The Binding of Isaac Review

The Binding of Isaac

developed by Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl

Released in September of 2011, The Binding of Isaac is probably one of the more disgusting games out that you should actually play.  You see, buried beneath the aesthetic scars, scabs, bumps, bruises, feces, and excrement, is Isaac;  A highly entertaining and enjoyable action-RPG-shooter hybrid.  Think Zelda meets Blaster Master meets Dr. Frankenstein.  It sounds like a crazy combination, but it does work.

Alright, I should get this out of the way before going any further.  The Binding of Isaac is not for kids.  I mean young kids, children…  you know, the little people around the house that want to use the computer or your video game system all the time.  This really isn’t a game you should be playing around them.  It’s a good game, but the imagery and visuals, though somewhat cartooney, aren’t meant for young and impressionable minds.  Think nightmares, bed-wetting, and thumb sucking.

Alright, now that that’s out of the way, Isaac is kinda-sorta based on the story from the bible.  It’s similarities are used only as a setting for which to base the gameplay on.  It actually works very well with the gameplay and narrative though.  The intro at the beginning of the game sets the story up nicely – in a deranged sort of way.  It provides a basis for the gameplay and bridges the gap between story and gameplay rather neatly.

As far as gameplay goes, Isaac plays almost like a twin stick top-down shooter.  The major difference here is you can only shoot in four directions.  Isaac can move diagonally, but he can’t shoot diagonally.  He can only shoot left, right, up, or down – initially at least.  This does add to the level of challenge in gameplay.  The game is played using the classic setup of WASD keys for movement and the Arrow keys for shooting.  I only wish that there was gamepad support, but aside from that the controls are straight forward and simple enough to use.

The level design in The Binding of Isaac should look somewhat familiar to those who remember Zelda for the NES.  I think the influences are easily spotted.  The level layout definitely looks similar.  The best part about these levels though, is that they are randomly generated.  Not only are the levels random, but the enemies you face and bosses you fight are also encountered randomly.  The boss on the the first level, and each level after that, might be different every time you play.  In other words, don’t get too comfortable with the tactics you’ve been using between one boss and the next.  This randomization adds an incredible amount of replay value and even depth to gameplay.

The difficulty level might seem a little steep at first.  If you’re a classicly trained gamer (in other words you’re hardcore and from the 80’s), you’ll realize that it just takes a little patience and practice to learn all of the enemies patterns and weaknesses.  Every new game is split into small chapters overall containing a dozen or so levels per playthru.  You only get one life and start with a small amount of health.  Death is permanent and there is no way to save your game.  Thankfully, as Isaac explores the many rooms within each dungeon level, he discovers power-ups and items that give him special abilities and powers to help him.  Some of these items are extremely beneficial and useful to Isaac, while others are detrimental to his progress.  The list of items is rather large for such a seemingly small game, but this is another reason you’ll want to play through Isaac multiple times.

The graphics in The Binding of Isaac are quite good.  They’re somewhat grotesque, but they’re much more comic and cartoon grotesque than anything else.  The visuals are creepy and disturbing but they suit the theme and setting.  The look and style is intentional, and it works hand-in-hand with the overall atmosphere of the gameplay.  The graphics might not be for everyone though.  However, I do believe they work well to present the story and setting in a seemingly small and uncomplicated game.  The audio is very good as well.  The sound fx don’t really stand out but the music can be unsettling at times.  The voice over narration during the introduction is very impressive.

A game with a unique setting, crazy graphics, and intense gameplay, should first and foremost, be fun.  And fun is exactly what The Binding of Isaac is.  It might seem very challenging at first, but like any game, the more you play the better you get at it.  There are dozens of unlockables, including items, playable characters, and multiple endings.  It’s not a very long game, but the randomization of levels, items, upgrades, and boss encounters, will provide countless hours of replay value.  Is the content and subject matter controversial?  Maybe, to some it might be.  What matters most is that The Binding of Isaac provides fast, fun, and addictive gameplay that players can come back to over and over again.

If I have one complaint it would be that there is no gamepad support.  It’s not a deal breaker since Isaac controls well enough with the keyboard, but it would have been nice to have the option.

For the low price of only $4.99 you can pick up The Binding of Isaac on Steam.

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