Review: The Binding of Isaac
At a glance, there are a lot of very familiar aspects to The Binding of Isaac. You may have been drawn in by the original Zelda dungeon style, the RPG shooter mechanics or an art style in the same vein as indie game hit Super Meat Boy. All of these aspects have been combined by Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl to create a highly addictive experience.
The game is set upon a simple, yet incredibly dark premise. You play as Isaac; a young boy stripped of his possessions and forced to flee into the basement before his religious nut mother sacrifices him to her god. As you can imagine, Isaac is pretty upset about these turn of events and has no choice but to delve deeper into the ominous basement. Equipped with nothing more than his own tears of sadness he must fend off the creatures that lurk below and confront his Mom once and for all.
The gameplay might initially appear similar to that of an original Zelda dungeon, the twist is that every room is randomly generated and no single play through is ever the same. Each room you enter will have a different assortment of enemies, layout and potential loot drops. The RPG mechanics show themselves in the form of power-up items Isaac can find during his exploration of a dungeon floor. The effects of these items will stack and grant many different bonuses such as stronger shots, increased health or companions to fight alongside you. There are a ton of these items and you will come across completely different ones every time you play; expect to have a very different beefed up Isaac by the end of each playthrough. On top of these power-up items are pills and Tarot cards you can use. These items present a roll of the dice as their effect can be either positive or horribly negative. You may for example use a card and be unexpectedly teleported right into the middle of a boss fight. Not the outcome you were particular hoping for. To say any more about the specifics of the power-ups and gameplay in general would spoil the surprise, you need to try these out for yourself.
Don’t expect the game to explain its mechanics any more than I have. It’s deliberately ambiguous when it comes to telling you what items or enemies do; your first experience with Isaac is trial by fire. This may infuriate some players and their first point of call will be to consult a guide to find out exactly what to pick up and what to leave. I would urge against doing this as it’s the unknown and skin-of-your teeth risks that make the game so enthralling to play. Part of the challenge is its completely random nature and having to think on your feet. You will have some immensely satisfying playthroughs wherein all the random rooms, items and enemies go your way. Other times you will have more challenging playthroughs where you can be doing well, only to use an item that lowers your speed and health. What makes the gameplay great and so addicting is that you are forced to learn hard lessons and overcome the odds. Trust me, after using that Boss teleportation card you will not to do it again in a hurry.
As you have probably gathered, Isaac is a game you will be playing through multiple times. Make no mistake; the difficulty can be brutal, but what did you expect from half of the creative team behind Super Meat Boy? Players are going to die repeatedly before beating the game the first time. After that, even more times as they face increasingly harder versions of the dungeons. As cliché as it sounds, the more you play you better you become. You begin to feel like a dungeon crawling pro as you uncover the tricks required to finding secret rooms and defeating enemies is specific ways.
Edmund McMillen has designed a world for Isaac that is both cute and disgusting. Giant maggots with smiley faces that initially look almost cuddly will charge at you with ferocious jagged teeth and explode into a bloody mess. Other enemies are equally disturbing with the likes of floating foetuses, slimy crawling brains and what can only resemble walking vaginas which shoot streams of blood at you. It’s a dark style, but it’s very cartoony and there is plenty of humour and retro gaming references to be found here. The game compliments this with some stellar sound design; creepy ambient music for each dungeon floor and adrenaline pumping boss themes. Everything in The Binding of Isaac sounds wet and disgusting in the best possible way.
For £3.99, The Binding of Isaac undoubtedly provides value for money. I managed to sink 20 hours into dungeon crawling and there are still plenty of challenges, achievements and items worth going for. For such a cheap price it’s hard to complain about their only being one real game mode. It would have been nice to see features such as leaderboards, expanded stats or even a speed run mode but this is nitpicking and only a minor blemish on a product that provides perhaps the highest replay value too price ratio this year.