Developed by Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, the team behind the Yakuza series, Binary Domain found itself in an odd kind of limbo upon release in 2012. A third-person cover shooter in the vein of Gears of War, the game arrived towards the end of the seventh generation of consoles, during a time period in which Japanese studios were desperately trying to appeal to and capture the Western market. Capcom, famously, was in the process of outsourcing many of its intellectual properties to overseas development studios – including fan favourites like Devil May Cry and Bionic Commando. Even their golden goose, Resident Evil, changed direction in order to appeal to a wider audience outside of Japan, foregoing survival horror in favour of pure action (a la Resident Evil 5 and 6). The results were mixed to say the least, with many fans decrying these games as poor in quality compared to their predecessors, straying too far from their roots while simultaneously showing an unwillingness to abandon familiar tropes and characters. Binary Domain, in its clear attempt to pander to a worldwide audience, ends up distilling every foreign stereotype imaginable into a single, roughly eight-hour-long experience. You play as Dan ‘Survivor’ Marshall, wise-cracking, all-American badass and fully certified charisma vacuum. His best friend is the hulking Roy Boateng, or Bo, as everyone calls him, whose only defining feature (outside of gratuitously ogling women) is being a completely unlikeable clone of Gears of War’s Augustus Cole. Joining our two ‘heroes’ are your usual cast of b-movie cliches, including an aggressively sarcastic British commander, his stoic female demolitions expert companion and, of course, the sexy Chinese sniper who is inexplicably enamoured of Mr. Marshall – it seems like emotionally stunted men really do it for the female population in Binary Domain’suniverse. The few other team members found in the game fare a little better, with Cain at least hitting a level of refreshingly absurd (after all, who wouldn’t enjoy hanging out with an optimistic French robot?). This wacky cast of characters would probably be a little less off-putting if it weren’t for one of Binary Domain’s key mechanical features, the ‘consequence system’.
In an attempt to inject RPG elements into the game, the ‘consequence system’ manifests itself around responding to your teammate’s questions and comments using a pre-compiled list of options. These usually boil down to ‘yeah!’, ‘no’, or something completely incomprehensible in the face of whatever sentence was just garbled at you across the battlefield – like ‘love you’, or the all-purpose ‘God damn it’. Depending on how you choose to respond to your teammates your ‘trust level’ will either go up or down and, based on the amount of trust you foster with certain characters, story events and cutscenes will be altered. While neat in concept, the whole thing basically boils down to saying yes to whatever inane question you’ve just been asked. Do you want to go halves on hiring a sex worker with Bo during a moment of downtime in an underground Japanese safe zone? Absolutely not, but if you say yes then obviously your trust level will go up, and if you say no then it’ll go down (and Bo will make a generally homophobic remark asking which way you swing, just to compound with the sexist vibe of the whole situation). It is not hard to play yes man and ensure max trust with almost every teammate, more interesting is the way in which the consequence system plays into the action. Occasionally, during shoot-outs, a team member will suggest a tactical play, like throwing a grenade in a certain direction or offering to cover a specific flank while you cover another. When it all comes together it can feel exciting, a genuine moment of slick gameplay as you and your squad march forward and methodically mow down a wave of robots. However, more often than not, you won’t follow the exact sequence of events the AI wants you to, resulting in an angry response from your companion and a hit to your overall trust level. The whole mechanic is equal parts messy and interesting, worthwhile only in those rare moments when the planets align, and it feels somewhat natural.
Thankfully, in spite of its cliched characters and weak role-playing elements, Binary Domain does a pretty stellar job when it comes to the actual action, and the player spends the majority of the game blasting apart robots of all varieties. There is a satisfying crunch to firefights, and your mechanical foes splinter and shatter as you gun them down, spraying shards of metal all over the battlefield. You can also aim at specific parts of the robots in order to gain a tactical advantage, like shooting their legs out from under them to slow them down or blowing their arms off so they’re forced to attack you up close. This lends battles a bit of depth, which makes up for the otherwise generic cover shooting you’ll be doing ninety-nine percent of the time. I particularly enjoyed a moment in which the squad is set upon by a group of robots with riot shields, and the player (with enough foresight) can headshot the sniper-rifle-wielding enemies in the backline, causing them to malfunction and attack their friends. This results in the riot shield robots turning around, leaving their backs exposed so you and your squad can quickly gun them down. Binary Domain shines in the moments it successfully taps into the machismo-laden action flicks of the 80s, providing the player with high-octane action and ridiculous set pieces. It is genuinely fun to take down a giant robot spider with an RPG, blow through the sewers on high-speed jet skis and fight your way through an exploding train. This thrilling gameplay loop could’ve been further bolstered by likeable characters and a decent story, but maybe it was too optimistic to think we could have our cake and eat it too.
The media that influenced Binary Domain (with a story that rips off as much of Terminator as it does Blade Runner) has a lot to say about the moral conundrum of advanced artificial intelligence, and especially about the question of what it means to be ‘human’ – said question will, after all, always be Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? There is a half-hearted attempt from Binary Domain to consider this philosophical musing, but it often feels confused. The central plot revolves around the Hollow Children, robots so advanced and life-like that they live among humans without even knowing that they are, indeed, robots. Despite being completely unaware of their own artificial nature, these Hollow Children are widely reviled, and a key plot element is that they must all be destroyed since their existence breaks the New Geneva Convention. The whole squad hates ‘scrap-heads’ to a comical degree, often celebrating every time an unsuspecting Hollow Child is blown to pieces in front of them. No one ever really offers an alternative view on the idea of robots living amongst people, which would have added some much-needed nuance to proceedings. Indeed, our good friend Dan only shows any sort of moral compass when someone close to him is revealed (in a twist everyone saw coming) to be part robot herself. Of course, she can’t be a full robot, that would be too subversive, she’s actually the daughter of a Hollow Child, after it is revealed that certain models can reproduce and that the big bad wants to create a world full of imperceptible human-machine hybrids. The fact that our main character can only bring himself to ask baby’s first philosophical question – is it right to take the life of something that, for all intents and purposes, is fully sentient and believes itself to be human? – when it affects him is laughably selfish (well of course it matters now, my sexy girlfriend is involved!). I could never quite tell if we were supposed to root for our protagonist or laugh at his wildly inconsistent behaviour. The whole squad also seems to warm to and respect Cain, despite the fact that he is a robot, and almost visually identical to the countless mechanical foes they have already mown down. Maybe the red scarf and French accent are all you need? A robot, in the universe of Binary Domain, is fine when it’s obviously a robot, but the whole world breaks down when the divide between human and machine is blurred. It could be a clever piece of storytelling if there was any degree of subtlety to the way it was told and, in an ideal situation, Binary Domain would combine camp and intrigue in equal measure, much like Metal Gear Solid.
I didn’t hate Binary Domain by any means and found that the game itself was fun enough to see all the way through. I am not surprised that it has achieved something of a cult classic status in recent years, especially when it was developed by the same studio behind Yakuza, a series that is renowned for its passionate, verging on rabid, fanbase. That said, I am taken aback that one of the first elements players praise is the story, which may be big, but certainly isn’t clever. To be as generous as I can, Binary Domain is a stone-cold seven out of ten experience, your run-of-the-mill action title buoyed by occasional bursts of clever design, and a few unique mechanics. To give the game its due, sometimes a seven out of ten is just what you want though, an experience that doesn’t demand you engage your entire brain in order to enjoy it. There are plenty of good times to be had if you don’t take Binary Domain too seriously, and you choose to purposely hold its oddities at arm’s length. To take the narrative seriously is an exercise in futility, one that will leave you frustrated, confused, and maybe even a little offended.