Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Binding of Isaac Review


The Binding of Isaac is a work of subtextual intercourse. Chewing it's way through society's underbelly, and the macabre, blood spattered basement of one unlucky little boy. Set amid six subterranean levels, packed with fleshy ghouls and deformed, morose monstrosities, The Binding of Isaac is a triumph for indy gaming. Brought to you by one half of Super Meat Boy's Team Meat, in association with flash game enablers Newgrounds (Alien Hominid), The Binding of Isaac is one of 2011's definitive indy offerings.

You play as Isaac, an infant forced to flee the sanctity of, and cast himself into the depths beneath, his once happy homestead, in an attempt to flee his deranged mother and her particularly ill intentions. As a happy mother and son, Mom and Isaac lived peacefully together in a solitary house on a hill. Following some particularly puritanical propaganda from the lord above. Isaac's mother takes a turn for the mental and murderous, convinced that only the sacrifice of her son can sate God's desire for proof of her devotion. In an entirely practical move, Isaac heads to the dark and gloomy basement, via a handy trap door, in a desperate last ditch bid for safety. Little does he know, that this will be just the start of his problems.

You control your eponymous protagonist twin stick style, W, A, S and D moving your infantile hero accordingly, and your arrow keys showering all before you with er... arrows, initially in the form of Isaac's freshly shed tears. That's right, if you're looking for an uplifting cheer-athon, look away now. The Binding of Isaac's layout is straightforward enough. Upon your initial descent into the innard-pink caverns below, you will be presented with an empty room, this room like every other, will have from one to four exits, one on each of the four walls. Each randomly generated room will offer a selection of varying baddies plus some potential prizes up for grabs.

Within each of the six basement levels, one room will contain a boss that must be defeated before opening a trap door to continue downwards to the incrementally more difficult levels below. The one luxury afforded to you is the option to navigate these rooms as you see fit. With boss rooms identified by a demonic doorway, you may choose to get straight in there and smush up some satanic bags of flesh, or take the time to explore each room first, risking your life in the hope of gaining further perks and boosts. Staying on your toes is paramount throughout, rooms will often be populated by five or six monsters or more, charging, spitting and jumping all over each locked area, the doors to each confined space will remain shut until you can clear out all the freaks within.

Testing the mortality of Isaac's various mutants is made all the more enjoyable with a bloody rainbow of power-ups effecting, health, firepower, rate of fire, armour, and even character aesthetics. These prove definitive in your quest for success and particularly in rewarding your hard graft effectively. Certain randomly generated drops will yield new kinds of projectiles. These might turn your tears into blood or a chargeable mega bullet sicked up from your gut, more effective the longer you hold down the arrow key. Finding certain articles, for example a magnet, will modify the effect or trajectory. The aforementioned magnet, usefully, will encourage your arrows to home-in on your foes should you miss. The variety of modifiers available could do with being accompanied by some on-screen guidance. Most are clear, but the wealth available is hard to keep on top of, particularly the one-use playing cards, often you might find yourself using one at in inopportune moment, and only repeated use of each will help keep their specific uses in mind.

Power-ups can be purchased from vendors using coins found scattered around (often retrieved from piles of poo – don't ask), you can also use these to drop into a slot machine should you choose (the coins that is, not poos), with extra bonuses a potential, but far from guaranteed reward. This in itself, is a microcosm of the roguelike brilliance of The Binding of Isaac. When you die, you are dead and it's back to the start all over again. Learn by doing is the order of the day, risk equals reward. Only through hours of respawning will the idiosyncrasies of that one mob become clear, and when to duck and when to weave. The inevitability of your demise is key to the equation, and rarely does a death ever feel unduly harsh. While relentlessly punishing, the hardcore learning curve is as rewarding as it is addictive and infuriating. More often than not, should you fail prematurely, Isaac leaves you with the realisation that you were the one to blame, if only you hadn't gone into that one room in pursuit of loot, it could all have been so different. In all likelihood, your next run will be your best, as slowly but surely, your bloodied moth, drawn again and again to the flame, will gradually develop into a basement badass.

Isaac offers up well over one hundred collectible items, too. Even if you are able to beat The Binding of Isaac in just a few plays through (which is unlikely), the randomly generated nature of the rooms, monsters, items and loot means that it's essential to complete multiple runs, just to experience the game for what it is, never mind grabbing all the goodies. In addition, The Binding of Isaac boasts four unlockable characters, each with their own balance of speed, stamina and attack power. Not all of these require completion of the game, and provide some nice alternatives depending on your preferred play style. If you needed more reasons to keep playing, Isaac offers no less than ten different endings, apparently (I have not, repeat not, seen most of them).

