The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth review
Easy-in, Not So Easy-out
Repetition must be one of the most difficult elements for game designers to handle. Every game has to have it to a certain extent, but too much or too little can become boring for entirely different reasons. Occasionally, though, developers manage to hit that sweet spot and the result is a game which is easy to learn and remains entertaining for a very long time. That’s exactly what 2011’s The Binding of Isaac offers; the simple, roguelike gameplay combines with an enormous library of equip-able items and a high degree of randomisation to produce a deceptively casual feel to a very addictive experience.
When his mother hears the voice of God telling her to sacrifice her son, toddler Isaac is forced to flee into the basement with only his tears and his wits to protect him from the resident monsters within. So goes the story, but it’s only really there to provide some themes to string everything together and an excuse to shoot hordes of nightmarish creatures. While the game’s been slapped with labels ranging from action-adventure to RPG and shoot ‘em up, it doesn’t fit neatly into any single genre. The top-down perspective, rectangular rooms and dungeon-like structure is reminiscent of crawlers such as the original Legend of Zelda. You begin in an empty room, decide which room to enter next, and progress throughout the level with the eventual goal of finding and defeating that level’s boss before moving on to the next one. Standard WASD controls allow two-dimensional movement while the directional arrows let you choose which way to shoot your ‘tears’, which are effectively bullets with unlimited ammunition. Aside from bomb-dropping and the occasional on-use item, that’s pretty much all there is to it. The simple gameplay smacks of a casual browser game except for two major differences – a seemingly endless catalogue of items, and the fact that everything – and I really mean everything – is utterly randomised.
The basic formula is this – you always start in an empty room which is connected to one, two, three or four adjoining rooms. What each room houses in terms of enemies, traps or explodable scenery is always randomly generated. Every level contains at least one ‘upgrade’ which either boosts your stats or provides you with a new mechanism for destroying or escaping from your enemies. Almost every conceivable way in which the game’s simple combat could be altered is covered by a different item. Ultimately the level will finish when you discover the boss room, and which boss you face off against is once again chosen at random. Along the way you’ll collect keys for unlocking doors and chests, bombs for clearing obstacles or blasting a hole in your opponents, and money to spend on whatever you choose. Of course, which collectables or upgrades spawn in a given level, the presence or absence of minibosses, arcades and shops are also randomly determined, meaning that no two levels are ever the same. Taken apart the simple gameplay elements don’t offer anything new, and certainly doesn’t do it better than other games in the same genre, but because they’re combined in such a way as to be different every time you play it remains enjoyable for far longer than it would otherwise.
Pick up and play: Simple gameplay makes it easy to get in to and difficult to put down
Mind you, the RPG label can be a bit misleading. It stems from extremely limited decision-making and dependence on stats for combat effectiveness. At the start of the game you can choose between two characters and unlock a further four, each with unique strengths and weaknesses. As you play, certain items will boost your health, speed, rate of fire, damage, and so forth. My complaint is that the RPG moniker usually implies a high degree of choice over these things, and you’ll be disappointed if that’s what you’re expecting; for the most part your stats will depend on which items spawn for a given playthrough, and that’s not something you have any say over. True, you can choose where and how to spend your money and whether to make deals with the devil (sacrificing health for particularly powerful items) but otherwise luck dictates how your character pans out and it’s up to you to adjust your style to accommodate it. It’s not a gamebreaker by any means, just a little disingenuous if you’re a die-hard RPG fanatic.
One of the game’s bizarre charms is its quirky combination of themes. Gratuitous violence, buckets of blood and creatures ranging from the disturbing to the disgusting wouldn’t seem out of place in an out-and-out horror, but it’s mitigated by a cartoony graphical style and the constant reminder of your player character’s identity as a small, innocent child. Items like the Whore of Babylon and Book of Revelations contrast markedly with the Lemon Mishap, which makes you piss yourself, and Mum’s Lipstick. On top of that are the knowing winks to the PC gaming target audience such as the Steam Sale, which reduces shop item prices by 50%, and the Shoop da Whoop which charges and fires a gigantic directional laser. The juxtaposition is unusual but highly effective. Somehow it manages to work on both levels – safe enough to not scare you away, while containing sufficient adult-oriented material to hold your attention.
