Month: June 2012

There Are 10 Types of Gamer: Those Who Play Binary Domain & Those Who Don’t

I did warn you all that I would occasionally leave my RPG comfort zone for something a little more faster-paced and visceral. Sega’s Binary Domain is a near-future (2080! Mark your calendars!) third-person shooter that follows a “Rust Crew” – a SWAT-like task force from a multinational organization called IRTA that monitors and enforces a global law that prohibits human-like robots – as they traipse across a Tokyo that’s been largely devastated by the rising sea level caused by global warming. They’re on the hunt for Yoji Amada, a rogue Japanese robotics manufacturer that has evidently been creating “Hollow Children” – a group of robots that wear an ersatz human skin and are incognizant of their own mechanical origins, sort of like Rachael the Replicant from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

In fact, a considerable amount of influence in this game seems to come from the movies. Creator Toshihiro Nagoshi takes a leaf from fellow Japanese game developer Hideo Kojima’s (of Metal Gear fame) book in how he uses popular movies as his muse for much of the narrative beats and set-ups in his games. That’s not meant to be pejorative, however, as he does this as every bit as adroitly as Kojima, putting his own unique spins on rather goofy American action movie tropes. With Binary Domain, we have clear allusions to Blade Runner (the hidden people robots, previously utilized by Kojima for his seminal work Snatcher for MSX and PS1), the I, Robot movie (much of the regular robots’ almost Apple-like design), the Terminator series and AI: Artificial Intelligence. That isn’t to say Nagoshi didn’t draw from literary sources as well; there are also many references made to Isaac Asimov and his legendary laws of robotics, including the Frankenstein Complex – though many of the automatons you meet seem to disregard the “do no harm to humans” rule.

I'm seeing a hint of Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey too.

The strongest source of inspiration comes from Nagoshi’s earlier and perhaps more notable work with the Yakuza series. The Yakuza games are also guided somewhat by the movies that inspired them and a recent foray into third-person gunplay for the series (in its non-canon Dead Souls spin-off) seems to be a lead-in to this new IP from the developers. It’s rather telling that at one point in the game, you’ll fight some disturbing prototype Hollow Children that move and act just like the zombies from Dead Souls.

As for the game itself, there’s plenty of non-story elements with which to vouch for it as well. All of your enemies are mechanical, with a significant range of different appearances and functions – most are militaristic in nature, either as fodder grunts or massive machines of war, though some are repurposed from more mundane tasks, such as a scorpion-like crane lifter robot. An aspect the game frequently plays around with, especially with its bosses, are the immense size of some of the robots. An early foe is an enormous spider-like robot that was originally built to fight off warships on the massive seawall that Tokyo is now enclosed in. Though the game is rife with a few unfortunate “convenient rocket launcher” set-ups, these bosses are handled quite well, excepting a few that have too much health that drag their battles on a tad too long.

Pfft, he ain't so big.

I should clarify what I said earlier about this being a visceral shooter, since there’s clearly not much in the way of gore. What I’m referring to instead is the amazing visual and aural feedback you get from pinging bullets off a robot’s outer core, as shrapnel will fly off on every successful hit. You can clearly see the damage you’re causing and the deteriorating state of your opponent with every bullet. Sounds grisly, but keep in mind that there is nothing to separate the robots you’re shooting with the tin cans you might practice on – these robots are revealed to be utterly without conscience or empathy, unlike a few others that might raise question marks, so there’s nothing holding back a squeamish player. What’s more, the game has a bit of fun with some of the unique characteristics of the robots – a head shot is no longer an instant kill, but rather a means to disable and confuse a robot into attacking its companions. After playing this game and marvelling at the range of cool enemy ideas on offer, I did wonder why more games don’t use robots for their innumerable antagonistic forces. Maybe the Star Wars prequels have turned everyone off?

I guess cover can be useful at times. I guess.

Binary Domain’s other major distinctive feature is the team trust aspect, as well as being able to communicate them verbally with a microphone and rather temperamental voice-recognition software. The way you answer your comrades’ questions and display your prowess in battle will either raise or lower their trust in you, which in turn is dependent on how willing they are to accept your commands. They may not acquiesce with you asking them to put themselves in danger to cover you, but if you’ve taken the time to impress on them your ability to lead, they’ll follow you to Hell and back. Maintaining a high trust level with everyone is also instrumental in getting the best ending available. It’s a master stroke in rewarding players for displays of amazing skill and displaying empathy towards their myriad companions both, and yet another example of the game’s stellar feedback.

