The Binding of Isaac: Review

Oh, Isaac, you poor child...

Box Art
Title The Binding of Isaac
Developer Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl
Publisher Edmund McMillen
Platform PC, Mac
Genre Action, Adventure, RPG, Indie
Release Date September 28th, 2011

Gather around, folks – it’s fact time. Did you know that the average human being sheds over 121 pints of tears during their lifetime? No? Well, it’s a fact. I know because I read it on some website on the internet. However, had the intrepid scienticians involved in that study included poor Isaac, they would have had quite the outlier*. While I can’t count the abominations I’ve drowned with Isaac’s tears, I can count the number of times I’ve led poor Isaac to his death: 144 times. That’s almost one life per pint and, while I’m pretty sure there’s almost no actual mathematical correlation there, what you should understand is this: the lives of Isaac are often short, and always paved by his tears.

Don't worry Isaac, someone left a tutorial on the floor.

The Binding of Isaac is an unusual game in almost every respect. It’s a bit like someone took the Legend of Zelda and the Bible, tossed them in a blender, and waited patiently to see who won*. The ‘someone’ in this case, is Edmund McMillen of Team Meat fame. While not as technically polished as Super Meat Boy, Isaac is a unique and extremely addictive game. Since its release, I have put over 100 hours into this game, and that’s not something I can say for many titles, let alone an indie retailing for $5.

On the surface, Isaac is a top-down action game with a grotesque art style and some roguelike elements, including permadeath and randomization. Still, for a game that appears to be pretty simple, it carries an astonishing amount of depth.  This is largely due to how well the random elements are implemented. At a basic level, Isaac doesn’t have a lot to work with. He’ll collect coins, keys and bombs (each limited to a classic 99), and you can hold either one pill or tarot card at a time (which provide various effects when used). Keys unlock gold chests, shop doors, or treasure rooms, and bombs can blow open the entrance to each level’s hidden room, or carve a path to items out of reach. As these items are limited and gained at random, you have to make a lot of choices on when and where to use them. However, the real meat of the game lies in the ‘treasures’ Isaac collects as he goes.

Isaac. Someone wants to meat you. Heh. Heh. Ehh...

In all but the bottom floors, there will be at least two treasures for Isaac to collect on each level; one in the treasure room, and one dropped by that floor’s boss. Every time Isaac collects one of these (hefting it briefly over his head, like a tiny, naked Link), he is visually altered for that playthrough, gaining also a passive or usable effect. With over one hundred possible items and over six floors to crawl through, you’ll end up with a uniquely deformed Isaac almost every run, and it stands out as the game’s fundamental hook.

Had it been released in the 90′s, The Binding of Isaac would have made a lucrative arcade cabinet. Calling Isaac a ‘hard game’ would be something of an understatement. There are no difficulty levels to select and extra lives are either an extremely rare find, or come with a serious caveat*. Playing as Isaac, you start with three hearts. As most enemy damage clips off half a heart, it’s likely that your first few lives with Isaac will be fairly short endeavors. There are the standard rooms on each floor, such as the shop, boss or treasure room, but all those in between are a completely random assortment of elements cobbled together like a finger painting by a sadistic, childhood Picasso. Enemies, room layout, items, chests, the floor’s boss – all of these are luck of the draw. While some rooms will become familiar over time, they are rarely identical. As you descend further, the enemies (much like Isaac himself) become more corrupted and dangerous versions of those you’ve faced before. Even as Isaac grows stronger, the floors become longer and even the environment takes on a predatory edge. No matter where you are in this game, death is a constant possibility and, as you delve deeper, that only becomes more likely.

Compounding the difficulty of the game is the absence of any load/save function. In keeping with permadeath, if you die, you start over. Much the same, if you’ve got Isaac trucking along, relatively healthy and half-way through a run, but your computer crashes or some form of reality comes knocking and forcing you to quit, there goes your Isaac. Better luck next time. Still, a complete run in Isaac is certainly feasible. Initial runs can be completed in two to three hours, depending on how cautious you are (or how much time you spend in the arcade room). As you unlock additional floors, this will naturally become longer, but it never extends to the point where a successful run will take you an inordinate amount of time.

Really? The Poop? That's what you give me? Fantastic. Know what it does? It poops. It poops right there on the floor.

One of the most compelling aspects of the game is due to how the unlockables are handled. Achievements here aren’t just vanity projects; almost every achievement provides you with a tangible reward, unlocking new conditions or items that are then thrown into the mix of treasures found on each level. Finding the Book of Revelations, for example, will unleash the four horsemen: random bosses that drop meat cubes, which you can assemble to create your very own Super Meat Boy companion. Completing certain objectives will also unlock both an achievement and one of the other four playable characters. And, even after you’ve unlocked all of the characters and endings, the incentive to continue playing remains, as it’s almost guaranteed there will still be treasures left to find and achievements left to unlock.

And suddenly your own Mom doesn't seem so bad.

