I have a confession to make. I’ve been a bit lax with writing the Game of the Year blurbs I’ve been assigned and, well… it’s all the fault of The Binding of Isaac.
I love this game. I really, really do. It’s a sort of action-Roguelike: you’re dumped in a randomly generated labyrinth and, with combat mechanics akin to those of a twin-stick shooter, you try to find your way to the very bottom. Along the way you’ll battle enemies and bosses, find items and upgrades, play slot machines, buy new stuff, and probably die, at which point you’ll roar with frustration and then immediately start again.
A full game of The Binding of Isaac, from the very first room to the very last boss, takes about 40 minutes (usually less, as you’ll probably die). According to Steam, I’ve played this game – which, again, takes anywhere up to 40 minutes per play – for over 30 hours. And I’ve only won 12 times. So why has it captivated me?
Because it does randomisation and replayability really, really well.
Pretty much every game is different. When you first start off you’ve only got one playable character – Isaac – but that’s fair enough. You potter along, grab some treasure, get a bit more health and upgrade your damage, kill a few bosses, unlock a few items aaaand… die.
Fast forward a few hours and you’ll have unlocked a few of the other characters. And some more bosses. And more difficult palette swaps of the enemies. And new items. You know the game better, yes, but it’s also harder, and there’s more stuff to take into account. The first item you find is Little Chubby? Well, because he’ll follow one of your shots every now and then to hit every enemy in a line you’ll want to stop firing wildly. You’ll need to place your shots.
Every item you pick up changes how you play (and, indeed, how you look; every item modifies Isaac’s appearance in some way). They give you a different edge against enemies and bosses, and entirely different priorities. A ladder means you can cross holes in the floor that’re one square in size – which, in some rooms, means that you’ve got easier escape avenues or simply can’t be hit if the right type of enemy is there. Technology replaces your tears (yes, the default attack is to cry at the enemies) with an eye-mounted laser. Chocolate milk gives you an attack that charges up for higher damage. Chocolate milk and Technology? Well…
Then there are the choices you’re forced into. Is it worth using a bomb to blast open that secret room, or will you regret it when you bump into a treasure chest that’s blocked off by rocks? Should you spend a few coins on a slot machine, or save them for this floor’s shop? Should you trade some of your precious, precious maximum health for a permanent upgrade to damage, or are you going to need the health more?
And there are over one hundred items. And they combine in different ways and make you play in different ways. And the bosses you’ll face randomise, along with the dungeon layouts, the drops you’ll get, and the foes you’ll encounter – and the more you play, the more you unlock. It’s mind-bogglingly huge, and very, very different each time. I’ve played for over 30 hours and I’ve still got stuff to unlock, and I’m still bumping into combinations of items and enemies that I’ve never seen before.
All of this is married to an aesthetic design so relentlessly grim it’s almost funny. Isaac is a young boy being hunted by his mother, who believes God wants her to sacrifice her son; he escapes into the basement (and from there, into various darker and more grim areas) where he faces off against all manner of grotesque beasties. You cry to kill enemies. Levels are bookended with scenes in which Isaac, sobbing, recalls some sort of trauma. The myriad ending sequences (if you manage to win) don’t state outright whether this is all in his head or whether it’s real, but things are… implied. It’s vaguely horrible. And, obviously, wonderful.
At a mere £3.99, The Binding of Isaac is almost certainly one of the cheapest games in our countdown, and I’ve no doubt it’s also one of the most varied and replayable, worth far more than that price might suggest. To put it bluntly, if you have a PC and don’t have The Binding of Isaac then you’re doing yourself a huge disservice. Remedy that immediately. Buy it now. Isaac will thank you.