Made in Abyss: Binary Star Falling into Darkness Review - Screenshot 1 of 5
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

Made in Abyss feels like an anime/manga ripe for a game adaptation, especially given its almost Happy Tree Friends-esque combination of cute visuals with incredibly disturbing violence. We finally got that adaptation in the laboriously named Made in Abyss: Binary Star Falling into Darkness, which manages to be quite a mixed bag. There are very good reasons to pick this game up and there are equally good reasons to pass on it; whether or not it’s worth your time will likely depend on how much of a fan you are of the series.

The narrative in Made in Abyss closely adheres to the premise of the series, which is set in a society built around an enormous abyss in the middle of the ocean. Nobody knows exactly how deep the abyss goes or what awaits at the bottom, but all sorts of powerful artifacts and riches have been found within on expeditions, which makes ‘Cave Raider’ one of the most coveted and respected professions around.

You play as Riko, a young girl whose mother was one of the most renowned Cave Raiders ever until her disappearance and apparent death in the abyss. Inspired by this legacy, Riko wishes to become a Cave Raider herself, and this desire is intensified when a mysterious letter evidently written by her mother comes from the abyss and beckons Riko to come find her. Aided by an amnesiac robot boy named Reg who seems to have an important history within the abyss, Riko thus sets out on a journey to reach the very bottom and reconnect with her mother.

Made in Abyss: Binary Star Falling into Darkness Review - Screenshot 2 of 5
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

Made in Abyss is excellent at setting up the intrigue and danger of the titular void; it feels like just about anything could be waiting down below and the writers do a great job of getting the viewer to want to see Riko and Reg descend further to start getting answers to some of the questions set up relatively early in the narrative. The problem here, however, is that the story only goes up until the 8th episode of the anime and then abruptly stops, which feels especially odd given that the first season was already completed a few years before this game came along. What’s here makes a fine enough narrative, then, but just cutting things off with no closure so relatively soon after Riko and Reg begin their adventure feels sloppy and awkward.

Gameplay in Made in Abyss feels like a survival action game by way of Etrian Odyssey, forcing you to juggle things like hunger, carry weight, equipment durability, and various other factors as you plot your course deeper into the darkness. The basic loop consists of you grabbing a few quests in town, stocking up on necessary equipment and materials, going on a run into the abyss, then returning to cash in and start it all over again. While in the abyss, you’ll have to watch out for cliffs, traps, hostile wildlife, and the mysterious ‘Curse of the Abyss’ slowing you down as you try to ascend again. Even the smallest mistakes you make can prove to be costly, if not fatal, making each journey into the abyss thrilling and tense.

Made in Abyss: Binary Star Falling into Darkness Review - Screenshot 3 of 5
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

Experience isn’t gained in combat, but through turning in quests. Each level-up gives you one skill point that can then be invested into an extensive skill tree encompassing various traits that are necessary for an accomplished Cave Raider. Whether you want to focus on, say, climbing ability or cooking knowledge is up to you, and every upgrade feels suitably effective at evening the odds a bit and making each run slightly less brutal. Turn in enough quests, and you’ll eventually raise your character to higher Whistle Ranks, which unlocks more powerful nodes on the skill tree and gives you more dangerous quests to pick from that will send you even deeper into the abyss.

Once it finds its footing, we found this gameplay design to be quite enjoyable. Combat may feel a little sluggish given that swinging around a pickaxe or rolling to the side always feel a little too heavy, but much of your time will be spent simply trying not to starve or fall to your death. Whether you’re harvesting resources or rappelling down sheer cliffs, you never feel completely ‘safe’ while out on a run in the abyss, which makes it that much sweeter when you successfully complete one and get some tasty rewards for pulling it off.

The problem, however, is that you can’t really experience much of this gameplay for the first several hours. See, Made in Abyss is divided into two modes, Hello Abyss and Deep in Abyss; the former follows the story of the anime, while the latter sees you creating your own character and going through a non-canon new narrative made for this game. You can’t play Deep in Abyss at all until you’ve played through Hello Abyss in its entirety, which wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t an utterly joyless borefest.

