Review by LeQuack147
"I shouldn't be laughing at this horrible game, but that makes it even funnier"
You play as a child fighting aborted monstrosities with tears, all to escape said child's mother, who is bent on killing him to prove her love for her god. This game is messed up. But that's okay, because it's also one of the best games I've played in a while.
Story- Depression in 3, 2, 1...
The game starts with a simple introduction of the main character, Isaac, and his mother. As the narration explains, he lives a simple but good life of playing with his toys while his mother watches television. His mother hears what she thinks is the voice of God, commanding her to save her son from sin. So she takes all his toys and locks him in his room. You'll start to wonder whether this is God talking or outright insanity, as his next instruction is for her to kill Isaac. Isaac, understandably, wants to keep living, so he finds a way out of his room: a trapdoor to the basement, where hostile monstrosities await.
And that's the meat of the story. From there, it's a matter of fighting through the different levels, going from the Basement through the Caves down to "The Depths" where the inevitable battle with Isaac's mother awaits. Of course, beating the game once does little. That's one ending out of around a dozen, and your first victory will open up a new area for your next run. The real final boss won't show up unless you beat the game 10 times or defeat the boss of the new area without taking a hit. It's a good thing we have options on that front. I personally don't think I'll have any trouble playing through the game 10 more times, but you can bypass that if it feels like needless grinding.
There are other, subtle touches that remind you of the back-story as you play. The power-ups, for example. They all work on the logic of a neglected/abused child: The head of Isaac's departed pet dog increases the strength of his tears, a carton of sour milk serves as nourishment and boosts his maximum health, a leather belt increases his speed, perhaps reminding him of previous punishments involving said bit of leather. It just crosses the line so many times that it loops back into hilarious. And that's a good description of the game as a whole.
Gameplay- This basement should be purged by fire, and all you've got are tears.
Tears. Those are Isaac's primary weapon. A little unorthodox, but he's a child, we'll take what we can get. The "WASD" keys controls Isaac's movement, while the arrow keys control the firing of his tears. There is no option for shooting diagonally, but your current direction and speed can curve the shots somewhat. With this basic ability, you are expected to defeat the various denizens of the basement. There's only a handful of enemy types, and most fall under "insect" or "horribly disfigured baby," but there's are enough differences between them that they don't feel like palette swaps. Take the maggot enemies for example. I've found 3 so far: a defenseless cannon fodder kind, another that fires pellets at random, and a third that charges Isaac whenever he's in view. Appearance-wise, they're same thing, but the difference in behavior determines the challenge of fighting them.
I've heard comparisons to the original Legend of Zelda dungeons, and they seem appropriate. We've got the sequence of square rooms connected in some odd pattern, we've got the keys that appear once the enemies in a room have been vanquished, and bombs for revealing new exits. But there's more to it than that, and the additions allow the game to stand on it's own. The layout of the dungeon changes on each play-through, as does the format of the individual rooms, and the enemies contained within. A fair amount of the fluctuation in difficulty comes from these combinations: an empty room full of wall-following enemies is easy to manage, but a more cluttered room with the same opponents would prove much more dangerous. You're basically rolling the dice on each room you enter. Hopefully you'll get weak enemies that drop hearts, or a special power-up to otherwise ease your journey. Other times, you'll get a room that has more enemies than floorspace. There's nothing stopping you from running straight to the boss room (once you find it), but you'll likely explore every room just to see if there's another item to grab.
An important note I must make is that, similar to the rogue-like games it borrows from, you only get one life per run (barring some of the special power-ups). There are no continues or anything of that nature, so whenever you die or otherwise start a new session, you're back to square one. After playing countless games where death is a slap on the wrist, this is refreshing. Death carries genuine weight here.
The bosses are similar to the standard enemies in that they vary between runs. There's a collection of bosses for each section of the dungeon, of which you'll only fight one or two in any given run. As before, not all bosses are created equal, and it's entirely possible to encounter a boss that your current power-ups leave you ill-prepared for.
