Sunday, October 9, 2011

In Defense: The Binding of Isaac

Just when you thought you were gonna get a World Ten entry...look at what has to come along and rear its ugly, grotesque head. I don't blame you if you haven't heard of The Binding of Isaac, as it's not an overly publicized game. Created by Edmund McMillan, one of the geniuses behind Super Meat Boy, on his off time, The Binding of Isaac takes a whole bunch of pages out of a whole bunch of classic games' books. This obviously makes it a perfect example of a new-age yet classic-style game, and throws it into the realm of this here blog. I've been playing the game since it came out about a week ago, and it's definitely a sharp, well-made creation that deserves more attention than it will likely I'll do my best to explain why!

The Binding of Isaac's premise is based on a biblical story about a dude named Isaac who is to be sacrificed by his father, who has been spoken to by God (or something...I don't actually know how it goes). The game's bare-bones story follows that same sort of idea...Isaac, a child who lives a fairly normal life, finds that one day his mother goes completely insane in an attempt to kill him to sacrifice him to God. In an effort to escape, he books it into the basement of his house and runs from his mother. This is where the game starts off, and you control Isaac along his quest to run from, and eventually destroy, his batshit-insane mom.

When I say Zelda...I MEAN Zelda!

How does this exactly play out? Much like a Legend of Zelda dungeon, actually...and I'm not talking generally. I mean the level layout and style is pretty much taken directly from The Legend of Zelda for the NES, with rooms connecting to each other by doors, enemies populating said rooms that you have to destroy, and tools such as bombs and keys that you use to make your way through the level to a boss. You have a life meter in the form of hearts, various weapons at your disposal, and even a map in the top left corner of the screen that's very much like that found in Zelda 1. Controlling Isaac is a breeze...W, S, A and D control his directional movement, while the arrow keys (by default) will fire in the direction that you press, allowing you to move and shoot in whatever directions you want but separately from one another. In this respect, the Binding of Isaac also takes elements from Smash TV with that sort of dual-stick control idea but without actually using two joysticks. It's very simple and very smooth. In addition, shift will lay a bomb, Q will use tarot cards or medicine that you find lying around, and the space bar will use a special item, providing you have one on you.

Since we're on the topic, we should talk about the items and establish just how fucking many there are. There are a fuckton of pickups in this game, and you will never see them all on your first trek through Mom's disgusting basement full of feces and skulls. For the most part, you can snag these items from stores, golden treasure chests, or from behind golden doors. Much like The Legend of Zelda, each dungeon seems to have a chest or room containing a treasure, so it's in your best interest to search it out. Items can take on many different forms and styles: passive items, multiple use items, one-use items, and upgrades to your attributes. There could be more types, but I haven't encountered them yet in my multiple playthroughs. Passive items take the form of powers such as flies that surround Isaac and make a shield, X-Ray Specs that let you see hidden passages, or a Meat Boy-esque blob that follows you around and shoots at your enemies whenever you fire (much like an Option in Gradius, for example). Multiple use items are used via the space bar, and can include such things as teleportation devices that will warp you elsewhere in the dungeon, or the Lemon Mishap, which drops a trap on the ground that will damage enemies as they move over it. For the most part, these items recharge as you kill enemies. Single-use items include pills and Tarot cards...pills will have a random effect each playthrough, so a blue pill may fill your health up one game, but give you explosive diarrhea the next one. Tarot cards come in about 20 different types, and all have different effects. For example Death will deal major damage to every enemy on the screen (including bosses!), whereas The Lovers will spawn two hearts for you to pick up right there on the spot. Finally, upgrade items will alter your shots (which are Isaac's tears, by the way...very strange but I'd be fuckin' upset too), firing range, movement speed, maximum health, damage, luck, or various other random effects. Overall, there are tons of items to find and use in this game, and it never really gets old...thanks to complete and utter randomness.

Randomness is pretty much what this game's all about, in all honesty, and it's what makes it so damn amazing and addictive. Every time you start the game, everything is completely different. The dungeon layouts will always change around, since they're randomly designed by the game itself. The items that you find within those dungeons are also randomly chosen, as well as the room structures and the enemies you find within those rooms. Mid-bosses are chosen completely at random, and the bosses themselves are, too! Nothing is ever exactly the same the next time you play through this game, and that's what drives it. You will have a unique experience each and every time you pick this game up and give it a runthrough. How fucking cool is that? And the gameplay is so simple and addictive that you'll want to play through the game multiple times anyhow. There's also plenty to unlock, such as new characters to play as and new levels and bosses, and of course there's always that gigantic page with the list of items that you're gonna want to fill out completely if you're a completionist. It continues to blow my mind each time I think about The Binding of Isaac.

It's dangerous to go alone. Take this!

There are other elements that are placed randomly throughout levels as well. Stores can be found, wherein you can use your money that you've earned to purchase helpful items or replenish your hearts, bombs, or keys. There are secret rooms that you must bomb open (unless you have an item such as X-Ray specs) which will often yield some good rewards such as a decent amount of cash. There are arcades you can access wherein you can play games of chance, such as a slot machine or a cup-and-ball game where you must guess correctly what skull contains the ball. These can yield prizes such as money, keys, bombs or hearts, so if you're feeling lucky it may be worth it to check them out! There are machines that will take your heart containers and give you money for them, random treasure chests scattered throughout levels, and also beggars that will take your cash for a while...but eventually reward you with prizes. Finally, there are Gauntlet rooms which are signified by a large metal door with crossed swords over top of it. You must have full health to enter these rooms, and once you do, you must fight three waves of enemies in order to get yourself back out. The reward yield is almost always worth it, though!

