There’s a lot to be said for breaking genre staples, for thinking thoroughly outside of the box to deliver a game experience the likes of which has not been seen before. Consideration, however, must also be given to the fact that expectations around genre exist for a reason: the core mechanical tropes exist because they define the genre, providing certain assurances to the player around the experience that they are about to participate in. Binary Domain is very much a game that seeks to assure the player rather than break any boundaries, but it provides a stellar re-enactment of all that makes the third-person shooter enjoyable with not even the slightest pretence of treading on any new territory in terms of its gameplay. What does make Binary Domain unique within its genre, however, is its novel approach to characterisation and story, in spite of being a game, at its core, about shooting robots.
Binary Domain is extremely competent as a cover-based third-person shooter: there is an assortment of weapons on offer, each feeling unique and having its own particular use in the game; movement in combat is fluid, with the game’s sense of what constitutes cover never leading the player into the sort of sticking to inappropriate walls that plagues the experience of the Gears of War series and the player character, Dan, is an agile character rather than a wardrobe-wide block of flesh, leading to evasive action being a more viable course of action; and player control of the squad actually leading to better outcomes rather than just being thrown in as a feature to pacify those who would complain about autonomous non-player party members.
Aside from the combat, the gameplay does make use of some mechanics borrowed from the role-playing genre: the relationship of Dan with his team-mates needs to be managed by the player, with their trust in him leading to their compliance or non-compliance with his orders during combat and some effect on how the story of the game pans out. Trust is earned by aiding Dan’s comrades in battle and giving the correct answer to the questions they ask in the gaps between battles. This conversational aspect of the game is probably the most unique element of Binary Domain‘s gameplay: if the player uses a headset with the game, giving commands and responding to questions asked by non-player characters goes from being a matter of holding L2 and pressing another button to speaking the command that the player wishes to give. While this is a nice idea, the vocabulary that the game recognises is limited, and the speech recognition engine’s ability to recognise anything other than the Queen’s or American English accents, it is a nice touch that can help to increase immersion, where it works.
Further to this borrowing from RPG mechanics, the player is rewarded with credits upon destroying enemies. These credits can then be spent at shops in order to either level up various aspects of the player’s weaponry or purchase weapons or nanomachines, with these nanomachines acting as equippable items that provide passive buffs for the characters that have them. This adds a level of depth to the game beyond merely walking from battle to battle and allows for some thought to go into how the game is played.
The key point of departure for Binary Domain when compared to its contemporaries, however, comes in its presentation: there is no drab, brown-and-bloom game world on display here. The game’s fictionalised futuristic Japan is a smorgasbord of colour, variety and good design. Even the levels which take place in the slums of the city have a certain flair and character to them that would have been merely disregarded in any other game in favour of a drab, depressing background. This should come as no surprise as Yakuza Studio’s imagining of the Yakuza series’s Kamurocho equally walks the line between vivacious and seedy. The game also makes an effort to actually give its characters individual voices, rather than the sort of identikit characters with differing voice actors that the genre tends to provide: all characters have their own reasons for being in the battle and their own perception of each of the others involved in their mission. There is a great deal of heart in the game’s humour, whether it be in Dan’s battle of wits with Charlie, the British ex-MI6 agent involved in the operation, or in Dan’s relationship with the larger-than-life Big Bo, an American colleague, or in Big Bo’s playfully flirtatious initial “ni hao” to Faye, a Chinese agent involved in the game’s plot. The entire game feels like it has been thought through, rather than level design and character design being a second thought to making the game appeal to teenage Western arseholes who only care about eviscerating things with chainsaws.
While there is much fantastic about Binary Domain, there are also things that let it down: for a start, the AI of the non-player characters can be a bit dense at time. Some segments of the game require all friendly characters to be positioned in a certain area, say a lift, and in terms of the narrative of the game, everyone knows that they should be getting into this list. Getting them to cross the threshold can be a frustrating series of instructions issued by the player along the lines of asking your comrades to retreat and then gather around you again. Yet again, the curse of the thick-as-pig-shit non-player character strikes again. The game does have issues with slowdown in certain areas, particularly in the boss fights that the player gets into with extremely large robots. In particularly hectic areas, the game can slow down to an unplayable crawl, ruining some of the most tense, most exciting moments of the game.
Though extremely competent at providing the player with an engaging gameplay experience, some of the combat can get a little samey, particularly in the on-rails shooter sections that crop up mid-way through the game. The shooting mechanics remain strong, but the inability to move around as freely as one would otherwise be able to does hamper the experience somewhat.
Binary Domain is definitely a game worthy of at least a cursory playthrough for fans of the genre: it excels virtually all of its contemporaries. It does have its issues around slowdown and perhaps being a one trick pony, but the possibility of being able to verbally issue orders to your squad, as well as merely playing a third-person shooter with a worthwhile set of characters, is something wonderfully engaging and heartening in a cynical age of big-budget games with excessively wide protagonists.