The Binding of Isaac will be an instantly polarizing game for many. It’s loosely based on a Bible story by the same name, and it’s not a flattering interpretation. The game’s opening cinematic (animated in an endearing stick-figure fashion) provides a modern juxtaposition in which Isaac’s mother hears the voice of god. After a few requests (leaving Isaac stripped of everything ‘evil,’ including his clothing), the Big-G decides that the only way for Mother to prove her love of Him is to kill her son, Isaac. As Mom lumbers after Isaac with a butcher knife, he discovers a trap door leading to the basement, vaults down, and our game begins. The story from that point is fairly abstract, and mostly left to interpretation. There are eleven different endings (unlocked sequentially as you complete the game each time), but they don’t bare much in terms of concrete plot, and much of the game’s story is implied. As I’m anything but an expert on Christian theology, I’m sure I’m missing a lot of nods and digs, as well as a significant amount of subtext. Still, I’d be pretty surprised if this game could find no one to offend in the average American family. After all, it’s a game where the prime directive is, “Kill Mom,” and piles of feces are a common block of terrain. All the same, once I accepted the somewhat disturbing visuals*, I found the thematic elements of the game to be a rather fresh departure from the usual fare, extending beyond the religious currents, and into a strangely compelling exploration of identity.

Isaac died to bring you this screenshot. Jerk.

Unfortunately, the game also carries a few serious technical deficiencies. While any game is bound to come with its share of bugs and glitches, the issues with Isaac are mostly inherent to its programming foundation. The word on the e-street is that it was coded in Flash. When it was first released, this caused some serious bugs, including some users’ progress (characters and items unlocked) being deleted when clearing their flash cookies. This has since been fixed, but other issues remain. Gamepad support is reduced to a ‘gotcha’ in the options, simply showing ‘joy2key’ when clicked. This means tracking down a third-party program and then finding a configuration file for Isaac if, like me, you have no idea how the hell to configure the controls. In the end, I found the keyboard and mouse a more effective mode of control anyway (despite a series of excruciating WASD cramps), but it’s a shame that the gamepad couldn’t have had native support. Regardless, the most serious issues involve performance.  Most of my time with Isaac was spent on my laptop while traveling. By all rights, a game with such simple visuals should run perfectly on most machines, but major slowdown was pretty much guaranteed as soon as more than a few projectiles entered onto the screen. Even reducing the visual fidelity to ‘Low’ would not completely eliminate the slowdown (and this is on a decently beefy laptop*). Still, while the slowdown would sometimes cause control issues (and therefore unnecessary deaths), it wasn’t enough to ruin my experience with the game.

Oh look, it’s my college general ed trying to convince me it wasn’t useless after all.
Hint: Us.*  Certainly not Isaac.  Probably not anyone who likes the Bible.
Is this how hints work?
Edmund’s work is awesome, but not exactly intended to please in the traditional aesthetic sense

Intel Core 2 Duo 2.00 GHz4GB Ram

Windows Vista 64-bit

ATI Mobility Radeon 4650

The fact that this fact’s origin website is suddenly dead, just makes this all the more legitimate, right?
Making a swap with devil for the ’9 Lives’ pickup will give you 9 lives… and only one heart. Just try taking out the devil himself with that one.

CONCLUSION

The Binding of the Isaac manages to provide a unique experience, while also serving as a delightful homage to the retro gaming era. Between making deals with the devil and trying to take out Mom’s giant, disembodied leg, there’s no shortage of twisted originality. Some may be turned off by Isaac‘s brutal difficulty or gleeful irreverence, but for anyone else, this is one not to miss.  It should also be mentioned that the game has an excellent score, composed by the talented Danny Baranowsky. Not once during my many (many) hours with the game, did I have the urge to mute the music and pop on my iTunes library, and that’s an impressive feat. The amount of time I’ve put into this game eclipses many of the ‘AAA’ titles I bought in 2011, and is further evidence that fancy graphics are not necessary to make an excellent and involving game. Despite its issues, The Binding of Isaac is an incredibly worthwhile and fresh ride. The next time you have $5 and a little spare time, pick this one up. And, once you do, give it a chance before you walk away in frustration; it might not treat you gently, but you might just appreciate that at the end of the day.

our RATING:

Full Full Full Full Half

PROS:

  • Unique and vaguely disturbing art style from the Master Meat Mind, Edmund McMillen
  • Excellent music
  • Challenging and rewarding gameplay
  • Extensive inherent replay value
  • Achievements provide tangible rewards

CONS:

  • Some technical deficiencies, including slow down on mid-range computers and no Steam overlay
  • No ‘true’ widescreen
  • The Poop.  I hate the Poop.

BUY IT once it is:

$5.00

Steam

PLAYTHROUGH DETAILS:

Logged over 100 hours on Steam since release (exact count is inaccurate, due to the game being left paused for food breaks, etc). Killed Mom 19 times, the Devil 3 times, and died 144 times in the process. Earned 43/52 of the achievements. Was never lucky enough to build my own damn Super Meat Boy (roll four harbinger bosses in one run) and could not bag a no damage run on any of the stages past the Basement, no matter how hard my little fingers tried. Pretty sure Isaac still doesn’t know who he is. It’s okay though, little guy. You’ll figure it out one day.

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  • http://zedutchgandalf.be/ Robin Arys

    Great review of a great game! I love The Binding of Isaac :)
    I’ve read all reviews on theangryluddite. And I enjoyed all of them :).

    You guys all write very casual yet adequate and to the point. I like that!