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GAME REVIEW: The Binding of Isaac

headerThe Binding of Isaac is an intense randomized overhead shooter game published by Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl in 2011.  Before I even get any further, let me just say that if you’re easily offended, especially by religious elements, then this might not be the game for you.

The game starts with a cut-scene explaining the basic situation.  In short, Isaac’s mother spends all of her time watching religious TV and ignoring her son, until one day the TV tells her to kill him and she listens.  Isaac flees to the basement, which is apparently a video game dungeon.  You can see the opening cut scene here:

Down in the basement, Isaac is on his own against hordes of monsters, naked and unarmed except for his tears which he can fire at enemies as projectiles.  There are a variety of enemies, whose only commonality is the tendency toward the grotesque, from monster flies to blood-spitting skull columns, to fly-bloated monsters.  Each one has their own strengths and weaknesses, patterns which you can learn to exploit.  The floor layouts are random, so you have to explore to figure out where you’re going.  On each level there’s a treasure room with a collectible item, as well as a store where you can spend money you collect to buy other items, a boss room which you’ll have to beat to get down to the next level, and a secret room which you can only reach with bombs.

Many details of the game are clearly inspired by the original Legend of Zelda.  Some of the enemies have similar characteristics, the movement, the look of rooms, the bombs and some of the other items (especially the ladder item that allows you to cross one-block gaps in the floor).  These little details are fun, since The Legend of Zelda was one of the first video games I every played.

Where the game gets really interesting is in the item pickups.  You have one slot for a rechargeable item and one slot for a consumable item, as well as items that change your attributes or attacks with being separately used.  There are literally dozens of these, so you’ll have to discover all of them on your own (or look on the Isaac wiki).  Some items increase the range of your tears.  Increased attack power.  Limit damage taken.  Healing effects after killing enemies.  Periodic money drops.  Helpers who give supportive fire.  The ability to fly which lets you float over obstacles.  By far my favorite is brimstone, which you seem to only have the chance to get if you make a deal with the devil–instead of shooting tears, you vomit brimstone which takes a few seconds to charge but has infinite and instant range and can cream most enemies in one hit.

As you play you unlock a handful of other playable characters.  The controls are all generally similar, but each has different strengths and weaknesses.  My favorite is Magdalene, who has more hit points to begin with and also has a Yum Heart as the rechargeable item which allows healing.  My second favorite is Eve, who starts with lower hit points, but is a powerful avenger–if she’s damaged a dead bird flies out of her hair to constantly peck at enemies until you leave the room, if her health is brought down to half a heart she turns into a demon with more powerful attacks.

Every playthrough of the game is very different than the last, mostly due to the random mix of item pickups you’ll find.  This makes it very fun to replay, and makes the challenge level very unpredictable.

Visuals
Creepy cartoonish look, very fitting.

Audio
I mostly played without the audio, while watching TV with the family or early in the morning while everyone was sleeping.  The game plays fine without audio, but the few times I played with audio it added some extra creepiness as some enemies maybe weird or pathetic sounds–probably most of all is the battle against Mom as she constantly shouts “Isaac!” and wails it in despair when she dies.

Challenge
Very challenging, probably tried to play through 20 times before I was good enough to beat Mom the first time.  The challenge level varies greatly based on a lot of random factors, including the randomly chosen boss characters, but mostly based on how powerful the randomly available items are–if you get a chance at brimstone, take that, that’s your best chance at powering through the rest of the game.

Story
Very light on story.  The story is basically entirely given in the cut-scene that plays on startup, just laying out the basics of the TV telling Isaac’s mom to kill him, and him fleeing.

Session Time
Not an easy game to play quickly and shut off because there is no in-game saves. If you can play all the way to the end of the game without dying, it might take 60-75 minutes if you clear every floor thoroughly. That is a little frustrating if you’re like me and most of your time comes in dribs and drabs. I usually ended up leaving the game running in the background until I could finish the game, which was kind of annoying.

Playability
Pretty straightforward to play, WASD keys to move, arrow keys to shoot in the four directions, Q to use special pickups like tarot cards and pills, and space to use rechargable items, E to drop bombs.  Easy enough, compact enough.

Replayability
Lots of replayability, unlockable characters, bosses, areas, plus each playthrough is just one small set of grabbable items picked from a much larger list, so it takes quite a few playthrough before you grab them all and each playthrough is different.

Originality
Although there’s a clear influence from Legend of Zelda in some of the design, the gameplay with the stacking upgrades, the plot, the grotesque monsters, the Mom villain, all very creepy and effective.

Playtime
Pretty much as much as you want, if you like to replay to unlock different things or just enjoying the different playthrough each time.  I think it took me maybe 6-8 hours to beat it the first time (though that’ll certainly vary from person to person.)

Overall
Solid game, random playthroughs make for great variety, very challenging, creepy weird setting and enemies.  This is one that’s occupied enough of my attention to interfere with my free time–I sit down and intend to do something else and next thing I know I’m playing The Binding of Isaac again because it calls to me and I want to play it.  Solid game, highly recommended.

There’s also a DLC add-on called Wrath of the Lamb which I’ll probably pick up sometime, as well as a sequel The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth which I’m certain I’ll pick up.  You can buy The Binding of Isaac on Steam for a dirt-cheap $5.

About David Steffen (64 Articles)
David Steffen is a writer and editor and software engineer and a voracious consumer of podcast fiction. The first piece of fiction he's edited is now available, "Taste the Whip" by Andy Dudak on Diabolical Plots(http://www.diabolicalplots.com/dp-fiction-1-taste-the-whip-by-andy-dudak/). David is also the co-founder and administrator of the The Submission Grinder(http://thegrinder.diabolicalplots.com/), a tool for writers.
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