The game isn’t perfect though. The AI of your companions is rarely what you’d call hypercompetent, as they’ll often either ignore the enemies or get themselves into a critical state and will even walk in front of you while you’re firing – the resulting friendly fire knocking down their trust slightly. It’s aggravating, but more or less expected in these squad-based shooters. Your comrades are also a collective bunch of mildly offensive cultural stereotypes, which may speak more to the deliberately daft action movie veneer the game wears than anything else. You have a sarcastic Brit, boisterous Americans, a taciturn and serious Chinese sniper and a polite yet slightly condescending French operative. They’re fun characters to spend time with, but they’re not going to be winning any awards for cultural sensitivity any time soon.

You may not realise it yet, but Big Bo is the reason you're playing this.

Overall, I found Binary Domain to be an utter delight. I’ve played enough third-person cover-based shooters to become thoroughly enervated with the format several times over, but Binary Domain offers enough to set itself apart. It drags a little, sure, but like its contemporary Vanquish (by Platinum Games) it’s filled with so many minor triumphs that it is elevated above its Western-style asinine action movie conventions. Speaking of which, it’s entirely possible Sega’s making fun of Epic Games with this game. Given its quality, I think they’ve earned the right.

It’s Your Sequel, FFXIII! Something Has Gotta Be Done About Your Sequel!

Final Fantasy doesn’t really as much play these days. Many JRPG fans first became enamoured of their preferred genre because of the nonpareil output of Square-Enix (then Squaresoft) during the 90s when they released their two most critically-acclaimed games: Final Fantasy VI (or 3 in the US) for the SNES and Final Fantasy VII for the PlayStation. Yet, as the years passed and these starry-eyed JRPG fanatics found other places to call home – the crushing difficulty of Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei or Namco Bandai’s colorful Tales, to pull two examples from this very site’s recent output – the Final Fantasy franchise fell out of favour as the games got mired by some truly unfortunate bad habits such as an overly self-serious maudlin temperament, a predilection for outlandish fashion involving belts and half-shirts and an increasingly hoary turn-based combat system (though it’s worth noting XII as an exception). Even the most ardent fans of the franchise (among their numbers I, almost begrudgingly, include myself) weren’t too thrilled with the milquetoast offerings of the series’ two MMOs, the inclusion of which within the main numbered entries seemed like a slap in the face for the many who enjoyed the single-player story-driven experiences of their antecedents.

When talking about Final Fantasy XIII specifically, however, most of the detractors point to its extreme linearity as its most egregious shortcoming. While RPG fans appreciate a strong narrative, they tend to resent an inflexible railroad of an experience that offers no deviation or respite, nor do they appreciate being presented with worlds of stunning grandeur (graphically the Final Fantasy games have always reigned among their contemporaries) that they cannot interact with; they’re only able to observe this picturesque wallpaper from the singular path stretching endlessly before them. It was clearly an issue that director Motomu Toriyama, who has been – along with producer Yoshinori Kitase – the chief creative force of the series since the warmly received tenth entry, felt needed resolving. As a result, the game’s direct sequel FFXIII-2 not only does away with the unwavering path model almost entirely but even pokes fun at the idea of an unerring course.

Cocoon still looks pretty. That big blue thing.

Final Fantasy XIII-2, first and foremost, requires that you have beaten Final Fantasy XIII, or are at least familiar with that world, its facets and its characters. There is some manner of an in-game “Datalog” that fills you in on everything you need to know, but the game doesn’t actively spend a lot of time explaining what exactly happened during the events of the previous game or who any of the returning characters are. You play as Serah Farron, who spent the entirety of FFXIII as a crystal statue, and the new character Noel Kreiss, who has something of an “I Am Legend” complex going on as the last surviving human being in the bleak distant future he calls home.