Made in Abyss: Binary Star Falling into Darkness Review - Screenshot 4 of 5
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

Though it’s fun to get to know Riko and friends, Hello Abyss plays like a three to five-hour stripped-back tutorial that somehow maintains the brutality of Deep in Abyss mode with none of its fun. Almost any avenue that would create some sense of player agency is watered down to the point of being irrelevant; you can’t level up Riko at all, the quest system is barely present, and weapon durability doesn’t matter. Exploration is pointless because there’s no gear crafting system here, and combat is substantially easier because Reg fights almost every nearby enemy before you can get too close.

Yet even given all this stripped-back, ‘easy’ gameplay, there are still plenty of instances where the game decides to just slap you in the face. Walking the only path through dark woods? Here’s a hidden spike trap that instantly kills Riko. Want to walk up those stairs? Better stop for a minute in the middle or Riko will throw up all over her boots. Tap the wrong button while climbing? Watch Riko simply let go of the wall and fall to her death. Hello Abyss is still certainly easier than Deep in Abyss, but it feels like the developers sat around a whiteboard and tried to brainstorm ways to make this mode as irritating as possible.

The biggest issue with Made in Abyss is that it feels in many ways like two similar partially finished games that would have been much better if they were simply combined into one. Hello Abyss offers a compelling but abridged adaptation of the anime while the gameplay is bizarrely neutered and a complete slog to get through. Deep in Abyss feels more like a proper game, offering up a full suite of survival and RPG mechanics, but the non-canon story is much shallower and you can’t even touch this mode until you’ve completely cleared Hello Abyss. Why were most of the gameplay mechanics stripped out of Hello Abyss? Why can’t you play Deep in Abyss right from the get-go? Why are there two distinct modes at all?

Made in Abyss: Binary Star Falling into Darkness Review - Screenshot 5 of 5
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

We’ve never experienced a game as bafflingly organized as Made in Abyss—it feels like it intentionally tries to make its good parts difficult to access by first forcing you to play and beat a frustrating, watered-down, and overall worse version of itself. It’s an enjoyable game eventually, but the road to unlock the part that’s actually fun is long enough to be prohibitive. Of course, this naturally leads to the question: Is it even worth pushing through Hello Abyss to play the full game? It is, but players shouldn’t have to endure such a detour for no good reason, and it substantially drags down the whole experience of Made in Abyss.

In terms of presentation, Made in Abyss does a decent job of matching the visuals and aesthetic of the anime, though this comes at the unfortunate cost of poor performance. Character models are nicely detailed and the environments feel suitably claustrophobic and dangerous, but things are dragged down quite a bit when more than three enemies come into the area and the FPS itself dives into the abyss. It’s not unplayable, but the frame rate hiccups were sufficient enough to negatively affect the gameplay in our experience.

As for the sound, the voice cast does a solid job of bringing these characters to life, even though they’re not always given the best script. Players who want it can also have the option to switch to Japanese, and the cast here is similarly skilled in animating the characters. Meanwhile, the soundtrack doesn’t do much to leave an impression on you, but it at least manages to be tonally consistent with whatever may be happening onscreen.

Conclusion

Made in Abyss is an odd game to recommend; the gameplay is great once you unlock the mode that actually features it, but until then you’re stuck having to trudge through a stripped-down, too-long-for-what-it-is easy mode that isn’t actually easy. If you aren’t willing to do that, you won't get to play the actual game that makes the price tag worth it. For those who do make it past that hurdle, the survival mechanics are well-implemented, the character progression is satisfying, and this is overall a perfectly enjoyable release. We wouldn’t necessarily recommend you pick up Made in Abyss, nor would we say you should pass on it outright; it’s an interesting game with plenty of redeeming qualities, but it’s gonna make you work to see them in ways that feel unnecessary.