As previously mentioned, the characteristic which separates The Binding of Isaac from other similar titles is its insistence on randomisation. While the number of upgrades is finite for any given playthrough, those which spawn are randomly selected from the game’s library which consists of some one hundred items. It’s not complete randomisation, since more powerful items will only spawn in later levels, but this is offset appropriately by increasing difficulty in the form of more powerful enemies and bosses. The sheer number of items is impressive in itself, but the fact that many item effects are unique and that you won’t see them again for another five, ten, twenty playthroughs is enough to keep you coming back again and again. Furthermore, different combinations of items will likewise result in startlingly different gameplay. It’s the RPG equivalent of a nearly infinite number of classes. Your tactics will need to change according to your strengths and weaknesses and it adds to the incredible addictiveness afforded by the easy-in simplicity of the gameplay.
While The Binding of Isaac’s insistence on randomisation is its greatest appeal, however, it also leads to its greatest downfall; some items are considerably better than others, and because which ones are available is always randomly determined, it’s possible to get gypped with enough bad spawns that progression can become difficult or virtually impossible. Getting five health-boosting items in a row won’t do you any favours if you’re still moving at a snail’s pace and hitting like a wet noodle. Indeed it’s necessary to have high speed if you’ve any chance at defeating the game’s final boss, and requiring luck to complete the game no matter your skill level is always something which puts me off. Worse still is the completely inexplicable lack of a save feature, which is unforgivable considering that playthroughs can last for over an hour. It’s bad enough that you have to start from scratch when you die, but having to plan out your gaming sessions in advance so that you can finish a game before you log off completely ruins the casual tone.
Part dungeon-crawler, part RPG, part shooter, a whole lot of fun
It’s a great pity because these are the only things keeping The Binding of Isaac from more or less perfecting the casual, roguelike formula. Edmund McMillen of Super Meat Boy fame has a unique graphical style which manages to convey a lot of detail even though it’s fairly threadbare. Isaac’s more or less a stick figure but the bright pastel colours make blood and tears stand out against the grotesque flies and demons. His skill is perhaps best demonstrated by the five-second interludes between levels, which depict one of Isaac’s (randomly selected, of course) nightmares, all of which are somehow familiar from the player’s own childhood despite being just a few lines, circles and extremely basic animation. The soundtrack isn’t bad, but doesn’t seem to be overly long; there are two great ‘moments’ (it doesn’t seem to be divided into individual tracks or songs) which comprise of haunting piano music and heavy guitar chords over what sounds like a church organ. They sound great and fit the motif superbly, but come around a bit too frequently for my liking. The sound effects work much better, and from the crunch of a pulverised fly to the sickening squelch of a flattened zombie, they integrate brilliantly into that almost jovial horror atmosphere. It’s pretty amazing actually to consider how much has been crammed into a game that takes up so little hard drive space. Take note, AAA devs: it’s not the size, it’s how you use it!
Conclusion: The Binding of Isaac is the epitome of the phrase ‘keep it simple, stupid’. It doesn’t do a whole lot, but it does what it does extremely well. It’s the sort of game you fire up because you’re bored or want to pass a bit of time and find yourself still playing a couple of hours later. You can play it hundreds of times without discovering everything it has to offer, and even then no two playthroughs will ever be the same. It can be frustrating if you get unlucky with spawns and it baffles me that there’s no save feature, but it’s equally astounding how such a simple game can be so addictive. It craps all over an awful lot of games which will set you back a helluva lot more. Not for the hardcore demographic, but hours of fun for just about everyone else.
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