The Binding of Isaac
Developer: Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl | Publisher: Edmund McMillen | Release Date: 2011 | Genre: Action / Adventure / Indie / RPG | Website: Official Website | Purchase: Steam
Isaac finds himself in a spot of trouble when his mother starts hearing a voice instructing her to kill her son as a sacrifice. Instead of meekly submitting Isaac flees to the basement of the house, but finds himself trapped in a maze of horrors hat leads him further down into madness. If this all sounds a bit disturbing it might make more sense when you hear that it is the brainchild of Edmund McMillen, one of the co-creators of the equally freaky Super Meat Boy.
Religious overtones aside, The Binding Of Isaac is actually quite a retro title, not only in its design but visually as well. If you were around during the 8-bit days, you will recognize many of its ideas and design elements. Think of it as Robotron meets Rogue meets Zelda meets Bomberman meets Pac-Man and you might have an idea of what to expect. Levels are made up of a series of static rooms, which may contain either items, enemies, traps, treasure, all of the above or none of the above. Since everything is randomly generated, the replay value is quite high, especially considering the wide assortment of items. In true Zelda fashion, all the enemies in a room must be killed in order to move on to the next one. If you have bombs, you can take the easy way out and just blow up the door. Along the way, Isaac might run into a mini-boss or two before taking on the main monster, which upon its defeat will grant access to the next level. Most rooms can be cleared in under a minute and with the right collection of items it is possible to breeze through a level but don’t for one second think this game is easy.
In true old-school fashion, death can come easy in this game and it is permanent. There are no checkpoints to fall back on or saves to reload. Once you die, your options are quitting or starting over. This may come as a shock to modern players that are not used to seeing a “Game Over” screen, but it definitely makes the game way more intense. While not very long, it can still take upwards of an hour to complete all the levels. Stumbling into a room where the odds are overwhelmingly against you can really be a frustrating way to lose the game but it happens. Since it is all random you cannot blame poor level design for your demise, it is all down to luck. It is addictive enough that you will keep coming back for more however. Trust me, this is one of those “just one more go” games. There are new characters to unlock and multiple (twisted) endings to uncover but do not expect it to get any easier. The game actually becomes harder the more times you finish it and go back for more!
Visually the game looks every bit like the Indie, Flash title that it is. The top down, two-dimensional graphics consist of minimal, basic colors and the random rooms are all just patches of brown. The character and enemy designs shine, however and bear that trademark mixture of cute and gross that you expect from the artistic mind behind it. The floor of each room is usually covered in blood, urine, puke and faeces after you are done with it which is not something I think many other games an boast. Enemies consist of a grotesque collection of cute critters and you will come to know each of them intimately during your many playthroughs. Special mention should go to the twisted bosses, which really steal the show. The other cool thing about the visuals is that most items will alter the appearance of your character sprite. These visual transformations can be quite disturbing seeing as items include such gems as “moms underwear,” “growth hormones” and a wire coat hanger. The downside is that I ran into some severe slowdown, which is quite surprising for such a simple looking game. It might be because the game is programmed in Flash but hopefully it will be sorted out in future updates.
The gameplay consists of dodging enemies and obstacles in a room until you have killed them all by blinking tears (or worse) in their direction. The rate, damage and reach of your tears can all be upgraded, but you are limited to only shooting in four different directions. To make up for your inability to shoot diagonally, shots can be curved somewhat by shooting while moving but it can still be a chore hitting a few of the more erratic foes. Enemy’s either chase you down relentlessly or try to avoid you so the random room layouts can be a big help or huge hindrance depending on what you run into. None of the items or enemies ever respawn in a room so once it is cleared it will remain that way. Throughout the levels, you will find bombs and keys, which unlock doors, chests and secret rooms, but thanks to the randomness, there is no guarantee you will ever have enough. It is impossible to be stuck, but you might miss some cool items along the way. Cash can also be collected for spending at random shops, beggars and gambling machines. There is no native gamepad support (at this point) so the keyboard controls can be a bit cramp inducting if played in long bursts. Isaac also feels a bit slippery to control until you get used to his movements.
The soundtrack is good with plenty of spooky tunes that set the mood perfectly. In fact, you can purchase the 30-song collection separately if you want to listen to it outside the game. Sound effects are as disturbing as you would expect, but rather minimal. If you can put up with the hard, sometimes unfair gameplay and do not mind a game that goes out of its way to include offensive elements, you will enjoy this one. It expertly combines all the best elements from some classic genres and presents it to you at a price that cannot be beaten. In fact, after twenty hours of playing I still have not experienced everything it has to offer. The warped sense of humour might scare some folk off as will the biblical references and use of occult symbols, which is a shame as underneath it all lays a very good game.
*Review originally published November 2011.
- OS: Windows XP, Vista, 7
- Processor: 2.5 GHz
- Memory: 1GB
- Hard Disk Space: 50MB
- Video Card: Direct X9.0c Compatible Card
- DirectX®: DirectX® 9.0c
- OS: OS X version Leopard 10.5.8, Snow Leopard 10.6.3, or later.
- Processor: Intel Mac 2.5 GHz
- Memory: 1GB
- Hard Disk Space: 50MB