It's a game where you play as a little naked boy fleeing his delusional and homicidal Mother who wants to make him a sacrifice to God. You fight to survive through a nightmare interpretation of a basement dungeon laced with biblical references and manifestations of horror that may-or-may-not be entirely in Isaac's mind. It's also kind of funny.
Well, I guess that gets the themes and ideas across, but what about the gameplay?
Isaac is a Rougelike/shooter hybrid that randomly generates unique maps, enemy compositions, and items each time you play. Successfully completing the game often unlocks the possibility of new items appearing randomly in the basement and additional levels and characters to work through.
Technically accurate I suppose, but not how I would describe it to a friend. How about this -
Isaac is the most miserable trudge through unfair pitiless chance and sadistic design that I've ever been addicted to.
Yeah, that does it.
I picked up Isaac a couple of weeks ago on a whim and it's quickly becoming a problem for me. I think I might have put as much or more time into this $5 glorified flash game than I have into the $60 triple AAA Diablo 3 I bought with real money not a week before.
It's perfect for the addict. Quick and easy to start, not too long (even if you don't die), and no serious repercussions for sloppy play, because hey, try again next time. A nice solution when I only have a (theoretically) small window of time to play with and don't have my ass up enough to play some multiplayer game.
Of course, that is just the tempting illusion. The truth is that "a few minutes" of Isaac can turn into "two fucking hours" in the blink of an eye. And the frivolous romp through the basement? That becomes a serious campaign of unlocking characters and secrets that leads into the very depths of Sheol.
Then the Wrath of the Lamb DLC came out and made everything that much worse. More items, new characters, new challenges/curses, and even more frustration.
- It get's worse! And you pay for the privilege!
I wasn't prepared for how hard Isaac is. Even before Wrath of the Lamb steped up the difficulty, it was a hard-game; now it's flat out sadistic. Guess I should have looked at who was behind it, the same fevered brain that made Super Meat Boy and realized it before, but take my word for it – Isaac doesn't pull any punches.
It's a tough fight against the RNG and some dick-bag enemy design. Unlike say Dark Souls, a ridiculously hard game that can be conquered through observation, repetition, and practice – the difficulty in Isaac stems from an entirely different place.
Luck is a major factor in victory and defeat. Quick thinking, flexibility, and an willingness to roll with the punches will serve a player well. Sometimes you get great items, a big health bar, and all the keys and bombs you could ask for. Other times you get poop.
Literally. There is a poop item that does nothing but plop down a road apple.
Heck, you can even get items aggressively designed to screw you over. If you remember "sucker-punch" items like the poison 1-up mushroom from the Lost Worlds Mario with scorn, Isaac will have you tearing your hair out. After all, the poison 1-up mushroom is a trick you only fall for once, in Isaac, calamity can take on almost any form at any time.
Many of the items in Isaac come with specific, and potentially crippling, trade-offs. And none of them come with a suggestion of description; If you want to know what something does, you have to bite the bullet and try it to find out.
How was I to know that a bottle of Ipecac would turn my tears into an explosive motor of puke? It was certainly a surprise to me when I BLEW MYSELF UP WITH IT. Or how about the dead cat? It gave me nine lives! Of course, it also stripped me down to a single heart for each of those lives, making bosses nearly impossible. Those were nine devastatingly quick and frustrating deaths on the very last level thank you very much.
Then you have pills. Pills are always a toss-up. Some heal or add buffs to your tears or speed. Others cause you to have explosive diarrhea, trailing a line of bombs behind you, or DEBUFF your stats. And still some might just leave you deformed.
I'm sure it speaks to some core weakness of mine. A vulnerability to gambling, or perhaps just outright greed, but I can never pass a pill or unknown item up. Even when I'm down in the last dungeon or so with a tricked out character ready to beat the game, I just have to know what a new discovery does - and sure enough, it frequently ends tragically.
In fact you could extend the same logic to the entire game itself. I can't stop playing it and seeing what new and crazy combinations of items I get. What bosses I encounter. What manner of terrible death I stumble into next.
Binding of Isaac is a $5 game I've sunk more than twenty hours into over the pass two weeks and have no intention of stopping. If that doesn't speak to some obscene dollar/value ratio, I have no idea what does. Go pick it up if you haven't already.
But hold off on the Wrath of the Lamb DLC. It pumps up the difficulty to rage-inducing levels. Wait till you've cleared out the basement a few times and unlocked some items/characters before trying to tackle that beast.