Platforms: Microsoft Windows (reviewed), OS X, Linux
Before I get started, I feel I should mention that I reviewed The Binding of Isaac with the Wrath of the Lamb DLC installed. Therefore, if you purchase the game alone, your experience could be slightly different in regards to the number of endings and items, as well as what enemy/boss types you encounter.
The Binding of Isaac is not for the faint of heart. When it comes to both gameplay and story, you’ll need a bit of a twisted personality to truly appreciate what The Binding of Isaac has to offer. If you’re easily offended or at all squeamish at the idea of coming face to face with a hideous abomination that may have just been plucked from your very own mother’s uterus, then this game probably isn’t for you. For the rest of us, The Binding of Isaac just might be one of the most addictive and replayable games of all-time.
The game’s plot is derived from a story found in the bible of the same name. I could spend half the review telling you about the story, but the opening cutscene of the game will do a far better job of that. So have a look.
With Isaac “safely” in the basement, weeping in the fetal position, there is little time to cry because he must now fight his way through floor after floor of unspeakably disturbing enemies, using nothing but his tears (at least to begin with). The game controls like a “twin-stick” shooter, using the WASD keys to move Isaac and the arrow keys to shoot. There is also the ability to use a gamepad (which is how I play the game), however the game doesn’t come controller enabled. You’ll need to use a program like JoyToKey if you prefer to play this way. If you do decide to use a controller it may take a little trial and error to find a configuration you’re completely comfortable with, but once you do the combat in the game is enjoyable and will keep you on your toes. There are occasions when it feels like you’re getting hit when you appeared to have dodged out of the way or when you’re shooting at something but not actually hitting it. I’m not sure if this is a common occurrence for everyone or if maybe it‘s just an issue on my end. Regardless, after spending some time with the game you’ll adapt to this, so it isn’t something to fret over.
The Binding of Isaac is aesthetically influenced by the original Legend of Zelda (just take one look at the HUD and you’ll notice some striking similarities) and feels very much like exploring one of its dungeons. While the game’s look is visually inspired by The Legend of Zelda, it doesn’t quite play like it. You aren’t going to need to find items necessary to reach new areas and there won’t be any puzzles to solve. Instead, The Binding of Isaac plays more like a rogue-like (in that the levels are procedurally-generated and death is permanent) meets a bullet hell shooter.
If the random levels weren’t difficult enough, the variety of enemies that you’ll encounter bump the difficult up a good deal. Learning every enemy’s attack patterns is crucial to your survival in The Binding of Isaac and this can take some time to master just based on the sheer number of them. Outside of your normal enemies, you’ll have to defeat a boss on each level before you can move on to the next. There are over 30 different bosses waiting to tear you apart and, much like the other enemies, each has its own set of attack patterns to learn. Like many games from the NES-era, once you learn these patterns the fights become much easier to deal with. So the more time you spend with the game, the more rewarding the experience ends up being.
Spending more time in The Binding of Isaac will also ratchet up the difficulty though. Each time you successfully complete the game it gets a little harder. Whether it be by unlocking more levels that you need to battle through or adding new bosses to the mix, with nearly every successful run something in the game changes.
Success in The Binding of Isaac is determined by quite a bit of luck, which only adds to the difficulty. Not only are levels and enemies generated randomly, but necessities like bombs and keys, as well items that can improve your character pop up inconsistently. There are well over 100 items that can be found. These items can range from the near useless (poop) to the overpowered (brimstone, which is essentially a beam that annihilates everything in its path). Some items are passive and affect one of your four attributes (health, damage, shot speed & movement speed), while other items are activated abilities that can be used for one room before needing to be recharged. On most floors you’ll be able to pick up one of these items from a treasure room for free (assuming you have a key, which isn’t always the case).
Not all items will be found in the treasure rooms though. Sometimes you’ll be able to visit “Deal with the Devil” rooms where you can trade your precious life (heart containers) for powerful items. There are also shops, secret rooms and other various rooms you will encounter throughout the game that can contain items. You’ll run across pills, tarot cards and trinkets in Isaac as well, and each has a unique effect. I could spend pages just talking about the items in the game, but I’ll just say there’s so many that I guarantee you’ll never have exactly the same combination twice and learning what each does is one of the biggest draws of the game.
The luck factor in The Binding of Isaac means it is completely possible for you to get a combination of items that does very little to help you progress through the game. It is also possible to become completely overpowered and breeze your way through as well. The beautiful thing about The Binding of Isaac is that, in the end, skill will always play a part in the outcome. Even if you end up on the weak side, if you develop the proper skills you can still be successful. It may not be easy, but it is possible. On the flip side, if you start getting overconfident and making stupid mistakes because you feel like nothing can stop you, the game will make you pay. A few well placed shots from an enemy and a lack of health drops can end a run quickly, so staying focused is always absolutely necessary for success. While this luck factor makes every run unique, the times when you can’t pick up bombs, keys, money or even decent items can lead to some frustrating experiences. Things aren’t always (almost never really) going to be easy, so keep that in mind.
One other neat thing regarding the items in The Binding of Isaac is that whenever Isaac picks up a new one his appearance will change. Some combinations make him appear to be rather “challenged”, while others can make him look like a complete badass. This has zero affect on the game, but seeing how Isaac develops over the course of a run is one of my favorite parts.
While The Binding of Isaac probably isn’t for everyone, it is a game that is well deserving of your attention. I could have probably made this review ten times longer if I wanted to discuss every little aspect of the game, but Isaac is about discovery. So to tell you everything to expect would be a disservice to the game. With the amount of randomness and absurd number of item combinations The Binding of Isaac offers, you’ll never have the same run twice. If you are a completionist and want to 100% the game, you’ll get way more than you money’s worth (less than $10 including DLC) out of Isaac. Simply put, if this sounds at all interesting to you, and you aren’t oversensitive when it comes to gore and religious imagery, then do yourself a favor and go download The Binding of Isaac because it is disturbingly gorgeous in every way, and I really cannot recommend it enough.