Blood sweat and tears ... two of those three things can be used as weapons in this game, guess which two?
With my ever present idea that "it's better late than never" I set forth to review one of the breakout independent titles of 2011. So, how does this strange and recent edition to the Roguelike genre stack up in terms of gameplay?
Title: The Binding of Isaac
Release Date: 28 Sep 2011
Overall Grade: B+ A simple premise that leads to a lot of entertainment for the investment of a couple of bucks (or even less if you catch it during a Steam sale). Some people might be off-put by the content, but if you can get past that it's a solid adventure game. A warning though: if you're the kind of person that tends to only clear a game once and then set it aside then this probably isn't the game for you; replayability is the crux of what gives this game any sense of longevity.
From the developer of Super Meat Boy comes this game: The Binding of Isaac, a distressing minimalist adventure that seems to play off of the fears of a very deranged child. The story here is basic and kept to the bare minimum: Isaac and his Mother live alone, and when the voice of God demands that Isaac become a sacrifice to prove his Mother's devotion to the lord Isaac flees into the basement through a trapdoor in his room. That's about as deep as you're going to get in terms of story. The endings are rather non-indicative and the question of whether everything is simply taking place in Isaac's head is played with but never meaningfully answered. In the end the story is just the sounding board for the gameplay anyways, and in cases like this the lack of a cogent narrative can be forgiven considering the circumstances.
Now, before we go any further I should give note to one specific term: roguelike. A roguelike is essentially a game in which everything from levels to items to enemies is randomly spawned every time. In this case there will be some bosses in The Binding of Isaac that you're guaranteed to fight over and over. Aside from those specific circumstances though everything changes from run to run: the number of rooms, the items you can pick-up, you get the picture here. I'll talk about this a little more later but just in case anyone didn't know what a roguelike exactly was now you do.
The game is straightforward: the controls are even displayed in the room you're dumped in at the beginning of every session just in case you forgot them. As for the controls themselves it's tight and responsive. For the keyboard WASD moves and the arrow keys fire off your tears, and the controls are precise enough that most of the time if you walk into an environmental hazard it's your fault. Now when I say most of the time I have to mention that if you get a lot of items that increase your speed stat it can become somewhat of an ordeal to do precise manoeuvring of any kind. As for the sound, the music is minimalist but very appropriate to the dark mood of the game, and the various effects -- most of which are the grunts and groans of the enemies -- also fit quite well. The tone is creepy and foreboding, and it fits in well to the theme of this world as viewed through the eyes and ears of a less than stable child.
The actual game itself is either six (the first time through) then eight, or sometimes nine, levels. Even a long run might take at most about 45 minutes to an hour. Also, if you die (and you will die) then it's game over. There are items that give you extra lives, but for the most part it's one try only which is yet another defining feature of roguelikes. With such a short main campaign the key term here becomes replayability. Getting new items and characters is the main driving point of the game and what gives it any staying power at all. If you're the kind of person that only needs to play a game once then this isn't going to be for you. Even at its 5 USD price tag if you're only going to play it once you're probably going to end up considering it a waste of your money.
That being said, if you know that this is a game meant to be replayed then there's quite a bit of fun to be had here. I feel that I should comment on the difficulty. If I remember correctly I believe that a lot of people have commented that the game is hard, and this is true enough strictly speaking. The thing is though that it isn't the levels or enemies or even bosses for the most part -- although some of them are rougher than others of course -- as with nearly any roguelike it's the items and the random number generator (or RNG) that decides the ease or difficulty of the entire affair. While each of the starting characters -- including Isaac himself, eventually -- get their own unique items, it's the RNG that will decide whether a run will be laughably easy or stupidly difficult. A game with an attack upgrade like Technology or Brimstone, combined with items that synergize like the Book of Revelations that gives a Soul Heart every six rooms and the Battery which makes items recharge while you're engaged in battle make the game a joke and are entirely possible to get in any given run. However you're just as likely to get items that are complete crap or while moderately useful aren't really what you need.
There will be a lot of frustrating cases where you know that if you can just get one item that you'll be able to make it, but that item never shows up. But that's the price the game exacts, and for some making the best of even the crappiest item drops marks a truly excellent run, as opposed to the ones that let them breeze through.
If you're undecided on this then you can always try the demo and if you can catch it during a sale on Steam (like I did) then you might pay less than a dollar fifty for it, which is well worth the price of admission. It's not something that I think I'll be playing forever, but the time that I've spent on the game has certainly made it worth it for me.