The Binding of Isaac Review
Game: The Binding of Isaac
Developer: Edmund McMillen, Florian Himsl
Publisher: Merge Games
Available On: Windows, Mac OSX, Linux (Reviewed on Windows, available here and here)
Created by Edmund McMillen, who is responsible for approximately half of Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac comes out of the gate with a whole lot of promise. Despite having known next to nothing about the game personally, I eagerly clicked download and began my wait.
What ways would Mr. McMillen ensure that his newest project stands out against the big budget titles of today?
As it turns out, The Binding of Isaac separates itself from the crowd with flawless and unique design, a daring concept, and a nostalgia ridden experience that leaves the player feeling unclean long after he’s walked away from his or her PC. Brilliant.
STORY: The basic premise of The Binding of Isaac is to re-explore the biblical story wherein Abraham is asked, as a test of faith, to sacrifice his son Isaac to an almighty god. While the tale traditionally ends well enough, what effects would such an event have on the intended sacrifice? The Binding of Isaac is essentially a twisted re-imagining of this story set in modern times.
The cinematic component of the game’s story is hardly present, save a brief opening delivered by a bass and haunting narrator. What little information is conveyed goes a long way towards setting up the overall tone and feel of the game, alluding to the psychologically chaotic environment that the game’s protagonist, Isaac, has found himself in. Isaac’s life seems mostly normal in a surface sense. He lives at home with his mother where he enjoys quietly drawing and playing with his toys. Like Abraham, his outlandish Christian mother receives a message from God requiring her to sacrifice her one and only son. She agrees without even a moment of deliberation as Isaac looks on in horror from his bedroom. Not particularly keen on the notion of being sacrificed, he flees into what is most assuredly the world’s worst basement, teeming with hellspawn and located, presumably, on the precipice of hell; or possibly within Isaac’s imagination. The game is left wonderfully open to interpretation.
This introductory sequence is the only definable and certain element of the story. The Binding of Isaac does, however, give you the tools you need to craft your own narration about Isaac’s past, personality and psychological state. As you progress through the game and discover items, enemies and Isaac’s drawings, you begin to weave these materials into an intriguing and disturbing tapestry.
GRAPHICS: From a graphical standpoint, the game takes a cute and simple approach. The juxtaposition of the cute little pink Isaac against the content of the game is a little unnerving. Later in the game, Isaac becomes a mangled and grotesque beast of a boy that somehow manages to maintain a fragile and innocent look.
SOUND: Despite the obvious influences of classic titles on The Binding of Isaac’s design, catchy upbeat melodies are absent entirely. Instead we are treated to a creepy, non-invasive soundtrack that somehow still manages to be fun. In a game that values a darker tone as much as this one does, atmosphere becomes a key ingredient. Composer, Danny Baranowsky, successfully achieves this effect with his score.
As previously mentioned, the game is almost entirely without cutscenes and, as such, doesn’t leave much room for voice work. The opening cinematic is entirely voiced by a single narrator, achieving a rather comical effect. As a result, the player isn’t expected to take the game too seriously despite the grim content contained within.
GAMEPLAY: The Binding of Isaac is a dungeon crawling adventure complete with boss fights, secret rooms and power ups. Isaac’s primary method of attack is the projectile tears he can fire in any of the four compass directions as you navigate around in typical WASD fashion.
A good portion of the game’s appeal is derived from the inherent desire within gamers to “level up.” The randomized dungeons are riddled with randomized power ups that are consistently surprising and, indeed, consistently awesome. Whether they be a scathing biblical reference or an overt reference to internet culture (i.e. “chargin mah lazerz”), a vast majority of the items possess humorous implications. Some of them are also pretty gross, causing vile and unnerving cosmetic changes to the protagonist.
As a result of the randomized everything, the game can be unforgivably difficult at times. When you first start playing and have yet to unlock a lot of the more formidable upgrades, the items will just not be in your favour. This can be frustrating when you consider the inability to save your progress. If you die during your quest, you will be forced to restart with the only remnant of your prior progress being the slight possibility that something you unlocked in a previous playthrough just might spawn in the current one. Spoiler, it probably won’t.
Consequently, this randomized difficulty makes for an incredibly addictive experience that can grant the rewarding feeling of mastering a science. Once you finally learn the games intricacies and vanquish the final boss (or, even, the final secret boss) you can’t help but be overcome with a certain feeling of pride.
LONGEVITY: If you become addicted to unlocking boss fights, playable characters and absolutely ludicrous power ups, you can expect to get an absurd amount of game time out of The Binding of Isaac, as it is positively rife with secrets and has the unique capacity to be a fresh experience every single time you hit play.
VERDICT: The Binding of Isaac is a successful formula of one part satire, one part nostalgia and two parts macabre. The game is very clearly inspired by The Legend of Zelda, right down to the hidden rooms kept secret behind bomb-able walls. It’s a safe bet that fans of Link to the Past will find something worth cherishing here.
Beyond that, amongst the cultural references and generally frantic and rewarding gameplay, there is something to enjoy for almost anyone. Furthermore, it is a relatively cheap title. You may be pleasantly surprised.