The Binding of Isaac's art style is ostensibly that of Team Meat's Edmund McMillan, deliberately simple designs, brutally snuffed out as quickly as they are brought to life. The brief loading screens between levels depict a set of childlike sketches of one of Isaac's chilling memories of rejection, ridicule and neglect. These snuggle up wonderfully with the mournful nature of Isaac's bleak basement setting. Each fleshy-pink room seems to pulse with sorrow and sadness, many of Isaac's afflicted antagonisers carry themselves with a destitute and disconsolate disposition. From babies crying tears of blood, to sorrowful husks cowering in corners while belching out flies, The Binding of Isaac is punctuated heavily with morbidly fascinating creatures. Not least of these are the fantastic bosses, Monstro – a giant head of sorts, flinging himself into the air and burping out blood (he's got a big brother too), The Duke of Flies – a fly-infested, rotting ball, and in particular, Gemini – a deranged, charging humanoid, dragging behind it a deformed baby, still attached by it's umbilical chord.

Some of the bosses are subject to one of The Binding of Isaac's very few flaws, though. Once you have got to grips with how they play, some of them can be incredibly quick and simple to defeat. The bizarrely named Larry Junior- a pair of segmented snake-like creatures, will almost always navigate the room with no particular desire to attack, leaving you free to quietly dispose of your reluctant assailants. That said, the grim themes of each battle are enough to make every one of them worthwhile.

At times, The Binding of Isaac could be faulted for a slight imbalance in the drops, as well. A dungeon might be generated with tons of locked doors to rooms undoubtedly full of goodies to collect, but very few, if any keys will drop from Isaac's enemies. The random nature of the rooms can lead to some pretty sharp difficulty spikes, too. Cruising along nicely one minute, calmly taking out floating heads, might suddenly be replaced with a room full of mental, jumping, headless bastards, hell-bent on chewing off your face. While the general difficulty across a given level is fairly steady, room to room can be a bit of a rotting rollercoaster.

If you like your themes clean cut, then you could criticise that of The Binding of Isaac heavily. Isaac is an unwanted toddler, his mother wants him dead and her actions force him to retreat naked to his basement, where he will fight, as mentioned, babies crying tears of blood who will often continue to meander around having been decapitated. Some of the pickups are particularly close to the mark, a wire coat hanger that Isaac chooses to wear through his head, in a rather overt reference to aborted pregnancy. It's worth pondering whether or not such themes would be quite so passable in a more mainstream game, then again, that's what age ratings are for.

The Binding of Isaac carries plenty of religious connotations, too. Isaac's mother is a devout and misguided Christian, instructed by God, according to the eerie intro sequence, to sacrifice her only child, referencing the Bible story of the same name. Each of the sporadically sourced sub-bosses are themed around one of the seven deadly sins, it is as if to suggest Isaac must battle each to cleanse himself of their relative impurities. The Binding of Isaac makes no real attempt to clarify it's meaning or personal point of view. It simply puts the content out in front of you and leaves it there for you to infer whatever meaning you choose. However you view it, Isaac's content is some of the most interesting produced in an indy game, or in any game for that matter.

If thematically, The Binding of Isaac is ugly, then it's score is beautiful. A tense digital heartbeat, pumping blood through Isaac's desolate veins, the haunting yet soothing 8 bit drums and wailing synthesiser grow into predatory guitar riffs at will. In moments of heightened tension so grows the music with it, in the latter stages, the sinister ostinato becomes more noticeable and dramatic, thunderous drums and a more orchestral tone replacing what came before. Great music in games is often subtle enough to not be noticed but powerful enough to effect drama, tension and atmosphere, The Binding of Isaac achieves the ultimate happy medium.

The Binding of Isaac is a brilliant slice of Indy gaming satire. It's everything an indy game should be. Quirky, funny and controversial, challenging yet easy to pick up and even easier to keep playing. Fiendishly difficult at times but universally rewarding. It has flaws, but not many. Any it does have can be forgiven thanks to what, at Isaac's core, is a frenetic and addictive gameplay experience requiring quick thinking and even quicker reactions. While, technically, The Binding of Isaac might be completable in around just an hour, you'd have to be crazier than a deluded Christian housewife to spend any less than hours of your time unwrapping this gory indy gift.

Mecha Score 8.0

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