Creepy, Fun, Frustrating, and Surprisingly Addictive
The Binding of Isaac is the latest creation of Edmund McMillen, the half of Team Meat primarily responsible for the art of Super Meat Boy, a connection that shows through the Isaac's art style. However beyond the visuals and music, the game bears little resemblance to the platforming gem. Instead, it draws influences from roguelike procedurally generated dungeon crawlers, twitch four-directional shooters like Smash TV, and the grids and secrets of the original Legend of Zelda dungeons.
The game opens with a Isaac running from his mother, now taking instructions from God and on orders to kill Isaac. However this is pretty much the extent of the story you'll see, except for one of a number of different endings you receive after beating the game. After Isaac jumps into a trapdoor to escape dear old mom, you're dropped in a room with the basic controls and are on your own to fight and explore till you reach the bottom. After that, it's all style, small jokes, great music, and dungeon crawling.
The style of the game fell a little flat for me though. While Super Meat Boy was fairly disgusting and had a fetus for an enemy, it had a lighthearted feel and dark sense of humor to it, as the fetus was in a robot tuxedo suit with a monocle. Isaac has some small jokes, but for the most part it takes the style of Meat Boy, amps up the creepy and disgusting, and makes it just plain dark. Not necessarily dark humor, just dark. Isaac's opening projectile is firing his own tears at enemies. Each level load screen is Isaac thinking about some horrible thing that has happened in his life. You buy items from a thing hanging from a noose. And the enemies are a variety of bloody and gross human or half-human creatures. It was more off-putting than anything else. Luckily Danny Baranowsky continues his unbroken streak with another amazing soundtrack - purchasable for an extra dollar when you buy from steam.
The basic gameplay is simple, but requires a good degree of skill. Isaac can move using WASD in any direction, and can fire projectiles in any of the four cardinal directions - no diagonals - by using the arrow keys. Isaac also has access to bombs, used to blow up rocks, enemies, or walls, a variety of secondary items which can be used once every few rooms, and some single use items such as pills or tarot cards that will often have a random effect. Most of the game consists of you dodging and firing at enemies. And dodging is a requirement. Isaac starts with the Zelda-standard 3 hearts, some alternate characters start with less, and it's quite easy to go from alive to dead in a tough room or two if you're not careful. You know when several achievements are awarded for making it to the bottom without being hit that the game is going to require some skill.
And the rooms definitely can knock the difficulty up at times. Each level in Isaac is randomly generated, so as you enter each room you can either run into a room of simple flies or even a room empty of everything except a coin or heart. Or you can run into a room of full of projectile shooting bloody heads that require quick movement and dodging. This also extends to the bosses, as the game randomly picks for each level one of a number of bosses that must be defeated before you can drop down to the next level, along with different room layouts and required strategies. The game is designed for you to make "runs" though the dungeon to see if you can muster the required luck and skill to reach the bottom, and death is the most likely outcome. After death, you're done, and you start a new run from scratch with a brand new dungeon.
Isaac's best friend as he makes his way through the levels are a number of powerup items that can be found, with usually a treasure room on each level and an item to be found after defeating a boss, as befits a Zelda dungeon. You can also purchase items from a shopkeeper on each level if you've found enough coins. These powerups can either be secondary items, upgrades to Isaac's projectiles, firing speed, movement speed, or health, or more random effects like poison, shop discounts, vampirism, piercing projectiles, or friendly halos of flies to block enemy bullets. These upgrades all have a visual effect on Isaac, making him progressively more messed-up as you go down, for example seeing Isaac with a coat hanger through him, jacked on steroids, with vampire fangs and lipstick on.
These items are also the key to making it to the bottom, and a big source of the frustration I had. A good run for me was mainly the result of coming across the right balance of items - projectile upgrades, a little extra health and speed normally, or one of the unique but valuable upgrades perhaps. If you happen to get a number of useless upgrades, or ingest a few pills that randomly decrease your stats, you'll eventually be stymied, no matter how much Smash TV you played in the past. Like most roguelikes, some bad luck can end you pretty quickly.
Despite this, Isaac balances things out well enough to make it an addictive combination. The game is short, even if you make a full run, which gets you ready to jump back in even if you got manhandled by a boss or get a string of very bad luck. The randomly generated levels, unlockable characters, and large complement of items also gives each run a fresh feel as you have to use the same basic skills but somewhat alter your strategies to try to make it to the bottom. There's also enough hidden items, little jokes, and extras to keep you going back in. After a few dozen runs and a few successes, I still haven't encountered half the items or all the bosses, and plan to keep diving in. And this review doesn't cover nearly everything that you'll find or the secrets and strategies you'll discover. Word is that there will also be updates to keep the game fresh down the line. For a five dollar title that was created in 4 months, you can't ask for much more.