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Unbound: An Analysis of The Binding of Isaac

The latest title from Super Meat Boy designer Edmund Mcmillen is an excellent attempt at merging old school gameplay with rogue-like mechanics, all wrapped up in a twisted art style.

You can't say that Edmund Mcmillen is resting on his laurels. After designing the brutally difficulty throw back to old school plat forming with Super Meat Boy, his latest game, The Binding of Isaac, is a mash up of Smash TV and the rogue-like genre. Beneath the twisted visuals and story there is some excellent game design present and an example of one of the best uses of achievements I've seen in some time.

The story will no doubt turn some heads: Isaac has been locked up in his room by his overly Christian mother who is hearing the voice of God telling her what to do. One day his mother is told by God to sacrifice Isaac in its name and she obeys but before she can kill him, Isaac escapes into the basement to try and find a way out. Once inside the basement, he'll have to fight monsters and lost relatives who stand in his way to freedom.

There is definitely a discussion here, but I am by no means the one who is going to delve into it, so we're going to leave it at that and move on.

Isaac controls using a combination of WSAD keys and the arrow keys, the former controls movement while the latter attacks in that direction. The rogue-like elements come into play with how the levels are built. Bosses, the map and what items are found are all randomized at the start. The randomized levels are the main attraction and combined with the items are what make Isaac special.

While the maps are randomized, there are a few staples that will be on every floor. One of those is a treasure room that requires a key to get in. Each treasure room holds one item; some will be special items that can be used with the space key while the rest will modify Isaac and change his appearance. There are too many items to list here and each one has a different effect, from increasing damage, to changing his attack to a charge up move.

By the time you are several floors in, Isaac will not only look radically different, but play differently each time. Some games will find your attacks are weak, but you have increased range or multi-shot, while others may find you doing massive damage, but with slow attacks. Scattered around each level, you'll also find consumable items that like in all good rogue-likes could help or hinder your game. Boss battles are challenging, made even more so due to the random items. You start the game with only one life and a set of hearts, and running out of hearts means game-over, but this is where the achievements come into play.

As you play the game, you'll unlock achievements, some for beating bosses, while others are for finding specific items. Each achievement unlocks something new in the game, from new characters, items, enemies and even bosses, are added in to the randomization. What this means is that the more you replay the game, the more content becomes available.

This is a brilliant design decision and works perfectly with the rogue-like nature of the game. Most rogue-likes are replay-able by how difficult the game is, forcing the player to keep playing. While Isaac is also a difficult game, it also rewards people who keep playing the game. Even if someone gets lucky and beats the game on their first try, there are still plenty of things to discover in the game. For once, we have a game that not only has those extra difficult "experts only" achievements, but actively rewards the player for being crazy enough to attempt them. This is one of those games that scream for DLC and it has been announced that there should be more content coming for Halloween.

It's hard to find any real problems with the game that aren't inherent with the genre. Obviously the randomization is going to affect how easy or hard the game is and like other rogue-likes it is possible to be stuck in an unlucky streak. The control scheme is a point of argument, using the keys for movement and attacking only allows you to use the cardinal directions. As it stands, for people who prefer to aim with the mouse, they will have to adjust to the different control scheme. The only nitpick I have is that there isn't even a soft save system, allowing players to take a break, but not abuse the system, such as in Dungeons of Dredmor.

The Binding of Isaac joins Dungeons of Dredmor as an excellent five dollar game and easily a huge bang for your buck. I really hope that the use of achievements in the game will inspire other designers to better implement them into their design.

Josh Bycer

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