The Binding of Isaac

First off, I really hate the aesthetic of this game. I’ve never been a fan of the “ugly on purpose” school of graphics design, and while I delight in a thick coat of black comedy, Tumorbaby’s Adventures in Poopgore Dungeon doesn’t exactly qualify. There are a few clever gags hidden away in here behind the sophomoric toilet humor, but they could have just as easily been implemented in a game that wasn’t so unpleasant to look at. I almost passed on Isaac because it’s outer shell is so horrible, and if it lost my sale I’m certain it lost someone else’s.

Indeed, the main reason I went ahead and got it is because it’s so good that several people offered to buy it for me, including two YouTube strangers. So before I get into the meat of this article, let me just go on record: the game is good, and it is worth five dollars, but most of the monsters and bosses are slight variations on “lumpy flesh nugget”, except for the ones that are literal walking vaginas that attack by projectile-menstruating at you. No one can blame you if that’s a turn-off.

The game is good. I think I said that already. It is $5 good, it is $15 good, a DS or PSP version would easily be $30 good. I’ve sunk more time into Isaac this week than Arkham city and Sonic Generations combined, and I’m still nowhere near close to being “done” with it. I’m already starting to brainstorm creative ways to balance my play-time between this and Skyrim in a few weeks. (Maybe I’ll use it to keep myself occupied during Skyrim’s marathon loading screens!)

However, The Binding of Isaac is not a great game. It has a lot of glaring problems, both at the design level and at the execution level, which make it a lot less fun than it could be.

A brief description of the game: each level in Isaac is a randomly-generated dungeon from The Legend of Zelda. In fact, everything from the stage design to the HUD are lovingly scraped from the original Zelda, the great-grandfather of everything that eventually became modern video gaming. A bit of exploration, a bit of combat, a nice slathering of equipment upgrades, some memorable boss fights… whether you’re too young to have played the original Zelda, really, you have played it. Isaac isn’t breaking any new ground on that front.

What Isaac brings to the table are its roguelike elements. Each time you enter a dungeon the rooms are randomly generated, which means the challenges are randomly generated. So are the treasures you find, the equipment you use to alter your character’s moveset and abilities. This means your range of action is also randomly generated.

These treasures are drawn from a pool of over a hundred options, each putting a slight twist on how you approach the game. Some affect the hero’s base attack or health meter. Others are usable items that recharge as you kill monsters and clear rooms. Others are single-use items which confer an immediate (and sometimes permanent) benefit, but then disappear. Finding, using, combining, and even juggling these items is the core of what Isaac’s gameplay is about… so you can see how people are able to sink a hundred hours or more into plumbing its secrets.

On top of all of that is an evolving metagame, as completing tasks within the game unlocks new items to play with and new characters to play, each with their own unique starting skillset. Completing the game over and over unlocks deeper sections of the dungeon to explore. If you’re looking to do the full clear, you’re going to be in this one for the long haul. Even if you’re not, you’ll probably end up discovering a much larger variety of secrets and unlockables as the typical game before you decide you’re finished.

Problems, then. Not unfixable problems — the game is not glaringly or unplayably broken. But problems nonetheless.

Inevitably, Isaac is going to be compared to other roguelikes. It draws deeply from the wells of two of my favorites: NetHack and Spelunky. Like NetHack, there is a strong emphasis in making do with what you find. You never know what’s going to be in the next room; five minutes of play may very well turn a “hopeless” run into one of your best ever. But like Spelunky, the game is very action-oriented; in many of the game’s challenges, success and failure are determined as much by how deftly you can move your fingers as what items you’ve lucked into finding.

One of the major hallmarks of these games is that every run is winnable… and I’m not convinced every run in Isaac is. NetHack is quite random, but there is a checklist of things every player has got to have in order to win. The game is long enough that the bulk of this material is sure to show up eventually. Plus, there is enough guaranteed stuff in the game that a player can always count on plugging up his holes later on. Isaac has no such guarantee. There are things the player absolutely must be able to do, and the game is under no onus to make sure those things are provided. Indeed, it’s entirely possible to go three or four floors without any opportunity to improve your moveset at all. It’s frustrating to see a run get dumped because the dice all came up snake eyes.

