Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Binding of Isaac Review

 The Binding of Isaac Review

Well hello, now I will review a game I just beat and I really like! After so much negativity over Skyrim (even though I think I was was pretty fair and it's still a good game, combating all that mega-praise just felt very negative) I wanted to continue to do something simple and fun and I liked! So a chose a game about child abuse due to religious zealousy with huge amounts of blood, violence, death, hate, sin, and crying, and a game renowned as being incredibly hard. How amazingly relaxing...

But I already said I love this game.
Background: Developed and released in 2011, September 2011. It was made by Florian Himsl, who I know nothing about, and Edmund McMillen, who I DO know. Edmund is a graphic artist, known for his widely critically acclaimed 2004 game Gish, and his also widely critically acclaimed game Super Meat Boy - he's one half of the founders of Team Meat. He did the art for this game as well, and it has gone on to become widely critically acclaimed. It's not all a pattern though, he's had a lot of smaller games too, but he's been on a roll lately. The game is on PC only right now, mostly through Steam. It was a part of the Humble Indie Bundle, and that's where I got it. It's supposedly coming to 3DS, and I can't wait, since the controls will be quite suited for that. It also has a huge expansion coming, and I'm crazy excited. But enough overview.

Gameplay: So, WASD is to move, like most keyboard games. The arrow keys are to shoot your projectiles, you hold down one of them and you shoot in that direction with auto-fire. E or shift drops bombs, space activates Active items, Q activates collectible items, being Tarot Cards or Pills. You have 5 stats: Health, Movement Speed, Fire Rate, Shot Damage, and Shot Range. There are 4 types of items: Active, Passive, Tarot Cards, and Pills. Here's a breakdown of them:
Active: Active items are used with the space bar, and generally do a one-time/short duration effect of pretty good power level. Their thing is that they're reusable - clearing a room of enemies charges an item a bit, and after enough (specific to the item) you can use the item again. 3 rooms is the average to recharge. You can only have one at a time.
Passive: Passive items change something about you - there's the greatest variety of these. You might get your shots improved in some way, you might get a stat up, you might get a miscellaneous effect, etc. These are always on, are never actively used, and never need recharging. You can carry as many of these as you can collect.
Tarot Cards: You can either have one Tarot Card or one Pill at any given point. Tarot Cards are one-use, and the game doesn't tell you what a given card does until you use it, but each tarot is tied to a specific effect, so memorizing Tarot effects is helpful (or using a guide).
Pills: Pills, on the other hand, change every time you restart, so you can't just memorize by color. When you pick one up, it's described as ???. Using it lets you know what it does, and it's not always good. If you pick up the same color of pill on that playthrough, you'll know what it is now, but it'll change if you die and restart. Both Tarot and Pills are used with the Q button.
There are also 4 collectibles:
Hearts: Just what they sound like, they replenish your red health bar, the capped one. You won't pick it up if you don't need it, and you can save it for later. All collectibles remain when you leave the room and don't fade away over time. There are also Soul Hearts, which are blue, which act as temp HP - they go above your maximum, and are used up first, but can't be recharged; once they're gone, they're gone.
Bombs: Just what they sound like. Hit E or Shift to use 'em, and they explode with a radius of 2 squares, blowing up blocks and dealing heavy damage to enemies. Some runs you'll get a bunch, some runs not so much.
Coins: It's money! You use it in the shop. It's usually pretty scarce - getting 55 coins unlocks a character, and it's a pretty hard unlock.
Keys: They unlock locked doors or chests. Um, yeah. They're valuable, but not exactly interesting. There's no cap on Bombs, Keys, or Coins as far as I can see.
So those are the items.
The game is split into floors. Each floor is randomly generated, and generally contains one item room and one shop, and may contain other things, like an arcade or a challenge room or a miniboss. One room on the floor is a boss - the game has a number of bosses, and some are limited to certain floors, but the game randomly selects one that can appear on that floor and have you fight that. When you kill it, it gives you an Item (Active or Passive, not pills or tarot. The item room works this way too) and a hole opens up to the next floor. The first time you run the game, there will be 6 floors (the game extends after your first win).
This game is known for its difficulty. That mostly comes from two things: low health and 0 checkpoints. You start the game with 3 hearts and getting hit usually does a 1/2 heart of damage. It's nasty. The most killer thing is that if you die, you restart the WHOLE GAME. No extra lives without one of 2 extremely rare (and dangerous) items. No checkpoints back at the start of the floor. It's vicious.
But you can read all of this elsewhere, that's not reviewing, it's info. Here's what I think of the gameplay - it works. A lot. It's balls-hard, and I'm beyond astounded that I've actually reached the first ending. The enemies are built to tear you to shreds, and my tendency is to dish out a ton of damage and end up taking some. My Bro, on the flip side, practices surviving and taking a long time to kill stuff, which is probably why he beat the game first (although only barely!) Speaking of Bro, we both actually used the same Devil Room passive item (the Devil Room sometimes appears after a boss, you can trade away 1 or 2 of your permanent health to get a very strong item, but that health drop usually cripples you). We both used Brimstone, and actually might have both had The Inner Eye. Our two styles both work, but I really have to be careful with my health. I would recommend against my more aggressive style generally (curious, usually Bro is more aggressive than me), care and caution is recommended.
The game is influenced by a bunch of things very obviously. Aside from the very obvious Gish and Super Meat Boy references in the style, the game's shape is very often compared to the dungeons from the original The Legend of Zelda. I haven't played too much of the original (it keeps killing me, but this game is kinda filling me with more confidence), but I have to agree. It feels weird to say it what with the aesthetics and your range, but you can feel the classic Zelda in every pore of the game. The game's other influence are The Roguelikes. Not a particular game but a genre, the randomization of the dungeons and 0 checkpoint mentality is very tied to the roguelikes, and it works. Combining the two works very well - simple square rooms with a few enemies, randomized every time you do it, makes the game never grow old. That's good, because the mortality rate means you'll see those first levels an awful lot.
I like the velocity on shots. When you're, say, moving up and shooting left, your shots will be diagonally upward a bit, as opposed to the straight left when standing still. This allows you to do some really clever maneuvers to hit enemies while remaining safe, and learning to do it is vital to success.
Overall, what do I think of the gameplay? I love it. It keeps me coming back. It's varied, strategic, and simple, while still being highly nuanced.

