2 Oct 2011

REVIEW: The Binding of Isaac

Feast your eyes on this, the new game developed in part by Edmund McMillen; indie hero, father of Gish, mother of Meat Boy and author of that largely unsexy game about ladies’ private parts. This time we enter the world of Isaac and if your bible is well read, you'll either appreciate the reinvention of this twisted tale or, I'm sure, abhore it. Personally, I think it's an original and suitable setting for the game, but I’m not in a position to judge whether it could be perceived as a middle finger to those of certain faiths.

Quick précis? Little Isaac's mother hears the voice of God, and it demands that she purify her child of all his sins. One thing leads to another and the booming voice above eventually asks that she end her son's life in a typically grizzly demonstration of her belief in the big man. To escape his knife-wielding mother, Isaac enters the basement of the house through a trapdoor in his bedroom floor. From then on, he becomes involved in a bloody quest to kill the nutty bitch, arcade shooter style. Naturally.

The Binding... is in many ways like a top-down take on Spelunky; all randomly generated rooms, item shops and enemies. For this reason, it appears infinitely replayable, even as I enter my thirtieth turn in its grizzly underworld. There are no second chances here - you have but one life with which to make the endgame. Really. Have I beaten it yet? No. But I'm not done trying.

It can be a cruel and vicious game, punishing the player in its thirst for variety. You may pick up an item that causes insta-death, or you might come across room after room of monsters with nary a power-up in sight. Sometimes you'll be locked and loaded from the get go with a handful of bombs and a damage buff you've picked up in the second or third chamber. It's never predictable and there is always that sense of unwrapping a gift each time a new game is fired up. Will it be a glistening jewel when I begin again, or a box of steaming poo? To be honest, just like in real life, either way is fun. You make of it what you can, even when lady luck does happen to boot you in the balls.

The game consists of layers of dungeons that you'll descend through as you progress. The maps on each level are non-linear so you get to choose where it is you’d like to go whilst exploring, but you’ll always need to face one super-baddie in a particular room before you’re allowed to reach a lower stage. It’s a simple goal, but you’re constantly weighing up the odds of survival, checking the map to see whether you should get the level boss over with, or risk some more basement rooms on the off chance some newly discovered loot will turn you into the teary-eyed murderer you always wished to be.

Isaac kills with tears, it’s true. He also wears his mothers heels to gain range and can, on occasion, call in a missile strike from above. The combinations of passive perks and power-ups are practically limitless. You’ll unlock more and more as you progress through the game and, as you become accustomed to them, you’ll also be learning the strengths and weaknesses of each enemy you encounter. It’s a great little hook and ensures that with each death both your practical experience and your ability to survive increases. It’s another step in maintaining the 'one more play' player attitude that this game thrives on.

If there is anything to pick at in criticism it would likely be the configuration options, notably the control scheme. Although the game has recently been updated to support joystick use, that support only extends to instructions on downloading JoyToKey, a third party button-binding app which isn't ideal when you're after plug and play with a standard Xbox controller. Considering Super Meat Boy implemented joypad support so well, this surprises me, and I will always be more willing to play a game like The Binding of Isaac whilst slouching in a chair, madly bashing buttons, rather than sitting upright at a keyboard.

This, though, doesn’t take away from the fact that McMillen has once again displayed his talent for creating absurdist pantomimes within compelling cartoon worlds. The Binding of Isaac is full of filth and depravity, but with enough comic value to negate any serious sense of doom and gloom. For the price of a pint of ale, you’d be crazy not to pick this up.

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