It’s now, when I start describing even the most basic elements of the plot, that we encounter FFXIII-2’s most consternating problem: Its story. It’s well-told, more or less, with some effecting characters that receive plenty of development and backstory to make you care about them. Their purposes are clear – Serah wants to find her AWOL sister Lightning, Noel wants to change the future to be a little less apocalyptic and even growly antagonist Caius Ballad has a sympathetic, if nihilistic and insane, mission of his own. It’s just how the game perplexingly presents the duo’s journey through time and specifically how they deal with the time paradoxes caused by the machinations of Caius and, occasionally, themselves.

Mog, Serah and Noel. Clearly some rough customers.

A time paradox, the game will patiently explain, happens when you visit a time period that has been diverted from its original path by an incongruous event in that region’s past. Subsequently, the whole area is kind of unstable and a lot of monsters and general bad shit starts leaking through. Serah and Noel must figure out how the timeline got affected and then either fix the paradox in the present or rewind time to the point where it can be undone. The world is saved (or rather this isolated part of it) and the duo find a new gate and Quantum Leap their way to a different part of the space/time continuum, hoping to find the gate that takes them to Lightning at the end of time. To the game’s credit, it never gets as absurdly layered as, say, the movie Primer. You aren’t fixing one time paradox to find it spawned half a dozen more elsewhere, as each “episode” is largely self-contained. However, it can still be a bit of a headache to follow what’s been happening in each of the different chronological and geographical regions, especially when now-correct variants of areas/times appear after solving its past paradoxes.

The other problem I had with this game is that each of the areas (and much of the soundtrack) has been entirely recycled from Final Fantasy XIII. You’ll visit a series of locations from FFXIII-2’s progenitor in a random order, slightly modified to be a little more open. It’s perhaps fair enough that you’d be given a chance to visit all these expensively-produced backdrops with a little more freedom, especially for a game set in the same world, but it still feels a little lazy at times.

Some enemies are truly fearsome to behold.

Yet there’s plenty to like about this game. The combat’s system’s mostly untouched, maintaining the six classes and paradigm shifts of its predecessor. The third slot in your party is now taken up by any of a trio of pre-assigned monsters, which can now be recruited by acquiring a monster’s crystal after defeating them in combat. The two characters and all the monsters have their own simplified “Crystariums”, the development system that also makes a return from FFXIII, except now there’s only one course for all six classes and the player can focus on developing whichever classes they want to specialize in (the monsters only have a single class each). Battles play out as they did before, with strategies that range from simply wailing on your opponents to linking magical chain attacks until they’re “staggered” – a state in which enemies are extremely susceptible to damage – then switching to physical attacks to finish them off. There’s the buffer Synergist, the debuffer Saboteur, the healer Medic and the damage-absorbing Sentinel roles to provide a sterling array of strategems with which to face down any foe. It’s all very impressive even though, to reiterate once again, it’s been transferred mostly wholesale from FFXIII.

There’s also a huge amount of side-content to find. There’s plenty of time periods and geographical areas that you never need to visit to conclude the main story that tend to offer little side-stories of their own. Some of it works – following up on mysteries, chasing down tough monsters, catching up with some secondary characters – whereas other parts don’t. For instance, the same trio of time distortion “puzzles” that involve you turning clock hands around or following a path of disappearing panels to find crystals. They’re fun initially but start to drag on a bit as they increase in difficulty. I’m also less than enamoured with the token Golden Saucer ersatz known as Serendipity – a glitzy Vegas haunt floating through the void of time and space that offers an arbitrary slots mini-game and an interminable chocobo racing mini-game. However, this degree of optional distraction is still very much appreciated after FFXIII’s minimal deviation. The achievements/trophies are far more reasonable this time around as well, with more emphasis on exploration and side-missions and less on mindless grinding.

Keeping with the intimidation theme, you can make your own monsters look super tough with optional adornments.

Overall, it’s difficult to recommend FFXIII-2 even when you consider that it’s actually quite good. If you aren’t a Final Fantasy fan – or haven’t been for some time – this is not a game you could easily jump into, at least not without any fundamental knowledge of the world of FFXIII. It’s hard enough to sort out all the time-travel paradox gobbledegook without knowing who any of the characters are or why people keep talking about a giant globe suspended by a crystal pillar or “fal’Cie” and “l’Cie”. If you did enjoy FFXIII, then it’s very easy to recommend FFXIII-2 as a marginally improved sequel that keeps most of what worked and loses most of what didn’t. For everyone in between, it’s kind of a hard sell.

