Made In Abyss is one of the most gripping, haunting, and emotional anime I’ve ever seen. It’s full of incredible music, jaw-dropping visuals and grim storytelling that anchor it as one of my favourite stories of all time. If your first exposure to the series is through the Binary Star Falling into Darkness video game, however, it might be hard to believe any of that praise.
At a glance, Made in Abyss: Binary Star Falling into Darkness is a clunky-looking adventure game with dated visuals and cutesy characters. Digging into the game, you’ll quickly uncover the grim tone and survivalist anxiety that are sprinkled into the original series, but it’s wrapped up in clunky gameplay, uneven pacing, and complete absence of the emotional narrative that strings the original anime and manga together. It ends up being nothing more than an unpolished and punishing survival game at odds with itself.
You’re presented with two completely different gameplay experiences: Hello Abyss and Deep in Abyss. The former is a short and streamlined adaptation of the first arc of the original anime, while the latter is a completely new story starring your own custom character. The most frustrating aspect of this is that, while Deep In Abyss is the far more interesting and engaging piece of the package, you’re required to complete Hello Abyss before you can access it.
At first, Hello Abyss comes across as a tutorial adventure, broadly following the major story beats of the original anime – Rika is an aspiring adventurer and an active Red Whistle, the lowest rank of explorer allowed to explore only the most surface level zones of an infinite chasm known as the Abyss. She aims to become a White Whistle, the highest possible adventurer rank, and follow in the footsteps of her missing mother. Along the way she encounters an amnesiac android boy who she decides to call Reg, and the two set out to reach the depths of the Abyss – or die trying.
Again, Made in Abyss is an incredible story. It takes the elements of a coming-of-age adventure and looks at them through a lense of pessimism and struggle rather than hope and aspiration – the characters suffer hardships and trauma at every turn, and the emotional arcs they go through in response to these events are harrowing and inspiring. Nearly all of that is missing from the Hello Abyss mode. While some anime games serve as highlight reels of the most exciting parts of their source material, Made in Abyss: Binary Star Falling into Darkness feels more like a friend quickly summarising the original story for you in an attempt to get you to watch it – they tell you all the big twists, but without any proper pacing or dramatic buildup. It feels empty.
There are a lot of ways to approach the gameplay of a Made in Abyss game. I always imagined something akin to Death Stranding, where the focus is on environmental ambiance and dynamic struggles of survival against the growing odds of nature. Made in Abyss: Binary Star Falling into Darkness somewhat captures that energy, but without an ounce of polish or subtlety. The aim of the game is to gather resources, defeat predators, and descend into the Abyss as you gather valuable treasures – all while being wary of the fact that ascending upward within the Abyss will trigger a deadly Curse.
The Curse of the Abyss is smartly implemented into the game, with a measure of your traversed depth always displayed on screen. Ascend via stairs, cliffs, or rope and you’ll trigger nausea, hallucinations, or even death. Combat is clunky as hell and traversal doesn’t feel nearly as dynamic as it does in Death Stranding or Breath of the Wild, but the overall atmosphere of the experience is surprisingly in line with the source material.
The problem is that, when Hello Abyss is all wrapped up and you dive into Deep in Abyss, you’ve been fed an entirely different gameplay experience to what the main game then tasks you with. In Hello Abyss you have no weapon durability, no need to maximize your item usage, and a super-powered android by your side at all times to deal with swarms of enemies. Dive in Abyss strips all of these assists away. Your weapons suddenly have durability, you need to craft constantly to survive, and infinitely spawning swarms of enemies will nag at you at every turn. In exchange, you’re given access to an upgrade system that lets you unlock additional hits in your weapon combos, upgraded item storage, improved resource gathering, and more. You’ll also experience an original story that’s ultimately more intriguing than that of the Hello Abyss game since it’s no longer shackled to the beats and flow of the source material.
Deep in Abyss is a pretty engaging survival RPG experience – the survival mechanics keep you on your toes constantly, and as you explore deeper into the Abyss, the Curse mechanic can quickly turn an excellent run into a quick game over if you aren’t careful. Some flawed game design creeps up on you as you progress, though, culminating in nagging frustrations as I reached the endgame – weapon durability is never improved no matter how much you upgrade your weapons, and while your items all get heavier with each upgrade you never seem to be able to upgrade your carrying capacity enough to keep up.
Also, combat never becomes fun. Your single attack string is frustratingly clunky no matter how many swings you add to it through upgrades. Infinitely spawning mob enemies force you to either swing and destroy your brittle weapons or risk being interrupted while fishing, knocked off a wall mid-climb, or tackled off a rope to your death. There are interesting ideas here hampered by normally forgivable design flaws, but the frustration of having to slog through Hello Abyss mode in the first place to access the meat of the game makes it harder to forgive the missteps.
Ultimately, Made in Abyss: Binary Star Falling into Darkness has a lot of ideas but fails to execute any of them gracefully. It has solid character models, but drab environmental art. It promises an adaptation of the best body-horror drama anime of the last decade, but fails to deliver the gravitas of its source material. The game tries to deliver a gripping survival RPG experience, but has too many glaring design flaws that prevent it from being truly satisfying. Fans of the original source material might be able to find some nuggets of satisfaction in this experience, but they’re ultimately too few and too far between.