Now, about these power-ups. They are many, and as my overall collection grid shows, my assorted play-throughs have yet to show me the half of them. Most are a simple boost to one of Isaac's stats: Health, damage, speed, range, or fire rate. Some cause more fundamental changes, such as a piercing shot that completely neuters the enemies with defensive shields. Another converts your standard shots into bombs, greatly increasing your attack power at the expense of making your shots a threat to yourself. Most of them are available from the start of the game, others will only begin to show up once you've met a certain criteria such as defeating all the possible bosses of the basement zone.
Some of these power-ups are usable items, such as tarot cards. Some, like the cards, will disappear after a single use, while others recharge as you complete more rooms in the dungeon. Some grant powerful attacks, some slow time or debilitate the enemy, but as with the enemies, they appear at random. There's no guarantee you'll see any particular item in a certain play through. It's a little odd that the "use" items don't have any explanation of what they do, especially the cryptic tarot cards, but I guess they wanted to keep the theme of experimentation going. Their effects are thankfully unchanging between runs.
There's also pills. These are similar to the potions from a Rogue-like game. Their effects vary by each play-through, and when you first encounter them, the effects are unknown, leaving you to experiment. There's no scroll of identify here, so again, you're rolling the dice. That said, I've encountered more good pills than bad, so it's generally worth your while to try them.
Graphics- You weren't expecting "realistic" right?
It looks like a flash game. A very well made flash game, crafted with extra care, but a flash game all the same. I hope this isn't a deal breaker, as the graphics work just fine in their current incarnation. And frankly, seeing the enemies of this game rendered in a more realistic engine would be downright nightmare worthy. Remember how I mentioned most of the enemies were disfigured babies? I wasn't joking. They're varied and grotesque, and I'd avoid considering their deeper implications, especially the swollen ones that function as fly spawners.
An interesting side-effect of the power-ups is that most of them modify Isaac's appearance. The PhD gives him a little surgical mask, "the rock" gets lodged in his face, complete with a trail of blood. Eventually, Isaac's scarier to look at than most of the enemies. And thanks to the large selection and random placement of the power-ups I mentioned, you'll have a different, but equally horrifying Isaac by the end of each play-through.
Enemy projectiles and other hazards are noticeably brighter than the environment, and the hostile bombs even flash as a warning of "Hey, you might wanna move right now." The bosses also have certain animations that signal incoming attacks, so a practiced player can avoid most of them.
Sound- Melancholy tunes add to this dark venture.
Most of the tracks are just ambiance music for adding to the mood as you work your way through the dungeon. I'm not quite sure what they're using to make it, outside of the fake-retro tracks, but the quality is excellent. The boss themes are more energetic, fitting your desperate battle against the powerful enemies that guard the exit to each level. It's not the same as, say, the Ranger's theme from Modern Warfare 2, blasting a heroic theme just in time for you to save the day. But the overall impact is the same: it keeps you in the mood to play, keeps you working towards the goal. It fits the emotions of Isaac, and the player, surprisingly well. There's a frantic rhythm in one of the otherwise lethargic main themes, and you'll be feeling a little anxious yourself after a particularly difficult room takes more health than you can afford to lose.
Some of the monsters invoke sympathy more than fear with their pitiful cries, but the bosses sound properly dangerous. Isaac's mother sounds particularly demented with her calls of "ISAAC! ISAAAAAAAC!" They manage to capture that "summons crossed with an accusation" that every mischievous child is familiar with, then made it terrifying even for adults.
Replayability- Variation between play-throughs does wonders.
As I've stated previously, several details change between play-throughs, which goes a long way to prevent the gameplay from becoming stale. There are also other characters that can be unlocked, and the new items that appear after meeting the right conditions. While one play-through can be done in an afternoon, the game as a whole should last much longer.
Final Recommendation- Unless you have problems stomaching the initial premise, I'd highly recommend it.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 01/26/12
Game Release: The Binding of Isaac (US, 09/28/11)
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