I’d heard a few things about this game recently, sometimes about the soundtrack being good and sometimes about the religious undertones of the game. Strangely, I hadn’t heard a single impression about how good the game was, neither positive nor negative. Now that I’ve played it for some 4 hours, I don’t think I was missing out on much by not playing it.
In general the game is quite well made, offers some decent gameplay variety and has some nice dungeons to traverse, but I think what puts me off is how unsatisfying the combat mechanics are. I do appreciate the ability to upgrade the attack from a single-shot to a triple-shot or snaking-shot, as well as upgrade the fire rate and damage of the ‘tears’ used to attack, but overall I don’t feel that this makes a particularly good impact on the game. Maybe the problem is how long it takes for the attack to start feeling powerful, or maybe it is how little of an advantage these upgrades offer initially; at any rate, I feel that the combat could have been improved quite a lot, and that improvement would have made the entire game much more engaging and satisfying.
Still, the ‘dungeon crawling’ part of the design is pretty damn solid and provides a somewhat addictive experience. Though the template is taken directly from The Legend of Zelda (NES – arguably the weakest dungeon design of the entire Zelda franchise), Team Meat manages to make those dungeons exciting seemingly by use of an algorithm that generates random dungeon designs, such that no playthrough is ever the same and different items, upgrades, and even bosses are always found in different rooms.
Something else I’m really appreciating is how The Binding of Isaac has quite a few narrative elements smartly hidden in the gameplay mechanics themselves. First of all there’s the fact that your character is always crying, an obvious indication of how neglected he felt through his life. Later on, one can acquire items, upgrades, and companions such as “Brother Bobby” (seemingly the ghost of a younger brother that died for some reason), a coathanger (Obviously Isaac came as a little more tha a surprise to his mom), and an assortment of rotten foodstuffs (clearly all that poor Isaac would have for dinner while his insane mother watched her Christian programs on tv).
Now, regarding the religious overtones, well, what I heard may have been an exaggeration because there’s really not much of a religious narrative here. Though Isaac’s mom is clearly influenced negatively by all the Christian (not really sure they’re Christian, actually, but I think it’s likely) tv shows she watches, the story here is not about spirituality but rather lunacy, and how the poor, young Isaac has to deal with it.
There are two things that I really don’t understand about the game: the ultra violence, and the rampant use of internet memes. The use of memes I can definitely say adds a layer of humor to the game (some enemies might drop a live bomb with a trollface on it when you kill them), but I’m not sure whether this adds or detracts from the narrative. The use of ultra violence, death, and occult symbols also perplex me. Sure I can see how having a Devil, the mark of the beast, etc etc can contrast the religious ideas that Isaac’s mom is supposed to have, but the blood, decapitations, hanged salesmen, and grossly deformed monsters don’t seem to serve a real purpose other than look cool (the most I could argue of their benefit is that they represent the hell that Isaac’s mom is putting him through by neglecting and then trying to kill him in the name of the voice in her head, but really, there are far more effective and realistic ways of showing the kind of anguish a child would suffer in those conditions. As a matter of fact, I’d say that the world shown in the Binding of Isaac is FAR more hellish than necessary to realistically represent Isaac’s torn psyche. I might yet change my mind, though).
Unfortunately I didn’t get to finish the game to see how the story ended (game was too damn hard, and the final boss is ruthless), but I don’t think I really want to anyway. The Binding of Isaac is a good game, but the unsatisfying combat holds it back from being a truly engaging and hopelessly addictive game, and that’s something that’s absolutely necessary when dealing with games as hard as this, particularly ones that force you to start all the way from the beginning whenever you die.
Having said that, I’ll probably buy it if and when it comes to the 3DS, or at least play it again if and when it gets an expansion on PC.
//A little update: I did end up finishing this game after some 7 hours of gameplay. The later levels weren’t so damn hard when I had a kickass weapon upgrade that let me charge my shots or just tap the attack button repeatedly to rain hell, which quite frankly I think should be the standard weapon of the game, even if made much less powerful. There’s just much more engagement to be had from choosing strategically between spamming or charging your shots (a pretty obvious design choice when you look at games like Sin and Punishment 2 or other similar shmups), and that alone would make the game a joy to play from the very first minute.
I stand by my criticism about the combat starting out somewhat dull, but I definitely see how it can become a blast with the right upgrades.
Anyway, I’ll be moving on to a different game, though not quite sure which one yet.