When it comes to Japanese studios attempting to pander to occidental audiences with their own limp take on over-saturated, traditionally Western genres, Binary Domain seems like it should be exhibit A. We have here a cover shooter in which a shaven-headed American soldier blasts his way through a futuristic city supported by a cast of national stereotypes. It's rather unsurprising that this game has largely sunk without a trace - and considerably more surprising that this is actually a bit of a shame.
The basic gameplay mechanics are extremely solid. The cover system - which is both the defining trait of the cover shooter genre and the part that's most frequently implemented poorly - works smoothly. The enemies are a variety of robots which are great fun to blow to bits, capable of adapting to damage (at one point one still came at me after I blew both its arms off) and understandably prepared to risk their metal necks. This is not a game where you can pick a good piece of cover and spend the whole battle popping in and out of it. Enemies will flank and rush you. Pushing forwards is often safer than hunkering down and being outmanoeuvred.
Pulling your weight is also important to the game's trust mechanic, where if the other characters think you're rubbish (or possibly even a secret robot), the story will take a turn for the worse at key points. And although the dialogue is predictably cheesy and the characters are well-worn stereotypes, Binary Domain does actually have a surprisingly cool story and setting.
This is a future where rising sea levels have all but wiped out the world's major cities. Advanced robot workers have enabled the rich to build gleaming new metropolises on top of the old ruins, while the poor still languish below. When it's discovered that advanced robots are impersonating humans, that aforementioned team of national stereotypes is dispatched to the once more isolationist Japan, infiltrating the lower levels of Tokyo and ascending to its high tech heights with the help of the criminal underclass - all while under attack from the local robot militia.
Naturally there's some attempt to cover Blade Runner style themes, with a sprinkling of Alex Proyas' I Robot and Hideo Kojima's Snatcher, and at times it manages to be very effective. One scene in which some yakuza brutalise a man who hadn't realised he was a robot, for example, really stuck with me. The architecture of the city, both above and below, is also properly awesome, and gorgeously depicted.
For all that, though, this is still Yet Another Cover Shooter. The developers show that they've learned well from Western games, and in the case of the boss fights demonstrate a subject where they should probably be giving the lessons, but this is a refinement of the genre - not a reinvention or even reinvigoration. If you're bored with this kind of game by now, Binary Domain probably won't be able to revitalise your interest. Familiarity aside, if you like action games and science fiction, do give this some consideration.
Along with Xenoblade Chronicles, this is the one of the handful of innovative Japanese role playing games that have been released in the twilight years of the Wii. Where Xenoblade streamlined and opened up the traditional JRPG formula in a highly original setting, The Last Story opts for more of a stock medieval fantasy land, while also ripping out all of the gameplay you might expect and replacing it with transplants from completely different genres.
The result is something that could best be described as a spiky-haired Gears of War with an emphasis on close combat and with the ability to issue orders to your AI team mates. This form of gameplay is actually enhanced by the linear, scripted nature of each quest and side-quest, with every battle carefully crafted to give you a different challenge. The bosses in particular require a high degree of strategy, and developing effective tactics to beat them is very satisfying.
Although I did grow to like all the characters as the game progressed, the script is rather weak, relying on the cast delivering lengthy explanations of motives that fail to flow naturally from their reaction to events. These are nicely entertaining heroes to send battling through dungeons, but most attempts to develop them and embroil them in drama manage to feel both forced and predictable.
One surprising high point of the game is the setting of Lazulis City, the hub that the heroes return to between dungeon crawls in order to buy and upgrade items and find optional side quests. At first this may seem like a disappointing stock medieval city, especially compared to the more imaginative settings we often get from JPGs. As you spend time inhabiting it, though, you find a complex geography of streets and alleys, populated with plenty of people (and the odd cat). Shouldering your way through a busy shopping district, or finding a quiet courtyard where you can sit and listen to an old man's nostalgic stories, Lazulis City feels vibrant and alive where many RPG cities are static and sparsely populated.
The Last Story emphasises a narrative that should be a lot tighter, with stronger character motivation and less exposition, but it's still a solid action RPG with a surprisingly interesting setting.
The problem with DC superhero comics is one of impenetrability. The characters themselves are great, but the stories told with them rely on knowledge of complex backstory, are frequently told over multiple concurrent titles, and are subject to editorial fiats more about repositioning franchises in the marketplace than creating solid drama. Coming from a background of television, writer Bryan Q. Miller is well versed in telling a story in linked but approachable episodes, while dancing to the tune of the men in suits - and the result is very much the superhero comic I have been looking for.
Miller focuses on a solid, entertaining story of costumed crime fighting, developing new Batgirl Stephanie Brown as a character, and fleshing out strong relationships with her unknowing mother and a sceptical Oracle. Where events from other comics intrude on this core, Miller actively skirts around the foreign plot, turning what could be unwelcome interruptions into fun diversions. This strong sense of a unified story, so uncommon in DC comics, extends to the entire series exhibiting a beginning, a middle and an end. Compared to the usual sense of incompletion, the three collected editions of Miller's run on Batgirl form a uniquely satisfying whole, and turning the last page provides an actual sense of closure for a character who (I believe) has yet to appear in the new DC continuity.
A variety of artists contribute to the visuals, leading to an uneven quality, but things are always colourful and there are enough contributions from the awesome Dustin Nguyen to keep me happy. Pere Perez, who pencils the final issue, also pulls out all the stops for a spectacular few final pages.
Of all the DC books I've read (admittedly only a tiny fraction of those published), these are the three that I'm happy to recommend unreservedly.