Review by Ishanji
"A fun and frustrating blend of classic gaming conventions whose enjoyability is directly related to your threshold for cruelty and anguish."
The latest game from the warped mind of Edmund McMillen--creator of cult favorites Gish, Super Meat Boy, and many more--The Binding of Isaac is best described as a loving mashup of several classic games with a shiny coat of paint. It's got the core gameplay of Smash TV (or Robotron 2084, if you prefer), the dungeon exploration + hearts/bombs/keys of 2D Zelda games, and the randomness of Rogue/Nethack all congealed into a game that is often, but NOT NEARLY always, greater than the sum of its parts.
---STORY AND ART---
The premise of the game is rooted in the Biblical story of Abraham, who bound and nearly sacrificed his son Isaac to appease God. The story doesn't really matter after the initial exposition, but amply lends to the twisted atmosphere of the game. You make deals with the devil, pick up sacred and profane artifacts, and battle an array of hellish creatures as you make your way through the basement underneath Isaac's house. The presentation is top-notch, with McMillen's signature visual style and music from his longtime collaborator Danny Baranowski. The only gripes I can raise against the game's style lie in the sound effects. Lots of the effects are cribbed from his previous work and there are far too many "squishy" sounds, even for a game so filled with blood. Isaac's tears (your primary attack throughout the game) are the main offender here; you'll be hearing the same "squish" noise hundreds if not thousands of times per playthrough with little to no variation. If the other effects weren't so helpful to surviving the game I'd have turned off the sound entirely just to avoid the maddening "squicksquicksquick" that accompanies every barrage of attacks you make during the game. Oh, and for a game that looks this simple, there should -never- be any slowdown; my computer runs Dead Island on maxed graphics with full zombie hordes bearing down on me without skipping a single beat--Isaac starts to chug when there are too many enemies or projectiles onscreen? What gives?
Beyond the style, what's the meat of the game like? As I said in the intro it's essentially a mashup of several different games, and it carries the joys and burdens of every game it imitates. The frenetic action of Smash TV and similar shooters is present right alongside the infuriation of permanently dying to completely hopeless (and often unfair) situations. It's just as ball-bustingly hard as Smash, too, and you'll thank your lucky stars when you finally make it through even a single playthrough. Zelda's dungeon exploration is here, except you'll run out of essential keys or bombs quite easily and get stuck in situations where you miss 2 or 3 rooms of desperately needed upgrades due to the random nature of your pickups. It's got the excitement of getting an awesome set of upgrades/items just like in Rogue and Nethack, as well as the utter despair and rage of being given little to nothing useful and forced to deal with it. Its this similarity that makes the game addictive; while the Smash TV gameplay gets stale pretty quickly it's the feeling that "Maybe the next room will have something good in it!" which keeps you coming back for more despite the game's many faults. The game also stays fresh through its unlockables; you can get new characters and items by completing various objectives within the game, the latter of which add even more random elements to your subsequent playthroughs. Even though it's 2011 and games have largely become easier and kinder, Isaac is just as difficult and mean as the golden oldies because it indiscriminately borrows both the fun and frustrating from classic games to deliver a tasty, if often chunky, puree of features.
If it's a stylish shooter that borrows elements from great games to create a delicious mixture all its own then why the hell did I rate it 7/10 (and quite nearly give it 6/10)? Oh, let me count the ways:
1) Smash TV/Robotron 2084's gameplay, which is indisputably the core of Isaac's gameplay, gets rather tedious after a few hours. You go to a room, shoot the enemies, grab the loot, and repeat. Every room is like this (unless there's no enemies), and despite the varied power-ups and intermittent boss battles, you're going to be strafing and shooting your way through nearly every room in the game. Things get stale even faster than Smash though; while your enemies can often move or shoot in any direction they please, you're restricted to moving and shooting in the four cardinal directions. You can arc shots by running perpendicularly to the direction you're shooting, but this practice puts you in danger while your enemies happily sit there and bombard you, often from behind a piece of terrain they can shoot over but you can't. Sooner or later this gets tiring, especially if you're used to the game's predecessors that at least gave you 8 directions to shoot.
2) The artificial difficulty imparted by the Roguelike randomness gets really freaking old after a while, even more so than the derivative gameplay. The unpredictability of the game, often its greatest asset, is also its Achilles heel. I could only stomach so many completely unfair situations before I nearly threw my computer out of the window in a blind rage. It doesn't matter how well your game has been going or how many power-ups you accrue; eventually the game will present you with a string of unfortunate rooms or boss fights that overwhelm you, and despite your best efforts you will lose all of your progress to permadeath. This is distinct from Super Meat Boy's difficulty, where the levels are ass-chappingly difficult but always seem surmountable due to their static nature; Isaac will often leave you completely dumbfounded and rage-riddled as you run into strings of repeated bad luck and lose everything you've worked for, only to be taunted by the "Replay?" button. I've literally yelled at the screen more than once "NO! NO I DON'T WANT TO REPLAY!" (interspersed with infinitely more colorful language).
3) Game crashing bugs that tend to come at the absolute worst times. This game has pulled a heart-attack on me more times than I care to count, and it only seems to do so later in the game after you've lost blood, sweat, and tears to build up a healthy amount of upgrades and items. If you have the saintly patience to put up with the built-in random misfortune and the eventual tediousness of the core gameplay, try keeping your cool when you've repeatedly beat the odds only to have the game flip you a huge middle finger by crashing as you're on the cusp of victory. It's enough to make a monk break his vow of silence, blaspheme God, and go on a killing spree at a preschool.
The Binding of Isaac is like a turducken served with the bones left inside; it's enjoyable because it's a pastiche of good components, but the pain you'll inevitably and repeatedly encounter when trying to enjoy it can make it difficult to swallow.
-Interesting, twisted story provides a backdrop for the game's disturbingly awesome visual and audio style.
-Mixes the high points of 2D shooters like Smash TV with the random dungeons and pickups of Rogue, garnished with hints of Zelda.
-Highly replayable and possibly addictive (depending on your personality), the game gives you incentive to keep playing by adding more random items and giving you new playable characters when you complete certain objectives and achievements.
-At $5 it's a great value for the amount of time you can potentially put into it; certainly a better value than many other downloadable games.
-The game takes the worst parts of its inspirations along with the great, and unfortunately it's the bad parts that seem most striking after you've been playing the game for a while. While it's highly replayable, that doesn't necessarily mean you'll WANT to keep playing it after the game slaps you in the face repeatedly.
-Sound effects could be a lot better, with the effect of your primary attack being the most egregious offender. You'll be hearing "squishsquishsquish" long after you've put the game down, and that's not a good thing.
-Game breaking bugs mean that the game's extreme difficulty is even more infuriating than it should be, especially because these bugs seem to occur most often during the latter stages of the game when you've finally built up sizable advantages over the demon hordes. For a game that's often unfair by design, this problem is almost unforgivable.
-Unbelievable slowdown. My computer runs Deus Ex:HR and Dead Island at max settings and never slows down; you're telling me that Isaac really takes up <u>that</u> many resources to put under 10 measly 2d enemies and projectiles onscreen? I'd be horrified to see what it plays like on an older machine.
BUY IT: If you like difficult shooters (Smash TV in particular) and Roguelikes or randomness. It's well worth $5 if you have the high tolerance for frustration that these games require.
AVOID IT: If you have high blood pressure OR you like your games to be consistently rewarding and enjoyable. Isaac will punish and enrage you repeatedly for daring to wander its dank halls, and its high replayability is wasted if you have no desire to actually keep playing it.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 10/11/11
Game Release: The Binding of Isaac (US, 09/28/11)
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