Isaac comes from the same team as Super Meat Boy, which I have referred to a few times, mainly in praise of its punishing (but fair) difficulty levels. Isaac shares much of the same production values, and the look of the game is very similar. However, SMB was a goodie versus baddie story writ large in a cartoony font, and the copious blood and death weren’t as disturbing as they could have been. Meat Boy got crushed, squished, splatted and diced, but he always got up again with a cheeky smile for the camera. His nemesis didn’t die when defeated, he ran offscreen, shaking his fist and swearing revenge. It was wholesome. The Binding of Isaac covers the delusions of a young boy about to be killed with a breadknife by his cult-addled mother. To defeat her, he must travel down into hell and kill her himself. This is not as abstracted from the real world as SMB was, this is (despite the ridiculous exaggerated situation) more real and so the first thing I felt while playing this was concern over whether I really wanted to see this. The whole game is set up so as to put you on edge, with blood, shit and tears (as Churchill’s discarded first draft said) pervading nearly every aspect of it. Though I did get over it eventually, I do want to acknowledge that intial reaction before I talk about the game itself.
Isaac is a simple game built on the motto of the roguelike: get to the bottom of the dungeon and kill the big bad who resides there. You wander around your floor, one room at a time, locate the boss for that level and kill them, and then descend. The gameplay is basic shoot-em-up, move around the room, not getting hurt, while flinging your tears at the baddies until they die. There’s six levels, and they aren’t very big (10-20 rooms depending on how deep you are). Getting to the bottom and killing Mom should take you 30-40 minutes. Should.
What makes it interesting is the combination of that simple design with an absolute metric big-tonne of variables. Powerups are sprinkled throughout the levels, they all do something positive and they all contribute towards each trek towards the bottom being unique and different. This is presented magnificently, with every single powerup adding some horrible looking cosmetic enhancement to young Isaac. Though you will see some more than others, in my ten hours of play I still haven’t seen half of the possibilities, and I think they’re the main strength of the game. The game doesn’t do a great job of explaining their benefits but as I was running the game in a window anyway, I just kept their wiki page on a browser open in the background and looked up anything I was unsure on. As you get deeper and deeper the combinations become more and more distinct and the eventual defeat is a painful one as you’ll never see that version of Isaac again. So long, Cyborg Unicorn Isaac.
What about the fighting itself? It’s alright I suppose, you learn how to defeat each type of enemy then you see if you can adapt when there’s loads of them or lots of different types. The main fun is when the hurly-burly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won, and it’s all about risk and reward. After the room is clear you can comb it for loot. Extinguish the fires, destroy the shit and see what appears, then decide if it’s worth using a bomb to clear a path towards a boxed-off treasure. Your resources are extremely finite, you see, and you have to decide what you want to trade for what. Keys for health? Health for coins? Coins for items? There’s various machines and rooms dotted around the place that let you gamble what you have for the hope of getting something better and my favourite example is the blood machine. It switches half a heart of health for a variable amount of coins. However there is also a chance that while doing this, it will explode and give you a blood-bag item, which will restore you to full health and increase your health cap. When I stumble into an arcade, half-dead, and see one of these in the corner, I have to think whether it’s worth the risk of nearly killing myself, just to get that extra heart. Or I could explode it, if I have a bomb, and claim a compensatory amount of coins.
There’s little symbols outside the rooms that’ll let you know their type before you go into them. Mostly these are blank for a bog-standard enemies and some stuff room, but there are ones representing optional minibosses, there are arcades, shops, treasure rooms, mystery rooms (you need to blow a hole in the right wall to find these), gauntlets (where you fight waves of enemies for a potential massive reward), and probably a couple more that I’ve forgotten. You don’t need to go into any of those, so you have to decide whether the payoff is worth the risk. I love this constant juggling of priorities, saving your keys for the important locks and knowing which ones they are, throwing your coins into slot machines in the hope of something amazing or just buying something useful from the shop.
It’s this metagame and the narrative that you build over your thirty minute play that make the game worthwhile, not the combat itself, that’s just a means to an end. On my final, successful run, I played really good at the start, not taking any damage. This meant I was able to make a deal with the devil, reducing my health cap permanently for an upgrade in damage. I nearly lost all my health trying to get the bloodbag out of the blood machine I mentioned earlier, sulked as it didn’t pay off, then ran into one the next floor down that instantly exploded. I acquired growth hormones that made my face look like a potato, and two fly comrades that circled around me, absorbing hits. As I neared the bottom, the devil came to me again and I was able to upgrade to some ridiculous blood laser that took ages to charge up. Throughout, I was extremely low on bombs and keys but that meant I had tonnes of health, and I needed it. In the final battle, Mom attacked from all directions, I lost strength rapidly, and I executed plan B: use everything that I have. Tarot Card played, Unicorn Horn firmly affixed to my head (I don’t really know how there was space between the mining helmet and giant balrog horns and the swollen puffy forehead), I charged her down. Victory music sounds, I breathe out for what seems the first time in ages. I’d done it. It was all about the journey. Now let’s go again.
4 stars, 10 hours played (killed Mom once)