The Binding Of Isaac Review
Retro gameplay is slowly but surely making a comeback in a world inundated by cover based shooters and multiplayer FPS games. Team Meat made this clear with their smash hit Super Meat Boy, a love letter to classic platformers such as Super Mario Brothers. Continuing with this trend is Edmund McMillen (1/2 of Team Meat) and Florian Himsl’s latest game The Binding of Isaac, a roguelike RPG reminiscent of classic Zelda games. Does the game recapture Super Meat Boy’s charm and difficulty, or is it a failure that deserves to be locked away in the basement? Read on to find out.
Isaac’s story begins with cute, childlike drawings setting up the game. Isaac’s mother spends her time watching Christian television, heeding the word of God to every last letter. When she hears God telling her that she must offer her son as a sacrifice to prove her faith, Isaac quickly escapes to the basement where he discovers a horrifying world full of monsters. The story itself, while brief, is very dark and only increases in its disturbing nature as you progress through the game.
Gameplay consists of controlling Isaac through the basement as he battles grotesque monsters in an effort to find new equipment to help him progress. Each floor of the basement will normally contain shops, special rooms with power-ups, arcades, and a boss fight. Defeating each floor’s boss will open a door to the next floor as well as reward you with a new powerup. Gamers who have played The Legend of Zelda for the NES will immediately feel right at home the minute the game starts. Everything from the dungeon layout, to the map, to secret rooms you must open with bombs, to Isaac’s items and health counter are directly taken from the classic Zeldas. However, the game clearly draws inspiration from roguelike RPGs in that the dungeons are always randomly generated as well as the powerups you receive. For example in one playthrough, you may find several items that increase your damage capabilities and health. On another playthrough, you’ll find yourself rarely finding any stat enhancing items but a ton of special attack items. Other touches such as multicolored pills whose effects change between playthroughs and tarot cards with various effects can help to even the odds in your favor (yet they can also harm you).
Isaac has a distinct art style that fans of Super Meat Boy will no doubt love. However, SMB had a sense of humor that, while somewhat dark, was also cute and charming. In contrast, Isaac retains the dark humor but trades in much of the cuteness factor for creepy and disturbing. Permanent health boost items come in the form of dog food and rotten meat labeled “Dessert” and “Breakfast”. Finding the speed enhancing “Wooden Spoon” leaves spoon shaped bruises all over Isaac’s body while the “Wire Hanger” powerup puts a wire hanger through Isaac’s skull. While this sort of humor is very dark at first, you’ll notice that the aesthetic effects of the powerups stack on Isaac. At one point, I wore a surgical mask, a Native American’s headband, lipstick, and Mom’s high heels and panties. By the end of the game your character will look completely ridiculous.
The Binding of Isaac can be a tough game. There is no tutorial save for the game’s controls that are sprawled across the floor of the first floor. Your survivability is based on how lucky you are to find the right items when you need them. Most importantly, death is the end. Upon dying, you can see all the items you’ve just lost as well as what killed you with an option to try again, albeit from square one with none of your powerups. This can be pretty brutal yet it reinforces the idea that the best way to beat the game is to learn from your mistakes. I was originally frustrated with the idea of having to restart, but quickly found it just as fun and rewarding in the long run. Though, I can’t help but shake the feeling that this game was originally meant to be a flash-game in the sense that the game is incredibly simple in all aspects and feels like one of several games I’ve played on Newgrounds before. I’m not complaining, though. Isaac is surprisingly deep and extremely addictive. As an added bonus, the game’s music was created by Danny Baranowsky, the same guy who made Super Meat Boy’s soundtrack. Here, the tracks are moody in the places where they need to be and rocking when they should be.
The Binding of Isaac is a potentially short game. Depending on how lucky you are in finding new powerups, it could take about 30-40 minutes to complete the game’s 6 floors. However, there are tons of secrets such as hidden playable characters, bosses, and levels to play through. Isaac isn’t a game that completely redefines the roguelike RPG genre, but there’s a good chance that it can revitalize an interest in the genre, paving the way for more like it. For any fans of classic gameplay mechanics and the thrill of finding new loot, I definitely recommend giving this game a shot. The Binding of Isaac is available now via Steam for $4.49.