With the success of The Binding of Isaac, there are many indie developers determined to craft surreal adventures with a bleak and disturbing twist on the fantasy epic. The Madness of Little Emma is the latest in the randomised dungeon crawler genre that hopes to set our world on fire. Will it steal the shining light from The Binding of Isaac? Or should it be left in the darkness of your basement?
The Madness of Little Emma is a 2D, side scrolling roguelike, and incorporates many concepts that were found in the Binding of Isaac. Players are tasked with exploring a complex system of dungeons, which are dynamic and change with each playthrough. There are secrets to reveal, various, disgusting enemy types and bosses to conquer with bizarre power-ups in the form of lollipops, bras, and a cool looking fedora hats. Players will engage in an unpredictable world filled with twisted glee as our hero Emma battles through this dark adventure in order to find her missing brother.
This sounds familiar doesn’t it? The entire game is pretty much a clone of Binding of Isaac, simply seen from a sidescrolling perspective rather than top-down. Even the HUD is laid out like Binding of Isaac with health, bombs, and a power-up counter.
I personally don’t mind as it’s trying the same formula in a different light, but this is the real question: Does this structure of gameplay work as a side scroller? Yes and no. The world is certainly captivating to the point where it can be rather disturbing. Sights such as little children hanged with puddles of urine underneath them can unsettle even the most hardened gamer. The world certainly looks and feels the part with a creepy and unsettling vibe. This is thanks to the beautifully detailed game world and a brilliant soundtrack, which both create an intense atmosphere. However, the creature designs are nothing enticing, nor do they feel like much effort went into fleshing them out. They lack identity and feel like any old pixel art seen on Deviant Art.
The game’s overall design will ensure you’ll be replaying it a fair few times, but The Madness of Little Emma falls short due to some ill design choices, making the game unfair in many respects. Many difficult games such as Volgarr The Viking present an incredible challenge and strict punishment, but they’re fair and never restrict your skills or the use of mechanics. Not to mention they offer a good sense of reward and accomplishment, too. The Binding of Isaac worked in a similar manner and was fair to those who worked hard and took the time to learn the mechanics and enemy behavior. The Madness of Little Emma has these concepts but is flawed when it makes backtracking/exploration impossible at certain times. Not to mention how punishing the game will suddenly get at the worst of times, or alter the world to ensure you’ll never obtain vital items, making the whole thing rather unwinnable.
I know I may sound like I’m just bad at the game and that’s fair enough, but there are some points to mention. The game world is randomised and this is a great element of design, but when the world is either too long that it ends up dragging out or too short that it’s impossible to rack up enough currency, it becomes a pain. To explain better, there is the merchant that randomly pops up in the game allowing you to buy health, upgrades, and other goodies. Most games the shop will appear every couple of stages which is okay, but once a level could be better. I’ve gone through several games where I’ve collected a good deal of coins to spend but haven’t seen the merchant in as many as three levels. You’d think that the developers would code the merchant to pop up at least once per level or have the chances of him appearing increase if you have more coins. It’s kind of like that, but the other way round; The fewer coins you have, the more he appears, but the more coins you have, he appears less. It’s like the game decides to screw you over because you’re doing well.
Upgrades also feel like a mix bag as many are helpful, but a large majority will, again, screw you over entirely. It may also be annoying when you accidentally pick up a modifier that will change your attack from something like spitballs to a laser beam. This can be useful as a laser beam is very powerful, but it’s a great deal slower and you can’t switch between the two. So when you’re fighting the Green Viper or The Mask, you’ll have fun trying to land a shot with a slow weapon when they’re moving at an incredible speeds. Some modifiers only allow you to shoot in D-pad style directions; left, right, up, and down. For flying enemies and bosses who jump around the screen at an incredible speed, it’s a massive pain–You might as well start the game over.
Players will have to rely too heavily on luck to actually progress through the game and even to finish it. Your success could entirely depend on what the world will randomly spew out at you from enemy types, upgrades, and even how long the levels are. Other games rely on skill and learning from your mistakes, but here that concept is watered down and replaced with a “see what you’re dealt” attitude. You could have a winning streak of upgrades and collecting coins but come face to face with a horde of different enemies, all with different strengths and attacks. There are enemies that can teleport and shoot fireballs in eight different directions, while others can move faster than a speeding bullet and throw spears just as quickly, while others can shoot through certain surfaces. Facing all of these at once make Volgarr The Viking look like a Mario game. Difficulty spike is too nice of a word for this; Screaming fit of anger and confusion is what usually results.
Oh, and the spike traps are a sheer joy!
I can forgive this as it’s a healthy (not extreme) challenge, and I had fun for the most part. The big problem? For keen explorers, backtracking is vital to collect missing loot or items left behind for later use such as health pick-ups. The game makes backtracking incredibly difficult, to the point where I thought it was broken. Certain rooms are designed with extremely difficult jumps and ill placed platforms which are too high or too far apart to the room exit.
Editor’s note: It has been brought to my attention that you can backtrack from every single room in the game, and that’s fair enough. If that is true, I’m wrong to think that that aspect is broken–but still it’s flawed. I hope the designer takes note that making core aspects of gameplay such as exploration too much of a chore reduces the engagement and enjoyment for keen adventures. With the game already being difficult, I must ask why you would make something as simple as exploration a chore? Or rather, near impossible to do?
However, don’t get conned into thinking that because you fail it’s a lack of player skill; Chances are the game is literally screwing you out of success. The whole permadeath concept can create an enjoyable and rewarding experience, but the game must be fair. Insane difficulty spikes having vital components such as backtracking and simple exploration being purposely reduced simply can’t be done. The Binding of Isaac’s top down perspective helped in eliminating many problems found here, but overall, The Madness of Little Emma is a fun game that I enjoyed a majority of the time. However, some improvements need to be made to make backtracking easier, reduce difficulty spikes, and remove the pain in the arse powerups that degrade your chances of success in a boss fight or the game in general.
The game is worth checking out but be ready to curse at it… Mostly at it’s cheating nature.
A PC copy of The Madness of Little Emma was provided by Bartosz Bojarowski for the purpose of this review