This wouldn’t be a huge problem if the player’s default skillset were enough to carry the game, as with Spelunky. In that game, the stage challenges are designed to be navigated even without any equipment whatsoever. It’s brutally difficult in some cases, but the solution is careful application of game knowledge (enemy placement, pathfinding, physics, etc.) and not expertly-executed maneuvering. Isaac, however, is all about dodging and returning fire. I have no doubt expert players will eventually upload videos of “item-less” runs of The Womb or Sheol, but it’s not the kind of thing the average player will ever be able to do.

And that’s really it; my main complaint is “the game is not forgiving enough”. Before you leave a snarky comment about how that’s the point, or whatever, please consider that I’m “only” asking that the game be as forgiving as NetHack or Spelunky. In those games, death is operator error 99.9% of the time. If you’re appropriately educated, the games are winnable every single time you boot them up. In Isaac, though, sometimes you just get a bad draw, and it’s not your fault when you lose. You did your best, you just didn’t have the resources.

I would say the most important attribute in Isaac is the ability to deal a lot of damage very quickly. All of the nice, quirky upgrades you find don’t mean bupkis if you can’t kill monsters in a quick an efficient manner. Longer fights = more time in each room = more opportunities to get hit. There are three ways to improve your damage output: increase the amount of damage each shot does (damage up), increase your rate of fire (tears up), and/or stumble upon one of the brokenly good superweapons (such as the full-screen vomit laser that can kill any monster in one hit).

A run through Isaac is nine floors long (if you’ve unlocked the super-hard final dungeon made entirely of skulls and fuck-you), but for all practical purposes you only have six floors to get yourself geared up — shops and treasure rooms don’t spawn in the endgame. Even if you get lucky enough to have an ample supply of bombs and keys — by no means assured — you still might spend those six floors gathering a huge variety of useful gear without a surefire way to fight monsters. I’ve had runs where I was able to fly, generate my own hearts, automatically map each new floor, pockets weighed down with an infinite supply of keys and money, topped off with a gods-honest invincibility item which, thanks to the helpful Battery plugged into my head, could be used once per room. These runs still failed, though, because it took twelve shots to kill anything, and “anything” in those last few floors means “screens full of ultra-fast monsters that cover playfield in bullets”.

The blanket fix here is to just reduce the amount of health monsters have. Sure, the high-damage builds will end up dominating the game even more — but that’s already happening. There are items (and combinations of items) in this game which are so amazingly good that finding them practically assures victory. These items are extraordinarily fun and should absolutely not be removed or altered.. It’s just, if the low-damage builds were viable as well, there would be a greater emphasis in putting more esoteric combinations of items to good use. It would be less “I found x, y and z, so I won,” and more “I managed to win with x, y and z… here’s how I did it!”

Remember, the goal here is not to make the game easier. It’s to make death a function of bad player decisions, rather than bad random drops. When I die, I want to be able to say, “I could have done ____ differently. Next time, I’ll know to ____.” In Isaac, though, most of my deaths are more, “I did what I could, but the game didn’t give me any ____, or enough ____. Maybe next time I’ll be luckier.”

So the randomness element of the game isn’t fantastic. What about the reflex element?

Well, it’s not fantastic either. No way to candy coat it, this game controls like crap. Your character has a Speed stat, but woe to the player who boosts it too high… after a couple Speed upgrades, actually positioning your character where you want him to be is an utter crapshoot. Every floor of the dungeon becomes an ice skating rink. Dodging enemy bullets becomes needlessly difficult. Outright impossible, in some unfortunate room configurations. One of the characters starts with his Speed in that dangerously-high territory.

I should point out that Isaac is designed like a twin stick shooter. You play it with both sets of directional buttons – WASD to move around, arrow keys to fire in four directions. This enables you to fire downward while moving upward, and vice versa. However, the game can’t actually be played with any twin stick device you already own! You’re told in-game to Google Joy2Key if you want to use a gamepad. Joy2Key is a tremendous piece of software, but Isaac really needs more than it can give.