Plot: Okay, you know The Binding of Isaac? No, not the game, the Bible story. Well, what if Isaac was a small child and it was his mother instead of his father, and she was fat and abusive? That's this game.  Mom is a zealot, loves God above all else. When God tells her to kill her son to prove her faith she goes to. Isaac runs into his room, and jumps down the trapdoor to the basement - who knows what horror is down there, but it's better than Mom and her knife. And you go through the floors, fighting off everything with your blood and tears. At the bottom, you fight Mom. Now, the game has multiple endings - each time you beat it, the story moves a bit further, but I'll be talking about the 1st ending only right now since I haven't seen the others (this isn't really spoiling, it's a freaking Bible story, you should know how this ends). Okay, so you fight Mom, and beat her. But she's too strong, she's bearing down on him, and just before she kills him, God stops her. Now, it's not a very video game ending if the final boss just doesn't kill you, is rewarded for putting you through this, and returns to standard life. No, God pushes a Bible off the shelf, which falls on Mom's head and kills her just before she gets you.
So, I can see where a lot of folks can probably get this as anti-religion. I mean, God's action forces Isaac to go through poop, death, blood, and terror. It's not a bad interpretation, but I don't think that's the intended one. See, I think it SUPPORTS the religion. Think of the Bble story. It's not the most famous(it's not Adam & Eve, Sodom and Gomorrah, or the parting of the Red Sea), but it's a pretty good one. However, the impact of it has, um, faded. Nowadays the typical stance toward it is probably "Oh yes, it's a story of having faith in God, and Abraham nearly kills his son but is stopped." But look at a lot of other Old Testament pieces. The Old Testament God is known for being particularly brutal - heck, Sodom and Gomorrah.What this game has done is updated a tale to the modern age to make it more accessible, plugged it directly into mainstream media, and stuffed the fear and impact back into that story. The terror of the game makes you think to Biblical Isaac and what he went through - obviously not literally the same, but spiritually? Definitely. I really do think that this game has reinvigorated that story.

Graphics: Simple, scary, gory. Sounds like Edmund's style. Irreverent? Absolutely. One of the best things about the graphics is how most of your Items, passive or active, change how you look. For example, The Belt actually puts a belt on Isaac. When you've racked up a bunch of items you'll have changed in pretty drastic ways, and I like that. Overall the game just has a very simple aesthetic. And of course there's the blood. Most hospitals have less blood than Isaac's basement. There are blatant visual references to Super Meat Boy and Gish, and the amount of blood is even more than the former, which is impressive. Get ready to paint the floor red. It's pretty disturbing, but the game still retains a somehow cute look.

Sound: Hello Danny Baranowsky! His name alone means I should just put down a seal of approval and move on. But the game stands on its own. The sounds are creepy yet charming, and keep the atmosphere while not being bad songs in their own right. Sacrificial is a good one.

Replayability: The game's sticking point to me. 1 win won't do it. You have to do more than 10 wins to see the last ending. Every time you go is different, and the unbelievable variety of STUFF to get means no run will ever be the same. Seriously, there are 130 items in this game. It's insane. I keep playing just because I want to see more. And the expansion that's coming will be adding, like 200 more. I CAN'T WAIT. There are hidden things everywhere, and cool synergies between certain items are still being uncovered.

Conclusion: So, where do I think this game falls through? Its inaccessibility due to its difficulty. For some people, this could just be too hard. But I  think this is genuinely a rock-solid, extremely high-quality game. I have to give it 9/10. It just doesn't have the extraordinary, pitch-perfect polish that a game needs to be a 10. With the expansion, it just might be a 10. And this scale is comparing it to full retail major-developer games, just on an indie-games scale this is 5/5 for sure!
End Recording,

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