions in combat. Being a prat with squadmate Big Bo will build your trust with him but may reduce your trust with female squad members, but mowing down a whole bunch of attacking robots in short order will give a massive boost to your whole squad. Accidentally attacking or firing on your squad members, however, reduces your trust. This is an issue, because your squadmates lack the sense of self-preservation to avoid stepping into the path of a firing weapon.

High trust may determine what ending you get, and apparently determines if your squadmates will follow your commands. I never got low enough trust to have squadmates who wouldn’t come to my aid, but I also didn’t actively attempt to reduce my squadmates trust either. There are a couple hinge points in the final boss fight that vary based on your trust level with a couple characters, but aside from one I had to find out what those were after the fact.

Otherwise, the characters are fairly bland. Big Bo is your bro-tastic Black friend who is large, boisterous, and kinda racist and misogynistic. Charlie is the overly professional Brit. Dan is your protagonist who has a reputation as “The Survivor”, and who tends to be put-offishly bro-tastic. Rachel is also British and Professional (though not as overly professional as Charlie). Faye is the designated love-interest and is Chinese (and is frequently shown from the view of the male gaze).

Binary Domain is interesting as a historical curiosity. Some of the narrative ideas are interesting but not executed on. The characters are handled poorly, the game mechanics are fairly standard, and while a few of the level environments are interesting, a lot of them are fairly generic, and the enemies often blur together outside of a few environments. I did enjoy playing the game, but I’m also glad that I rented the game.

The game is currently running around $15 on Amazon right now, which is probably the right price for it, considering the amount of enjoyment I got out of it.