Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The Binding of Isaac

Post-Launch Review
The Binding of Isaac
Developer: Edmund McMillen & Florian Himsl
Released: September 28 2011


A mother is told by God that she must sacrifice her young son Isaac to prove her faith. Terrified, Isaac escapes through a trap door in his bedroom, leaving him trapped in a dungeon, crying and naked. Isaac fights his way through grotesque enemies in a top-down shooter where he attempts to find a way out of the dungeon.

At Launch

The Binding of Isaac received average review scores of 84%. Critics were surprised with the game's depth and were impressed with the variety and skill involved in gameplay. Some reviewers were not impressed with the game's very dark tone and high level of cartoon gore, while others enjoyed those elements. The game was noted to be quite challenging.

Post Launch

The game has received several patches to fix bugs, and also a fairly substantial free content patch including a few new items, enemies, and achievements. 
Wrath of the Lamb is an inexpensive DLC pack that adds new items, enemies, bosses, rooms, music, a challenge mode, a new character, and more chapters and secrets.

The Good

Surprisingly Disturbing
For a very cartoony game, The Binding of Isaac is pretty creepy. The premise is already unsettling, and then there are plenty of monsters in the basement that look like horrid twisted human babies/children, implying that this has happened many times. Many of the upgrades are gross: stuff like Isaac's eyeball popping out and helping him fight, an extra head, dead baby ghosts. And others will make you squirm for entirely different reasons: mom's bra, a bag of dog food called "dessert", etc.
Why is this level of creepiness good? Well, for a lot of people it probably isn't, and will be a reason to avoid the game. But from a design standpoint, the game is trying to disturb you, and it does a damn good job of it.

Gameplay requires a lot of movement and dodging, and can get surprisingly intense. There are many different enemy types with variations within the same types in terms of mobility and special abilities. And since you can only shoot up, down, left, or right, you usually have to put yourself in harm's way to draw line of fire.

Wrath of the Lamb DLC
If you plan to play The Binding of Isaac, Wrath of the Lamb is a must-buy, especially considering that it's only $3. It vastly increases the amount of content in the game and as a result increases the variation and replayability.

The Neutral

Difficult Random Dungeon
The layout, items, secrets, and enemies in the basement are determined at random, making the game different every time you play. There are a couple of rules, of course - earlier levels have less rooms than later ones - but you'll have a new experience every time. And if you're lucky you'll get powerful upgrades early and blow through some levels with no trouble.
The downside to this is that if you're unlucky, you're screwed. Some items aren't very useful. Some items occupy the same slot, so if you're constantly getting "space slot" items, you can only choose one to keep. Sometimes the first room in the basement contains a single fly and rewards you with a key, but sometimes it has four spiders and four blood-spitting heads (the latter is annoying, if you hadn't guessed).
Basically, I often end up feeling like I only do well when I happen to get lucky with good items.

The Bad

No Overlay
The Steam overlay doesn't work with The Binding of Isaac, apparently because it's a Flash game and the overlay doesn't play well with Flash. That's not too much of a problem for most people, but it means I couldn't take screenshots.

At random intervals the game will slow way down. You and all the enemies will move more slowly. The pace varies, but it's always noticeable, and always annoying. See this post on the Steam forums for some helpful tips that will improve performance. For those of you who don't feel like clicking: hit Ctrl+Alt+Del, go to the Processes tab, and right click on Isaac. Set priority to high, and make sure that core affinity has only one or two boxes checked (not all).

The Verdict

Recommendation: maybe.
The Binding of Isaac is fun, but it relies too much on random luck for my taste. You can do exceptionally well or very poorly based simply on what rooms and items you roll. Skill does play a very significant factor and a very skilled player can overcome bad luck, but the base difficulty is high and creates somewhat of a barrier for learning where luck is the larger factor. There also isn't enough variety in the action and gameplay to hold my interest for too long. The game has some interesting themes and is well crafted (once you take the steps to correct the nasty slowdown issue) but it's not really my kind of thing.

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