The Binding of Isaac Review5 Oct 2011  by
The Binding of Isaac is many things. It’s grotesque, and dark, and light-hearted, and disturbing, and entertaining, and frustrating, and fast-paced, and shooty, and impossibly hard, and full of unlockables, and hopelessly, hopelessly replayable. In short, it’s the latest object of my unrestrained affections.
It’s also what would happen if an early Zelda game knocked up a roguelike (one of those wonderful, randomly-generated dungeon-delvers) and the resulting sprog was adopted and raised by a story from the Bible.
The Binding of Isaac is, somewhat unsurprisingly, based around the biblical story of the Binding of Isaac. You know the one: God tests Abraham by telling him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. When Abraham complies, God stays his hand at the last second and tells him to sacrifice a nearby ram instead. Everyone’s happy! Except the traumatised son, presumably.
The game (which, in the interests of saving space, I will henceforth refer to as BoI) twists this a little. Here, Isaac lives alone with his mother, who watches a lot of Christian TV, until she starts hearing the voice of God – which, before long, starts telling her that she needs to prove her faith and devotion by murdering her son with a carving knife. Isaac escapes by tumbling into the basement.
That’s where the game begins: our protagonist is a naked, traumatised boy, whose only defence against the beasties in the dark is crying. No, seriously. Isaac’s primary method of fighting back is to cry at his enemies, shooting out big, blobby tear-bullets that… somehow make them explode in showers of gore.
As Isaac, you wander around the dungeon looking for items to help you out, useful rooms like shops, and the trapdoor to the next floor – which is invariably guarded by a boss. Everything’s divided up into screen-sized rooms along a grid, and all of the action-ing is done from a mostly-top-down perspective.
The actual combat is reminiscent of twin-stick shooters: you run around with the WSAD keys, and shoot (well, cry) in the cardinal directions through judicious use of the arrow keys. Every enemy, of which there are many, have their own movement and attack patterns; mastering how to beat each enemy is pretty much the key to victory. Some stay in place and are invulnerable unless they’re attacking; others do nothing but walk towards you; others wander aimlessly but charge straight at you if they see you. Working out how to exploit both the room layout and the enemy patterns is the way to go, and the enemy types are all distinctive enough that it never feels like one is a carbon copy of another. They all look different, and they all act different.
Oh, and all of this is randomised.
That’s where the roguelike influence comes in: every dungeon layout is generated at random, within set parameters (one boss room, one secret room, one treasure room, etc.) The enemies populating each room? Random. The boss you fight at the end of the level? Random. The items you find? Random. Considering the sheer number of enemies, bosses, items, and potential layouts – and the vast impact each of these has on how you play – BoI is astonishingly replayable.
Items play the largest part in altering your tactics. Other than the ubiquitous bombs and keys, I’d group them into four types: there are stat-boosting items; there are ability-granting items; there are rechargable super-weapon items (of which you can only carry one); and there are one-shot items like Tarot cards and pills, of which you can only carry one.
If you find a lot of items to boost your maximum health, then you can afford to be a little more careless. If you grab the chocolate milk item, then your shots can be charged up for more damage. One item will let you shoot behind you; another gives you temporary invincibility; another gives you a helper that fires when you do. There are scores and scores of items, most of which have wildly different effects, and most of which combine to force you into playing in entirely new ways.
Some of these items also factor into the game’s wholly unsettling what-the-shit quotient. Bear in mind, again, that this is a game in which you play a traumatised child. Every level opens with Isaac curled up on the floor, sobbing and shaking, recalling a horrible memory. Levels are mostly brown; destroyable blocks are literally lumps of faeces; enemies are frequently horrific, bleeding mutants that vomit flies. This is not a happy, rainbow-filled game.
But that’s far from the worst of it. There are elements of toilet humour, to be sure, and there’s some pitch-black humour in there too – but there are also a number of deeply, deeply disturbing connotations. The wooden spoon item, for instance, boosts Isaac’s speed. This doesn’t make much sense unless you bear in mind that most stat boosts also change Isaac’s sprite somewhat – and the wooden spoon causes red, spoon-shaped welts to appear on his body. For me, there was a dawning feeling of genuine horror as that implication started to make sense.
And yet, naturally, it’s actually entertaining to see what sort of monster you can turn Isaac into. With the right combination of items he’ll have a coat-hanger jammed through his head, wear a lump of poo for a hat, be covered in hideous growths, bleed from the eyes, and wear an angry grin on his face. If he looks like that, you’re pretty sorted for most of the game.
This brings up right back around to the replayablity. BoI is a hard, hard game, and the randomised items (and occasionally unfair distribution of keys and bombs, or the way it’ll give you tons of items of which you can only carry one) can make it even harder. For the most part sheer skill can see you through most of the challenges unharmed, but you’re going to die and die again. You can’t save, and if you die, you have to start over – although as a complete playthrough will only take maybe 30 minutes that’s not a huge issue, and the randomisation means that you’ll never play the same game twice.
Besides this, most playthroughs will unlock new stuff. Blow up enough blocks? New item. Kill a certain set of bosses? New item. Finish the game once? New levels, new enemies, and new bosses. There’s a staggering amount of content in here, and it’s fun to explore and see what’s new.
As noted, the randomisation can cause problems. Some games can prove practically unwinnable if you get a useless combination of items, or if the game refuses to drop keys so you simply can’t access items, but for the most part your failures are just that: yours. You can’t blame the game too much.
You can blame it when the framerate drops, though, and that’s something that happens all too often. BoI appears to have been coded in Flash, which means that too many sprites on screen cause the game to run like a one-legged dog (which, surprisingly, isn’t an enemy). The upside, I suppose, is that the detail level can easily be dropped – but for a sprite-based game which usually has less on screen than your average FPS, it’s somewhat shocking that you’d even have to do this.
But that’s a minor problem in what is otherwise a gargantuan, replayable, and excellently-designed game. I’ve been trying to find a reason not to recommend this, and… well, unless the style puts you off, I can’t think of much. It’s easily worth more than the £4 price and the hours upon hours of content packed within it provide astonishing value for money – a few Flash technical niggles aren’t nearly enough for me to even ask you to think carefully.
If the style doesn’t put you off, buy this. Now.