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Review - The Binding of Isaac (Steam, 2011)

Simple, addicting, and hard as hell

I have a confession to make.  Normally I am very cautious and deliberate when it comes to game buying decisions, only making a purchase when I have enough information to know that my money (and my time) will be well spent.  But I broke that rule for The Binding of Isaac. All I knew about is was that aspects of the look were heavily inspired by the original Legend of Zelda (one of my all-time favorites), and it was on sale for $1.49.  I’m happy that I let my nostalgia push me into an impulse purchase, because had I known that this game would be brutally difficult, and have all the characteristics of a roguelike (randomized levels, randomized items, permanent death), I probably never would have bought it, leading me to miss one of the most interesting and addicting games of last year.

Make no mistake: this game is tough as nails and, because of its randomized nature, often downright unfair, but once I got into it, I loved it.  The Binding of Isaac opened up whole new gaming horizons for me, and I recommend it heartily to anyone up for a challenge.

Let’s discuss the story aspect now, and get that bit of unpleasantness out of the way.  If the title of the game sounds familiar, it’s because there is a biblical story of the same name, in which God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac to prove his faith or devotion or some such thing.  The developers used this as an inspiration and theme for the game.  In the beginning, a cutscene shows Isaac’s mother talking to God, when he commands that she begin taking things away from Isaac (including videogames - for shame!) in order to purge him of evil and bring him closer to the Lord.  Eventually, taking things away is not enough and God tells her to kill her son.  As she bursts into his room with a knife at the ready, he jumps through a trap door to the basement, and spends the rest of the game going through ever-deeper cellars and caves, en route to a final confrontation with his mother.

Here’s the thing.  I’m definitely not religious, and I find much of religion just as silly as any Atheist, but where many Atheists and I differ is the pure glee they seem to take in talking about how utterly stupid religious people are.  Any time I see a discussion about religion, someone inevitably brings up “the bearded man in the sky,” and other condescending phrases which only serve to insult, and stop the conversation cold.  Obviously not all Atheists are like this (just as not all religious people fit a mold), but happens all too often and I find it to be a really ugly trait.  I bring this up because of the portrayal of Isaac’s mother.  She is exactly the picture of the conservative American Christian in the eyes of these people.  She’s stupid, fat, mean, and unquestioning in her faith, doing whatever God tells her to with breathless acceptance.  The basic premise of the game is enjoyable enough (and religious symbols permeate the rest of the game in interesting ways), but every time it would go back to the mom, I was taken out of the experience by what I saw as the developer’s mean-spirited jabs, not at religion, but at the religious.  It’s a personal, artistic choice, and I respect their right to do it that way, but it turned me off in a big way.

Luckily, while the story itself may be off-putting, the tone it sets up is realized quite well.  The game plays out a bit like a nightmare, or some other window into Isaac’s subconscious, where all of his greatest fears and boogey men (including personifications of the seven deadly sins) are given shape and attempt to kill him.  There are piles of fly-ridden poop everywhere, he sees visions of embarrassing moments during loading screens, and even the shopkeepers in the levels are hanging from nooses.  And get this: his weapon against all of these creatures is his tears.  That’s right - he cries at enemies to kill them.

There are literally hundreds of items to find in this game.  Some are single use weapons that damage a whole room, some are rechargeable items (usually offensive) that you can use again after a while, and the most interesting ones are permanent stat boosts.  These are the best because they give you the best chance of doing well in the game, and also because they permanently change Isaac’s appearance.  Getting one item will increase your maximum health, and also outfits Isaac with a pulsating heart on his chest.  Other items will make him smaller, change color, wear panties, have a wooden spoon sticking out of his head, etc.  And these are not mutually exclusive, meaning you can have several of these at once, leading to a pretty funny and unusual looking player character, and one that looks different every time you play through the game.

In fact, almost everything is different with each playthrough, which is both a strength and weakness.  It’s great because there is endless variety and you never know what horrible monstrosity will be waiting for you in the next room.  But a completely randomized game like this necessarily eliminates a lot of the things that make up good game design, like pacing and balance.  A skilled level designer would know how to space out health upgrades or damage boosts in a specific way so that the challenge was maintained at a reasonable level.  But your success or failure in The Binding of Isaac depends almost entirely on what pickups you receive and which bosses show up, and these things are unreliable.  By the third level in one playthrough, you could have 8 heart containers and the most powerful tear upgrades and be mowing down enemies without a care.  But by the same point in another playthrough you could have 2 heart containers and have stumbled on items that actually lower your damage, making every room life or death.  Variety is great, but when the difference between victory and defeat is based on chance alone, it makes your actions seem unimportant.

If you just have a latent collector’s instinct (like me), or you are a full-on completionist, this game is a blessing and a curse.  There are almost a hundred achievements to chase, hundreds of items, multiple endings and a handful of playable characters.  The main menu shows you most of this, so if you like collecting things, this can be a good motivator to dive back into the game to see what else you can find.  However, if you’re one of those people for whom getting “100%” is more of a compulsion, be warned that this game may take up more of your life than you’re prepared for.  I have spent over 30 hours on this game and have only a small percentage of the available stuff.  I’m not a completionist, so it doesn’t bother me, but if you are, watch out.

The art and music in this game were handled by Edmund McMillen and Danny Baranowsky, respectively, and both deserve a mention.  McMillen is best known for Super Meat Boy, and he retains the goofy and gory feel of that game here.  There is such a large variety of enemies and effects in this game, that McMillen’s ability to infuse each of them with so much character and charm is impressive.  But it is Baranowsky’s work that stands out the most to me.  The music in this game is superb.  The songs are catchy, impressively orchestrated, and match the gothic aesthetic perfectly.  With the exception of Jim Guthrie’s work on Sword & Sworcery EP, I can’t think of another game soundtrack I am content to listen to on its own, but the music in The Binding of Isaac is that good.

There’s much more to be said about a game as expansive as this, but I’ll just end here.  The Binding of Isaac is a lot of fun.  The simple controls, one-room-at-a-time battles and NES-inspired HUD bely a game that is much deeper and more engrossing than on first glance. The music, visuals and morbid sense of humor are great and pump a lot of life into the experience.  The difficulty is tough to swallow, all balance has been thrown to the wind, and I wish the portrayal of Isaac’s mother had been handled differently, but ultimately this is a unique and addicting game I can recommend without hesitation.