Friday, October 14, 2011

Review: "The Binding of Isaac"

Lord of the Flies
review for The Binding of Isaac (PC/Mac), 1-player adventure, out now

I finished The Binding of Isaac some time ago. At least, I think I did. I was the first person to play the game - no, really, I won a competition. I was legitimately the first person to play the game on Steam. Pre-release and everything. I have sunk at least thirty hours into the game - that's twenty-five more than most recent release games. And while I think I have "beat" the game, there's... there's no way of knowing. The game is so freeform, so randomized, I have no idea whether or not I have genuinely seen everything the game has to offer. Well, I do know. I haven't. This game is huge.

WOAH. Woah. Back up a second. This is all well and good. But what is The Binding of Isaac? ...that's a tricky question, too. But it's infinitely easier to answer. After all, you should recognize Edward McMillen as the man who makes up half the team that made the Andy Plays Games' 2010 Game of the Year, Super Meat Boy. He also made countless other indie games - all of which are quite charming - but it's Super Meat Boy that is (currently) his ultimate success story, and it is Super Meat Boy which The Binding of Isaac will be compared to. It was his latest and greatest. So one of many questions posited to you is thus - is The Binding of Isaac better thanSuper Meat Boy?

It's quite the unfair comparison, though. Super Meat Boy is a tough-as-nails precision platformer starring a cube of meat. The Binding of Isaac is a genre-defying shooter/RPG/Roguelike-like starring a small, oppressed boy. Super Meat Boy also represents the work of the dev team Team Meat, while Isaac is the work of Ed McMillen and a handful of very helpful friends. Tommy Refenees, Team Meat's programmer, hasn't touched this game - in fact, he's effectively on holiday. So consider The Binding of Isaac thoroughly an Edward McMillen project - every drop of sweat, tears, and blood his own, and every idea one that crawled out of the recesses of McMillen's head.

There are few designers I'd go so far as to call creative visionaries. Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert, refugees of pre-Let's All Suck off George Lucas Forever LucasArts are but two. Suda51 (of No More Heroes fame) is one other. But really, videogames don't have many George Lucases, Tim Burtons, or Quentin Tarintinos. Ed McMillen is one of the few. I can only start to imagine what must go on inside his head half the time - his creative works are some of the most uniquely disturbing I have ever laid eyes upon. Actually, Tim Burton is what he is perhaps most akin to - a gruesomely dark, yet quaintly charming, mind. Super Meat Boy had many of his grimly humorous characteristics present - unless you couldn't tell by the endless sea of sawblades cutting up the protagonist in a ceaseless bloody spectacle - but The Binding of Isaac is, more than even Coil, an interesting, and often disturbing, view of what Ed McMillen's head is like.

The plot of the game focuses on a boy named Isaac, who lives a relatively normal life until his mother - a religious fanatic - gets an order from God to sacrifice Isaac to Him. Fearing for his life, Isaac flees into the basement, where he faces off against countless foes - freaks, monsters, creatures, slobbering hellbeasts, and his lost brothers and sisters. It's all drenched into a pro-atheistic subtext, but it is, luckily, not heavy enough that those of faith will be horribly offended, but it's a nice touch because I myself am an atheist and any chance to stick it to the horribly vitriolic hardcore religious fanatics is one I'll leap at. But, I digress.

Falling deep into the secret basement of his "normal" family home, the player takes control of Isaac (or one of four unlockable/secret characters) in a twisted, demonic twin-stick shooter style adventure. Concern yourself not with controls - they're written in the floor for you. How polite. The game plays like a standard twin-stick shooter - move with one set of keys, shoot with the other. The game, from that simple concept, is an RPG/Roguelike-inspired romp. It's a dungeon crawler, taking a lot from The Legend of Zelda and other familiars, and it's all randomly generated with a quick death-to-restart ratio (like a Roguelike). It is the randomly generated nature of the game that makes it so endlessly replayable, but I'll get into that later.

The creativity present in even these, the simplest of mechanics, is staggering. It's all rather gruesome, too. "Dead baby jokes" is perhaps an apt description. Poor, naked Isaac, dropped into a cave filled with monsters that want nothing more than to eat him dead, uses his tears of untapped sadness as projectiles. When Isaac dies (and he dies, a lot), he leaves a note bidding farewell to the cruel world (that also acts as a stats screen for your concurrent runthrough). This kind of stuff has long been Ed McMillen's signature, but its well center stage in Isaac and it really cements a wonderfully inventive faux-horror atmosphere that makes Isaac's world a joy to be in.

