Platform – PC (Steam)
Developed by Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl
It’s been out since the end of September, but screw it, this is a great game that I’ve put a surprising amount of time into recently and I’m bloody reviewing it, yeah? Good. Isaac is a “roguelike”, an older game-style that I’ve never played before. Gaming sessions are short, but maddeningly addictive as you play the titular Isaac who must descend into his basement and the caves below this while running away from his mother who has been instructed by God to kill him. Yup!
There’s an under-lining and very obvious awareness of religious mythos that ultimately drives the game. To some degree it’s an excuse plot, but it’s a good enough driving force before the game’s fun takes over. Regardless, you can make deals with the devil, power-up by equipping a hanger and fight a variety of crude, disgusting and generally not lovely looking abominations in what can only be interpreted as a satire of religion. So if you don’t like seeing naked headless bodies with spurting blood and…clumps (that’s the best descriptive word I could come up with) of meat writhing on the ground as you fire tears at them to kill them, I suggest passing.
To the game itself. You eventually unlock a variety of characters with different attributes, but you initially start off with just Isaac, who has limited health and no equipment, bar a bomb. Your primary weapons are tears that you fire in the four cardinal directions at enemies to progress through 2D Zelda-like dungeon rooms, only being allowed to progress once the room is cleared of enemies. After clearing your way through a floor, you make your way to its boss which when killed provides you with a guaranteed reward; more often than not it’s a permanent health increase, but you naturally get a variety of other tools, from rechargeable special items to permanent statistical upgrades, such as weapon range or fire-rate increases.
The game itself builds on being hugely varied and this is no more displayed than in its items. Single use items can drop from enemies, be bought from shops or found in chests, all of which have a variety of effects; some more useful than others, some actually having potentially permanent positive or negative effects. Player choice is a fundamental aspect that helps to make the game so interesting too. You find a key, but do you risk opening up access to a shop where you may be able to buy something useful, or take the more likely safe route of opening up the treasure room that’s once per floor? Similarly, do you save your money in the hope something good will come along, or spend it on smaller upgrades or inventory increments? It’s a very interesting dynamic that helps propagate the game’s “Just 15 more minutes!” feeling that it can justifiably boast.
The permanent upgrades themselves tend to augment your character in interesting ways, from adding a belt to your naked body to, as mentioned previously, fixing a clothes hanger through your skull. Through the course of a run-through, you can end up looking like an abomination yourself. It is, however, very cool to see Isaac’s looks change as you get different items, highlighting that Isaac has actually obtained some items as opposed to holding them in that indefinite space that game heroes predominantly have. Of course, gaming sessions can be as short as five minutes or as long as an hour, so what you have can change not just between games, but easily several times during one run.
More interesting is that the more you play and do, the more items become unlocked actually increasing the variety between run-throughs further. It’s this variety the game revels in. You don’t know when you go through a door what monsters you’ll be facing, if indeed any at all, as well as how many of them there are. Nor will you know the room lay-out and so on. Even bosses have a pool of which you could be fighting depending on where you are, so with the exception of 3 fights (once you’ve ‘unlocked’ the entire game) you will walk into a boss room needing to have various tactics in mind based on your current inventory and statistical set-up. On top of this, it’s simply easy to play. You move with WASD, fire with the arrow keys, use Space and Q for items and E for bombs. That’s it.
Aesthetically, the game looks pretty good, even with simple colours and effects. The particular style though will seem familiar to those who frequent Newgrounds, but more so if you played last year’s (incredibly excellent) Super Meat Boy; Edmund McMillen was the art guy on that game too. Despite the simplicity, it’s not plain or boring, it just has a good, clean (ironically) look to it. The music was also done by indie favourite Danny Baronwsky; it fits perfectly and is enjoyable to listen to while playing.
Isaac is a deceptively simple looking game that has a lot of depth and is incredibly enjoyable to play, for whatever period of time you want to play it for. Sure, sometimes luck is against you and you get less-than-stellar items, but that’s the way it goes; you make the best of what you have. Hell, sometimes I’ve lost because I’ve been over-confident with good equipment and had to start again in self-made frustration. That’s it though. It’s very rarely the game’s fault. Play it well despite of what you have and you’ll do well, but regardless, you’re going to have fun.
Boring Stuff: I’ve played for about 15 hours, having ‘completed’ the game three times. This, in the grand scheme of things, is still just under a third of the total game available.
Boring Stuff 2012 (September) Update: Early in the year, the cheaply-priced Wrath of the Lamb (warning: contains rapid flashing lights) expansion was released. In between that coming out and this review, I had played about 30 hours in total. At time of writing this, my game-time has exceeded 130 hours as I near the ‘end’ of the game. Definitely a shoe-in for one of the best games out in 2011.