The Binding of IsaaclikeTBC Developer Edmund McMillen, Florian Himsl Publisher N/A Genre Rouge-Like Platform PC Release 28th September 2011 Nopub November - I'm a big fan of putting modern twists on old genres. Call me a sucker, but I have all the time in the world for well-executed reboots of old franchises for the same reason. So perhaps this is why I have such interest in Edmund "half of Team Meat" McMillen and Florian Himsl's: The Binding of Isaac. The game poises itself as a Rouge-Like/Overhead-RPG game in a similar vain as The Legend of Zelda (the original NES game) and classic, ASCII-art rendered PC games of old, thrown together with the art style which made Super Meat Boy stand out from the crowd. If any of that sounded remotely interesting to you, read on.

Vending machine/Slot machine.
The game opens to a tongue-in-cheek prologue setting the scene, Isaac lives with this Christian-TV loving Mother and all was well until Mom starts to hear voices which she believes to be the voice of God. Stripping Isaac of his worldly possessions and isolating him from the society, his Mother re-enacts the parable from the Bible, which if you're unfamiliar with, Isaac is to be sacrificed as an offering to God. As his Mother approaches to sacrifice him, Isaac slips into a trap door leading to the basement, where he encounters unspeakable monsters. The game's story isn't much to speak of, it's mostly just flavour and, despite outwards appearances isn't actually any kind of social commentary. It isn't unusual for Rouge-like games to have little or no story and is much like the original The Legend of Zelda the way the game starts with no story at all, unless you peered into the game's instruction manual. Still, whatever story the game possesses sets a dark tone none-the-less, which clashes with the game's cute-grotesque visual appearance just as well as Super Meat Boy did.

The game consists of four chapters, each chapter consists of eight levels. Through-out each, you will fight a selection of 40-or-so bosses and mini-bosses, collect power-ups and die, a lot. As is normal for Rouge-likes, the levels rooms and enemies you encounter are all randomly generated. The game can be mercilessly difficult or pitifully easy depending what mood the game's auto-generation-algorithm is in. Although room order is randomised as well as enemy and power-up locations, each room you will encounter is hand-made and thus not impossible to complete by any means. It doesn't mean you won't get screwed by auto-generation stringing together several extremely difficult rooms in a row, slowly chipping away at the extremely limited health you possess. This random element to the game does offer a unique play-through each time you start or consequently die.

Words escape me...
Speaking of death, Rouge-Like games embrace death as not so much a barrier or a wall players hit along the road, but as part of the game's flow. This is something many will seem as being too harsh. You can get to the very final boss, die and have to start from the very beginning again, losing everything, and I mean everything you have collected en-route. There is no Zelda-like "Continue", no second wind. You die, you restart. But again, this is all part of the game. Don't be afraid to die in The Binding of Isaac, it's just what happens, even if you're a master at these games, death will become you eventually.

The game's progression is very similar to The Legend of Zelda in that you complete a dungeon, or "level" by defeating the boss and moving on. By defeating the level boss, you unlock a new permanent power-up such as Life Up, Strength Up, Speed Up and so forth but that doesn't mean you have to take it. For real masochists, you can progress through the whole game without any of the power ups at all. Taking most of the power ups will actually change Isaac's appearance in some way. Each level will usually have a store, money dropped by enemies can be spent here or at vending machines which have a random chance of giving you an item or sometimes, no item at all. Alternatively, you can remove some of the random element of money-drops out of the equation by finding a blood bank, which will remove health from you in exchange for cash at an extremely harsh exchange rate. You may also encounter the Demon Devil by meeting certain criteria, mostly by performing well against bosses. By making "bonds" with the devil for items and power-ups, some of your health is replaced by "soul hearts", non-replenishable health depicted by blue-coloured hearts rather than the standard red-coloured variety.

What I think Marmite tastes like.
Controls are basic, you move fairly freely around the world but shooting is fairly restricted. You can only shoot your one and only weapon in one of four directions. This can get rather troublesome when trying to take out some enemies, especially those which can shoot in diagonals. You can also place bombs, given you have any bombs. These can be used to blow up rocks and find hidden rooms, which there should be one per level. You can keep one on-hand power-up such as a card or pills which have varying affects such as the ability to teleport away from any room to the nearest shop or drop a whole bunch of bombs, all the effects can detrimental to you as much as they can be a force of good. Defeating enemies will have a chance of them dropping items such as hearts, which act as your health, soul hearts or even lit bombs with an appropriate troll-face upon them.

Bosses are what you expect from an RPG game of this style. Very repetitive and more about endurance than skill. Once you get enemy boss patterns down, you can easily defeat them. Sub-bosses are far greater challenge, you randomly encounter these enemies by simply walking into a nondescript room, where as actual stage bosses are clearly marked with their distinctive doorways. Sub-bosses resemble the Seven Deadly Sins, each one having a unique gimmick. Defeating them will drop special items like cards or other various collectables.

You have the occasional 'story' segment, none of them are of any consequence.
Visually, The Binding of Isaac isn't much to look at, especially not if you've already seen all of what this art style has to offer in Super Meat Boy, the other Team Meat game. Granted, its got charm but not an awful lot. Given the game was created as a side-project to whatever Team Meat is currently working on, it's perhaps being too hard on them to expect an innovative new art style from them. Alas, the game does a very good job at making everything clear and concise, enemies are well-defined against the stage backdrops, projectiles are, for the most part, clear to see and it allows them to get away with making you play as a naked, crying child which I don't think many other games with other art styles could really let you get away with. In the end, the cutesy-grotesque appearance of the game doesn't subtract away from the game but does feel a little tired.

The game's soundtrack is surprisingly good. Composed by Danny Baranowsky, known for his work on indie gems: Super Meat Boy and Canabalt, the music is pretty cool. While the game does fall back on some more "epic" set-piece music tracks, especially when fighting bosses, the game really shines with a haunting atmosphere when the game takes a more minimalist approach. The slow, brooding track played when you encounter the devil are perhaps the more stand-out moments of the game alongside boss battles which play a very low-key score. The game's soundtrack could have quite easily been a mash of over-the-top, cliché faux-orchestration or heavy-metal, yet the game decides to take the subtler path. I have great respect for this, makes the game far more memorable at the end of it all.

Overall, The Binding of Isaac is a pretty fine top-down-shooter/Rouge-Like RPG. It's cripplingly difficult, but after Super Meat Boy, are you expecting anything less? There are a few implementation issues, especially with the game's shooting mechanics which seem to be more geared towards console controller-like input rather than mouse and keyboard, but it's not game-breaking in any way. It's not really a thinking man's game, there's no undertones of religious satire or commentary, it's merely just what the game is wrapped around in. Still, the game is tons of fun and its randomly-generated nature will ensure that no two play-throughs are ever the same. If you're a huge fan of Rouge-Likes and Zelda games, this one is certainly for you. Like your games a little easier? Perhaps steer clear of this game. But, for the game's asking price of under £5, it's a steal. Go check it out.
The game has no story to speak of, it's just flavour. And while it does it's job, a more fleshed-out storyline would have done wonders for the game.
While extremely difficult, the game is very satisfying.
Super Meat Boy made this game's appearance seem pretty tired, but it gets the job done nonetheless.
An amazing soundtrack which keeps everything together and side-steps most clichés of this genre.
3 Hours
A typical play-through will take a few hours taking into account the amount of time you'll spend restarting from the beginning.