Note: I am going to do this article as spoiler-free as possible, so it may come across as a little light on details of the game at times.
Hey everyone. It's been a while, hasn't it? The last post from me was waaaay back in April. I did my preview of the indie games of 2011. The game that I'm writing this article about was not on that list. It sort of came out of nowhere. I had heard of The Binding of Isaac maybe a month ago or so. All I knew was it had a very bizzare trailer and was being made by Edmund McMillen, half the design team of last year's indie smash hit, Super Meat Boy. A lot has been said about what The Binding of Isaac (which I’ll just refer to as Isaac for the rest of this article) is and isn’t. There seems to be a debate about what kind of game Isaac is. Some say it’s a roguelike. Some are adamant that it doesn’t fit into that genre, and say it’s just an action game. Others, including myself, find it to be a crossover of different genres that just plain works.
The story behind the game is that your mother is watching Christian television one day, and hears the voice of god. God tells her to lock Isaac away, and later on to kill him. Isaac overhears this thanks to a crack in his door, and decides to throw himself down into the basement. This is no ordinary basement however. Locked inside is a labyrinth full of grotesque creatures. Some of them bear resemblance to Isaac himself, but are horribly distorted. Some are designed to resemble…certain body parts. You encounter enemies based off the seven deadly sins, and even do battle with the four horsemen of the apocalypse. And they all have one thing in common: they are out to kill you. This is a violent little game, no doubt. Enemies leave piles of gibs when you kill them. Suicide, self-mutilation, Satanism and child abuse are also brought up at certain points through the items you acquire and in some cut scenes. This may turn off some potential buyers, and could outright offend some.
At this point, you might be wondering, “Why the hell should I buy this game?” Well, Isaac is one of those “just one more” kinds of games that you find hard to put down. The key behind this is that Isaac’s levels are randomly generated. You will never face the same dungeon layout twice. That isn’t to suggest that you will never run across the same rooms inside the dungeons more than once. Hell, one time I had the same room with the exact same enemies back-to-back. The beauty of this setup is that you never know what you are going to get. However, this is the game’s greatest strength and also a source of frustration. Because it is randomly generated, you may not get a useful item in a dungeon. Say for example you need a key to unlock a door and also a chest. You may not ever get those keys. If you can’t acquire one, you can never open that door or that chest. This is especially painful early on when it is critical that you power up your character, and you have to leave a dungeon wondering what is behind that door.
The random element also creates a risk/reward factor. Since bombs, keys and coins are your resources, it would be wise to conserve them unless you feel like you actually need it. Do you want to use your only key on that chest to see what’s inside? Or save it for later to see if you need it on a door? Are you down to your last bomb? You might not want to waste it killing enemies since you might need it to break some rocks to get to an item or cross a pit.
Another one of the strengths of the game is discovering what new powerful items you can get. Because you don’t know what an item does until you pick it up for the first time, you don’t know what to expect. This is a joy in and of itself. You have two weapon slots in Isaac. The first slot contains your primary weapon, which is your own tears. You shoot them at your enemies. Somehow. You may find a weapon that allows you to charge your shots. One turns them into homing shots. Other items let you shoot two or three at a time. One lets you shoot pee at your enemies instead of your tears.
The other slot is a secondary item which you can use once and then it has to recharge. And if you pick up a secondary weapon you don’t like, you can pick your old one back up, which is a definite plus when it comes to picking the best item for your play style. Secondary items come in a very wide variety. Some items affect your health. Others grant you temporary damage bonuses. Some have off-the-wall effects like turning you into a bomb. There is also a large amount of passive damage bonuses, like being able to poison enemies when they touch you or increasing your damage or speed. There are far too many to actually list here, but as I said, figuring out what items do what is a great part of the game.
Early on, you can get through a game of Isaac in around 30 minutes. The game does get longer and progressively harder with subsequent playthroughs. The graphic style is slight reminiscent of Super Meat Boy, as anyone who played that game will probably notice right away. At first glance, some may write it off as a knockoff of the original “The Legend of Zelda”. True, the game’s layout is wholly influenced by the classic NES game. There are bombs, keys, and coins in the same fashion as The Legend of Zelda. The map is in the same style. You start with three hearts. Some of the sound cues are even borrowed from, or are at least influenced by, Zelda. Even the game’s logo bears resemblance to the familiar Zelda logo from the title screen. That, however, is where the similarities end. This is a much more twisted journey than any mind at Nintendo could have ever created.
The Binding of Isaac is available through Steam for the low price of 5 dollars. I have already put about 14 hours into it in just a little over a week, and there is still plenty left to play through. But be warned, it is addictive and you won’t want to put it down. It's not for the faint of heart, or the squeamish types, but anyone with a stomach who is looking for a unique experience should do themself a favor and pick it up.
Anyway, that’s going to wrap it up for my look at The Binding of Isaac. Now I have to get back to slaughtering floating fetuses in the basement.
P.S GO BUY IT!