A randomly generated dungeon-crawler in layout, the randomly generated pickups and items is where the true joys of The Binding of Isaac lay. You pick up stat-changing items at well-random points within the game. They can do anything from expand your health pool to let you fly, make you piss instead of cry (using urine as projectiles), and many other wonderfully inventive powerups. They also change Isaac's physical appearance - when you piss instead of cry, for example, Isaac's woeful expression changes into a smug, rather adorable smiley face. One powerup gives you a horrible Poison Touch, and transforms the whole of Isaac's body into a hideously deformed, scabby mess. The best part is that they stack, so while everyone starts off as crying, naked Isaac, within three levels you could be a three-eyed, laser-wielding demon. You could be a giant, chocolate milk-blowing cross dresser. The items - and combination of items - are truly amazing to uncover and use. Your first five hours of Isaac will be wonderous beyond compare, as you discover hilarious, disturbing, or just downright nutty items to be used against the monstrous horde. The first time I discovered that "Shoop Da Whoop" was, indeed, an item that could be used as a weapon in the game, I laughed so hard I almost died.

Hand in hand with randomized items are the truly creative boss fights. Though sadly not as vast in number as the 100+ items, these bosses are a reason to play through the game over and over. Though there are only fifteen or so, and they're bound to particular levels (there are six levels in the first runthrough of the game, that ramp up significantly in difficulty as you progress), they're all wildly varied. I don't wish to spoil, but perhaps my favourite is the truly ghastly Duke of Flies, a giant, stitched-up ball of animate sack whose mouth is filled with legions of crawling flies and maggots. He spits the flies at you. They attack you. It's the closest gaming has ever come to "dogs with bees in their mouths and when they bark they shoot bees at you". It makes me happy indeed.

Surprisingly, though, despite the game's random nature, there's an important, subtle difficulty curve. In direct contrast to all Roguelikes ever, you can in fact "beat" this game, though - as I stated initially - it's kind of hard to tell when. The initial runthrough, for example (assuming you don't die fifty bazillion times on your way there), is to kill your mother. But upon doing so, two more levels of dungeon open up. When you run through the game again from the top, you finish them, and more open up. Even without having so much stuff to see and do - you can gamble! - the game would be a lengthy game indeed. But while the game has an endgame, I suspect no-one will ever see all the game has to offer. Not the least of which, Ed McMillen seems to plan on releasing constant updates to the game, adding items, enemies, rooms, and bosses (and variations thereof) well after release. A Halloween Update is planned, which will make the game darker than it already is - which I have no doubt McMillen will pull off, even if the results of which could be perhaps the most disturbing nightmare fuels on the internet.

Isaac raises questions. It raises ethical questions. It questions religion, morality, mortality. But the biggest question that which it asks of itself - what is The Binding of Isaac? Can it, in fact, be classified? The genre-bending nature of the game - and, indeed, the random nature of the game - may prevent anyone from accurately pinning down what it is. It's creepy, yes. Utterly sick. But at the same time, it's completely charming. It's made me laugh and cringe in equal measure. Myself, I'd class it as an "adventure" game, be done with it, and have the final word - this game is fun. It's uniquely satisfying and a genuinely, subtly deep experience. Those looking for the next Team Meat game will probably be disappointed it doesn't quite have the polish of Super Meat Boy - it all runs out of Flash, and there are technical issues when running out of fullscreen. But the difficulty is there, the creativity is there - and most importantly, the addictive, "just one more go" fun is there.

The Binding of Isaac is a truly ingenious title. For only $5, there's an almost neverending stream of creatively stunning gameplay and art assets. It'll keep you hooked for a long, long time, and its toughness and longevity only further goes to cement Ed McMillen's role as an indie darling. It's daringly fresh, horrifically drenched in blood and faeces, and it'll make you laugh like a goddamn lunatic. Pure gaming gold.
Can't get enough of Andy? Remember to check out his new series of Let's Play videos, starting with Portal, over at the Andy Plays Games Youtube Channel! Watch Andy play games, talk about games, and suck at games. You just might enrich the experience that is your life while you're at it, too.


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