Game designer Edmund McMillen made his mark on gaming last year with Super Meat Boy. A game that successfully combined all of the nostalgic appeal of the past 30 years of platform games with such brilliant, ridiculously challenging gameplay as to have both enamoured and infuriated anyone who played through it. Not satisfied with indirectly causing the destruction of countless gamepads, monitors and keyboards, McMillen has released his next title, The Binding of Isaac. And yes, it’s just as tricky, rewarding and dark as his last game.
The Binding of Isaac (a biblical reference and one that’s carried through both the design and narrative of the game) is an homage to two more beloved genres in gaming: the isometric action RPG (harking back to the original Zelda) and the devilishly challenging rogue-like dungeon crawlers. Animated in a style familiar to fans of Team Meat’s work, The Binding follows the tragic life of Isaac, a boy abused by his overly-religious mother who escapes her attempts to slay him through the dungeon-like basement under his house.
It’s the player’s job to guide Isaac, naked and frightened as he his, through half a dozen grotesque environments filled with gory foes all intent on ending his life. Only able to fire his tears (and later, blood if you pick up the right powerup) and with just one life, the odds aren’t stacked in young Isaac’s favour. There are buffs and spells to be picked up along the way that make him stronger, faster and more powerful but this still all pales in comparison to the increasingly tough boss monsters that block Isaac’s descent to his final battle against his delusional mother.
While the gameplay is simple (but maddeningly punishing of any mistake), the true challenge comes from the way the levels are put together. Each stage is randomly generated, making learning patterns and developing a strategy beyond the basics of dispatching each enemy next to impossible. With just one life, you’ll quickly see a lot of variations on the same levels but, thanks to the grisly visuals, foreboding-yet-catchy soundtrack and huge selection of collectibles, The Binding of Isaac is something that players will be enjoying for a long time.
It’s incredibly refreshing to find a game so simple in its concept and yet so perfectly executed. The Binding of Isaac doesn’t attempt to draw attention by reinventing the genre, it reminds us how well a game can be put together if you focus on the challenge itself. The environments and story are disturbing yet incidental and, while some of the more gruesome imagery is likely to upset those with more delicate constitutions (the humour, when pleasant, is as black as it comes), every element has been carefully planned to contribute to the sense of unease and almost unbearable tension that comes from having such a fragile protagonist.
At its current, sub-£5 price tag, The Binding of Isaac is a fantastic example of the high quality and excellent value available through the indie gaming scene. Whether you play it simply to kill time or to compulsively collect every item and achievement, McMillen has created something that will outlast most of this years’ triple-A titles.
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