I tend not to play a lot of independent games... well, not on Steam, anyway. I almost always wait until indie games make their way to one console or another before spending time with them.
Maybe that's not entirely fair, but given how many indie games show up on Steam on a given week, console ports function as a sort of desperately needed filter to help sort out the most interesting and refined indie titles from the incalculable masses of indie creations out in the world. No slight intended; this filter is more a matter of my own sanity than any sort of judgment. And so it came to pass that this weekend at PAX I spent my first real quality time with the PlayStation 4 and Vita port of Edmund McMillen's The Binding of Isaac Rebirth.
I've heard a lot about Isaac. Well, mainly I've heard that it's kind of gruesome and intense, and that Nintendo allegedly quashed a console port of it due to explicit content. So I wasn't quite sure what to expect from the game, except perhaps a chance to be deeply offended.
What I found was a game heavy on scatology and other unpleasant bodily secretions, but not in an explicit or obscene fashion. Isaac is so abstract and cartoonish that it's impossible to be offended by its fixation on blood, vomit, and above all poop. The bizarre primality of the game is greatly softened by its Pillsbury Doughboy art style and its decidedly surreal vibe. It also helps that it plays brilliantly, an inspired collision of roguelike RPGs, the original Legend of Zelda, and twin-stick shooters like Smash TV and Geometry Wars.
Much like Zelda on NES, Isaac sends you wandering through a top-down maze of interlinked rooms one screen large. Often, doors will lock behind you and force you to do battle with the creatures within before allowing you to move along. Many enemies behave exactly like Zelda foes, too, such as the strange grub-like creatures that shuffle along and dart quickly toward you when you cross their line of sight (similar to Zelda's Rope snakes), the monsters that break into two small piles of living poop when struck (like Zelda's Gels), and skeletons that behave exactly like Stalfos skeletons from A Link to the Past. You can also gather bombs to blow through walls. There's little question that McMillen spent a lot of time playing Zelda, though his expression of that concept comes from a far more scatological angle.
Don't get me wrong; The Binding of Isaac isn't just about poop. If your body secretes it, it has a place in the game. OK, I didn't come across any earwax or eye crud in my PAX demo session, but I wouldn't be surprised if they show up at some point. Isaac attacks foes with his tears; the right control stick flings them across the screen. Enemies spew geysers of vomit at Isaac, or spray droplets of blood in danmaku-like curtains. And oh my god, the poop. So much poop.
At one point, I discovered a treasure called the Mysterious Candy. This, as it turns out, causes Isaac to defecate every few seconds. His overactive bowels can have surprisingly excellent strategic value; the little mounds he leaves behind — shaped, of course, like soft serve ice cream, in the classic Akira Toriyama style — can block enemy fire and movements. And if you destroy a pile, it will often leave behind coins. This calls Isaac's dietary habits into question, but it can be handy when you encounter a shop that sells useful goods. And Mysterious Candy is only the tip of the feculent iceberg.
Among The Binding of Isaac's more traditional traits, it adheres quite faithfully to the concepts of roguelike RPGs, especially as adapted by the Mysterious Dungeon series. Everything in Isaac appears randomly with each playthrough, and when Isaac dies he's sent back to the start with nothing to his name. However, Isaac's world does incorporate a limited amount of persistence between sessions; like the shortcuts in Spelunky, certain features become permanent fixtures for subsequent playthroughs. For example, you may collect a pill, which works like a scroll or a potion in traditional roguelikes — you don't know what it does until you identify it, and the easiest way to do that is to consume it, though that could totally ruin your current run if it has a negative effect. Once identified, however, that pill will be known to you on subsequent runs. There's also a lottery machine to which you can donate money. This has no immediate effect, but "something good" may happen once you cumulatively pitch in enough cash, similar to the restaurant in Shiren the Wanderer that would eventually become a set feature once you helped pay off its debts.
In the fashion of the best roguelikes, a run through Isaac can change wildly depending on what the game decides to generate for you. This became self-evident in my PAX session when my first serious attempt at the game lasted for nearly half an hour and apparently got me near to the end of the first region of the game thanks to some fortuitous randomization — randomization that didn't work out nearly so nicely in my favor on my second attempt.
By pure luck, I ended up collecting an extra heart right away, adding a nice bit of extra padding to Isaacs health meter; I also discovered a decoy, an independent and indestructible companion who looks curiously like Cinnamon Bun from Adventure Time and has a tendency to draw enemy fire away from Isaac. There was also the aforementioned Mysterious Candy, which left a trail through the dungeon as I explored like a fudgy version of Ariadne's thread. Will all these perks working in my favor, my first run with Isaac proved to be remarkably successful.
Unfortunately, it all proved for naught once I let greed get the better of me. Somewhere deep in the dungeon I collected an item called Nine Lives, which gave Isaac — yes — nine lives. Whenever I fell in battle, I'd reset in the adjacent room with a chance to start anew. The downside of Nine Lives was that it negated that extra heart I'd collected; Isaac's health meter was reduced to a single heart. So essentially I went from four hearts to nine, but with the caveat that every time I lost a single heart — basically, when Isaac took two hits from enemies — my progress would be to when I entered the current room. This made one of the later bosses essentially impossible to beat; his screen-filling blood spray would eventually hit Isaac a couple of times before I could whittle its health down to zero. Though I kept getting close to victory, not even my handy clone could prevent me from soaking up too much damage... at which point I'd fall, and the boss' health would reset to full.
It didn't helped that I accidentally spawned a vending machine in the boss' room which would convert a point of health into money. When you only have one point of health, that machine becomes a deadly obstacle.
The Binding of Isaac taps into the same unpredictability that makes Spelunky so addictive, though it frames its mechanics in the form of a top-down action adventure rather than that of a platform game. And I came across plenty of scenarios in which I wan't properly equipped (through random chance) to solve a particular puzzle, such as a number of collectibles and treasure chests stranded on the other side of deep pits, which could only be passed by having the good fortune to acquire the ability to hover.
For the console version of Isaac, McMillen and publisher Nicalis have added cooperative play; a second player can take on the role of a floating baby capable of following Isaac independently. Spawning a baby removes a point of health from Isaac's life meter — so obviously it's not something you want to do when you have only a single point of health — and if the second player elects to drop out, the baby's remaining health is added back to Isaac's. Surprisingly, despite its simple, 16-bit look, The Binding of Isaac Rebirth looks better on PlayStation 4 than Vita, with the console version featuring some shadows and other effects absent on the handheld.
But don't worry, handheld aficionados: The poop looks equally convincing regardless of platforms.