Part of the problem here is that while Isaac can move in eight directions, he can only fire in four. This means he has to constantly position himself to line up shots, which puts a huge damper on his ability to bob and weave. Twin stick games are fluid experiences; the whole point is that you’re in control of two full ranges of motion. You are constantly moving, and can fire in anydirection. You can pick fights at any angle, at any time. By contrast, most fights in Isaac devlove into you dodging as best you can while holding down the fire button, and it’s totally incidental whether or not any of your shots actually land. (And compounding this problem is the “it takes twelve hits” issue I outlined above.)

Not only would the game be more fun if it truly embraced its twin stick component, it would also open up more interesting opportunities for room layouts and enemy AI. As difficult as Isaac gets sometimes, it’s clear many of the mosnters are pulling their punches. I believe this is because the designers were kind of stumbling circles around the inherent difficulties they knew the player would have moving and firing.

The other issue with moving is that the game has a bizarre sense of momentum to it. There is a short lag between when you press button and when your character actually reaches his top speed. There’s another short lag between when you release the button and when your character stops. You therefore end up over- or under-shooting every step of the game, the whole way. No aspect of Isaac is improved even in the slightest by this “feature” having been included. If your character had only one moving speed, and stopped on a dime, you would be able to measure your steps more deliberately, place yourself more exactly, and thread yourself between the screenfulls of bullets far more satisfyingly.

For a short list of games that allow this kind of movement, please consult every top-down Zelda game ever made. The only times Link ever felt slippy were in those levels that were actually made of ice.

Wow, that was as lot of kvetching about a game which, on the whole, is quite enjoyable and quite possible to win. I don’t mean to make the game sound utterly inhospitable, here; a seasoned player with a good handle on the game’s mechanics will have more victories than defeats by a wide margin. I just feel like the game could do more to emphasize the decisions you make over how lucky your draw is, which in my opinion is the hallmark of a quality roguelike experience.

Finally, there are a few features I would love to see in the game that aren’t there. I would love to be able to go into the dungeon with a slot-out of my choosing, for example, or to prevent certain items or room layouts from appearing, or to toggle certain bosses. Playing around with the guts of a game like this is a huge part of the fun, for me. It’s also a great way for learning players to experiment with situations that might come up, and for expert players to hand-design specific types of challenges.

Oh, and it’s criminal that there isn’t an “endless” mode — a dungeon that just goes on and on, until the player dies. Obviously you’d want to balance this to ensure even a player who has Absolutely Everything (and, on a long enough timeline, every endless run would see that the palyer has Absolutely Everything) will eventually peter out. There are dozens of ways to do that, though, and Isaac is perfectly suited to them.

Minor quibbles in a game which already has this much depth, of course. By this point we’re literally talking about ways of adding even more playtime to a game folks are already sinking fifty-plus hours into.

In conclusion, I would buy The Binding of Isaac if I were you. It will piss you off a great deal, but not out of proportion to how fun it is to play. Part of the fun of roguelikes is seeing the uniqueness of each new playthrough, and sharing war stories with other veterans. Like that time I made it to the Womb with Brimstone and a Pony, then died because I didn’t realize blood donation ate a full heart that deep in the dungeon instead of a half of one. Okay, that one was my fault. YASD…

4 comments to The Binding of Isaac

  • Merus

    “I almost passed on Isaac because it’s outer shell is so horrible, and if it lost my sale I’m certain it lost someone else’s.”

    As I mentioned last night, it definitely lost my sale on that metric. I mean, I have three Zeldas I want to replay and one that is heavily rumoured to be the best Zelda ever coming out in two weeks. I don’t really have time for games that I can only enjoy if I work past its sophomoric aesthetic.

  • narcodis

    Yeah, Isaac is a really great game, but the aesthetics to it are just awful. I mean, I like the idea of traversing a hellish dungeon as a small child, but they just go way way over the top in the gross/immature humor. Too much poop, naked children and mom’s underwear for me.

  • Rosewood

    Too bad about the “I wouldn’t play it if you paid me to” presentation, since it seems like it could be really interesting and fun (barring the dead-end RNG setups) otherwise.

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