Whither the Witcher?

I don’t even know what that title means. Where is the guy? Well, let me tell you, he’s now on the XBox 360. I can’t tell you how excited I was to finally play CDProjektRed’s acclaimed PC-RPG on a system I own that can actually run it.

If my PC tried to render this, it would spontaneously combust.

While Witcher II is a sequel (there’s a hint in the name), there doesn’t seem to be a lot you need to know going in. Like many RPGs with elaborately crafted narrative universes, there are plenty of tomes, scrolls, talkative NPCs and simple context around from which to pick up everything you’d want to know about the world of Witching. Geralt of Rivia seems the titular Witcher in question, though he’s not the only one. In fact, the subtitle (Assassins of Kings) also refers to Witchers, so who’s to say for sure. Digressions aside, Geralt is indeed the protagonist of this, the previous and the entire Polish novella series the games are based off. The story is technically told from the perspective of a secondary character, the hero’s bardic confidante and fellow philanderer Dandelion, who provides run-downs with his interstitial narrations and an overly prosaic description of each of the quests in the log book. Cleverly, he gives away some hints about where a quest is heading by having prior knowledge, such as acknowledging his involvement in one side-quest in particular before the player has gathered any information of his own. It’s a minor touch, but a deft one.

And really, the game’s full of clever flairs like that. I kind of backhand complimented the humble European RPG last time (and Witcher II is very much one, with its Polish development team) for coming off like enthusiastic amateurs, but Witcher II is burnished to a sheen and is subsequently perhaps the most attractive and deep RPGs I’ve ever played, trumped only perhaps by the brand new Skyrim. That isn’t to say it isn’t occasionally buggy, but that’s nothing that can’t be said about any BioWare or Bethesda (especially Bethesda) game in recent memory. Of import is that it’s well-written, looks amazing and strikes a balance with its smattering of side-quests for each of its diversely-set Acts that give players plenty to do without over-enervating them or distracting them too much from the main storyline.

A naked lady. There's a few of these. Geralt's quite the dreamboat, you see.

The combat’s perhaps the most striking aspect, so to speak, as it will beat you down and grind you into the dirt if you throw yourself into each battle without due preparation. Geralt, though physically powerful, is but a single man and that doesn’t always bode well in battles with multiple opponents and especially not with the large monsters he’s expected to eliminate as per the Witcher’s job description. As such, players are made aware of Geralt’s skill with traps and potions, the former for debilitating opponents and the latter for buffing up Geralt to a degree that he is able to finish it off without dying in the process. It’s a brutal one-two punch that is the key to beating most of the difficult battles in the game. Part of this includes researching enemies beforehand through books and preparing the correct array of traps and potions in response. It’s very meticulous stuff and deeply appreciated in a game that could’ve easily just been another hack-and-slasher. Coupled with five very utilitarian “Signs”, it provides an extremely high level of strategic gameplay for a single-person RPG. Previously such a level of strategy, such as those of the Baldur’s Gates and Icewind Dales of yesteryear, could only be derived from having an entire diverse team of adventurers to plan tactics around.

I’ll end this review by simply stating how cool this game is. Geralt’s an interesting character from a narrative standpoint, as are the various non-humans, government agents, sorceresses and talkative monsters that he meets, and thanks to its expansive novel background it has a very well-realised universe with its many political factions, historical records and odd phenomena. The Wild Hunt in particular, an integral aspect of Geralt’s missing memories, gets ever more interesting the more we hear about it. But when I say it’s cool, I mean in terms of sheer cinematic badassery – The prologue chapters have you partaking in sieges, dodging dragons and escaping a jailbreak that almost destroys the castle the jail sits under. The rest of the game is full of similar “oh shit” moments, whether you’re standing in the midst of some grand panoramic spectacle or simply pulling off a stylish flourish of a coup de grĂ¢ce, which ably resuscitates one’s abating interest after a particularly interminable fetch quest or two.

This is a perfectly rational course of action.

I guess my conclusion is that anyone with an interest in old-school tough computer RPGs should probably play the Witcher II, either with this enhanced 360 port or the original PC version which would no doubt look even more incredible with a powerful home system. It deserves every accolade it’s been given.