The Binding of Isaac – Review

Platform | Release Date
PC | September 28, 2011

Developed by Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl
Published by Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl

The Pitch:

When Isaac’s mother starts hearing the voice of God demanding a sacrifice be made to prove her faith, Isaac escapes into the basement facing droves of deranged enemies, lost brothers and sisters, his fears, and eventually his mother. The Binding of Isaac is a randomly generated action RPG shooter with heavy Rogue-like elements.

Dear Diary,
Today I died.

I was killed in the caves underneath the basement of my house by something that looked like my own head except it had no eyes and looked really angry. It chased me down and vomited blood at me.

I leave all that I own to my cat, Guppy:
My mother’s high heels
My mother’s underwear
A pair of X-Ray glasses
A used syringe
Mystic wooden spoon
A slab of rotten meat
A dead cat (Not Guppy)
An unlabeled yellow pill
And one copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook.

Goodbye cruel world.
XOXO Isaac

This somewhat bizarre and disturbing entry is a brief rundown of a typical playthrough of The Binding of Isaac, and is what you are rewarded with seeing every time you die. And believe me, you will die a lot.

The Binding of Isaac is the latest downloadable title from Edmund McMillen – one of the two men responsible for last year’s brutal platforming death simulator Super Meat Boy – and plays like an interesting combination of the original The Legend of Zelda, Smash TV and some kind of severely messed up fever dream. After being locked in his room by his crazed murderous zealot of a mother and escaping through a hidden trapdoor, Isaac must explore the randomly generated Zelda-style dungeon maps beneath his bedroom whilst trying to survive the twisted apparitions that lurk in the depths. These range from Isaac’s own floating eyeless head that will try to chase him down, to severely beaten and diseased looking avatars of Isaac and even headless torsos that fire a column of blood from their chest. Things only get more bizarre from there, with some particularly insane boss monsters such as a bloated floating head filled with flies or a giant mountain of meat, organs and faces.

Initially, all Isaac has to defend himself are his tears which can be fired in four directions like your typical twin stick shooter, and as the game progresses you will find a multitude of bizarre and (quite often) tasteless items which will upgrade your stats in some way. These items include a wire coat hanger that sticks through Isaac’s head causing tears to fire more rapidly, a syringe of growth hormone that makes tears do more damage and increases range, and even the floating corpse of a dead cat that gives Isaac nine lives but reduces his health to a single heart. You can also carry a single usable item at a time that recharges from enemy kills and is activated by tapping the space bar, providing things like a unicorn horn that gives limited invulnerability, a deck of tarot cards that give random effects or a large bomb that creates a bigger explosion and deals more damage than your regular bombs.

Along with being absolutely insane, The Binding of Isaac is hard. Not only because the game constantly throws dungeon rooms at you packed with incredibly dangerous combinations of enemies along with fiendish bosses and mid bosses, but because every time you die in the game you have to start all over from the beginning with a completely new random map and item layout. It may sound disheartening at first, but this is where The Binding of Isaac actually draws a lot of its replay value from. The game itself is not very long, with just six floors to the dungeon which can honestly be cleared in under an hour if you are skilled or lucky enough, so a death in the game is just a few minutes lost and a chance to try again on a completely unique playthrough with a new set of upgrades and items. Also, once you actually do manage to finish the game, the first six times you clear it the game is extended by a new chapter (two floors) and new enemies, bosses and items are added each time, and then each clear after that will make the game progressively harder. Finishing the game another three times after that adds another game changing element into the mix. This gives plenty to unlock and discover, and along with it constantly making you want to give it ‘just one more go’ The Binding of Isaac is sure to provide hours of entertainment any time you decide to start a game.

Visually the game is your typical Edmund McMillen fare – a twisted combination of cute and overly dark with a hand drawn flair. In its simplicity, the game is remarkably detailed and it is obvious withing the first few minutes of play that a lot of care was taken with the character, enemy and item design in the game. The animations are also extremely smooth and nothing in the game appears half-hearted. Despite this not being a Team Meat title, Danny Baranowski is still on board to provide the music for The Binding of Isaac, and once again does a perfect job of setting the mood of the game with an ambient yet extremely dramatic and moody soundtrack.

For five dollars, you absolutely cannot go wrong with The Binding of Isaac. With its sometimes brutal difficulty, randomly generated content and heavily addictive nature, the game is guaranteed to provide you with hours upon hours of entertainment for very little cost to you (other than your time). It is perfect for a play whether you just have a few minutes available or a full night for gaming. I will warn however, that if you are easily offended or have a weak stomach, the game may not be right for you as the humour can be incredibly crude most of the time. It is available for both PC and Mac right now on steam for the low price of $4.99, or $5.99 if your purchase it along with the soundtrack. The game has sold exceptionally well so far in just a single week, and Edmund has promised a ‘very dark and jam packed update’ for October the 31st, which gives even better reason to pick the game up and experience its dark secrets.

About Daniel Tolin

Daniel Tolin is a video producer for Splitkick and co-host of the Fall Damage podcast. He also tends to get really angry at old games at least once a week.
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