Monsters and enemies are plentiful, and for they most part they are grotesque and uneasy to look at sometimes. I assume this is because they're all supposed to be previous creations from your mother's poisoned womb that escaped into the basement at some point in their lives. Although they're gross...this is a good thing, because it makes you want to thrash them all the more. Some examples of enemies are floating heads that are crying blood, skulls on the ground that rise on a pile of organs and shoot blood at you, brains that slide along the floor and leave a trail of damaging blood behind them, and balls of guts that roll around the room. That's right, this is a fucked up game and it doesn't try to hide it one bit! The wonderful thing about the enemies is that they change around depending on how far you are through the game. That strange creature with the misshapen head that simply avoided you in the first couple of levels will have flies busting out of its face later on, and will cough them out at you while it walks around the room. Enemies may also be coloured, which indicate various things: red-coloured enemies appear to take more damage than usual, whereas green-coloured ones seem to poison you if you touch them. The enemies are very well-varied and all different from one another overall, and they're always fun to deal with. When you do blow them away, they stay dead for the rest of the game, rooms that you've cleared once will always stay cleared.

Mid-bosses and bosses are equally as messed up, if not moreso! I've seen mid-bosses that all represent the seven sins and the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and they all act differently. Gluttony for example is a pudgy guy that walks around and spews a beam of blood out of its stomach (in a very Goatse-ish fashion, actually), whereas Pestilence rides a diseased-looking horse and fires poisonous projectiles around the room in an attempt to gas you. The full-on bosses are pretty cool too, although in some cases they take forever to kill if you simply have had bad luck and haven't found some decent upgrades on your journey. Want examples of some of the bosses? How about Gurdy, the giant pile of organs in the middle of the room that lays tumours on the ground!? Or Gemini, the disfigured, giant-headed fetus with a conjoined twin sticking off of it that lunges at you?! Yeah...messed up, I'm tellin' ya! They're all disgusting, but they're all satisfying to destroy as a result of their design.

Fighting gross things around piles of feces is a normal occurrence in this game.

The presentation of this game is done very well, with sharp, hand-drawn spritework that resembles a very high quality flash animation (very much like Super Meat Boy). Characters are drawn in a grotesque/cartoony fashion that really makes them stand out and gives them their own little style, adding personality to the game as a whole. The soundtrack, composed by Daniel Baranowski, fits the game very well. Although it's not overall as catchy as his work in Super Meat Boy, I believe that's sort of his intention. The first area has the most catchy music, but as you progress deeper into the basement, the tracks change and become quieter and more foreboding, definitely giving you the sense that you're getting yourself into more difficult territory. Boss themes are good too, and sound effects throughout the game are top-notch and fit perfectly.

As for difficulty? This game is, by definition, a mixed bag...and I believe that the difficulty depends completely on that quality. For example, I'd heard that this game was very difficult from previews and reviews I saw before I picked it up...but I managed to beat it my first time through because I happened upon some really fucking sweet powerups (and also maybe because I've played my fair share of games over the years :P). Would I personally say that this game is hard as hell? No...but there can definitely be difficult portions of the game that can obliterate you if you're not careful. Overall though it's certainly a doable game, and the simple controls really make it accessible if you wish to give it a shot. Oh, I almost forgot to mention though, that the game is Roguelike...meaning you have one life. If you die, you die and must start a new game. This isn't really an issue, since getting through the entire game can take all of around 45 minutes...but you still need to be a bit more sharp on your wits and careful with how you proceed or you'll have to start over. I really haven't found this to be an issue at all's fun!

The screen starts to fill up more with projectiles later on. And Gish.

And for the price of 5 bucks on Steam? I damn well suggest you DO give it a shot. You're paying $5 for a fast-paced overhead shooter that is COMPLETELY randomly generated each time you play...different level layout, with different and extremely varied items, and different enemies, mid-bosses and bosses within those levels. In essence, this is a game that will never, ever be the same and will always provide a unique experience. To pay $5 for such a product is the fucking definition of a steal!


The Bottom Line

The Binding of Isaac offers tons of gameplay and variety for its extremely low value. It's a cleverly-designed top-down action game that offers some decent challenge and rewarding gameplay that always manages to surprise you on each playthrough of the game. Its presentation is on par with that of Super Meat Boy (makes sense, since it's from one of the same dudes), and overall it controls and plays very well. It's certainly not a game for everyone out there in the world, but for those that find their fancy struck by it, it will offer endless gameplay and a ridiculous amount of fun.


Also, just to drive home the fact that this game keeps showing you new stuff, here's a list of new crap I encountered on my runthrough of this game that I did to snag screenshots:

- Demon Wings: allow Isaac to fly, which also lets you completely hover over all obstacles such as rocks or pits
- The Hourglass: Press Space to slow down all enemies on screen for a short time (which has the same visual effect as the stopwatch from FUCKING STARTROPICS FUCK...sorry, I just love StarTropics)
- Battery: Items used with the space bar recharge over time
- Number One: You shoot pee instead of tears, and your rate of fire increases like mad
- Wrath: A mid-boss based on the sin of the same name...looks like Bomberman, drops bombs like Bomberman to attack, and sure enough you fight him in a Bomberman-esque arena!
- Mr. Mega: Dropped by Wrath, press space to drop a bomb that is larger than usual bombs
- Brother Bobby: A blue, dead fetus that follows you around and fires when you do, much like an Option
- Mini Mush: Mushroom that speeds you up, increases your range, and decreases your actual size, making you harder to hit

These were all new things from ONE more playthrough. AMAZING.

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