The Binding of Isaac
Review by Demonic Gerbil
"Like Roguelikes? Like twinstick shooters? This is the game for you!"
In a sentence, Binding of Isaac is a harrowing journey into one child's abused life and the strange delusions he battles in a desperate attempt to cope.
Binding of Isaac is a twin-stick shooter that takes its inspiration from the Biblical story of Isaac, spruces it up as a dungeon crawl, and then sets the player to be brutalized in randomly generated dungeons. The dungeon crawl angle brings with it all the baggage of older Roguelikes, from the punishing difficulty curve to the sometimes unfair randomly-generated encounters. To most fans of the genre, these are features, and it is somewhat refreshing to find a modern, commercially-available game with that sort of difficulty.
Having warned of the game's brutal difficulty, it has to be said that like many addictive classics Binding of Isaac is easy to learn and difficult to master. The controls are deceptively simple: WASD to move and the arrow keys to shoot. Other keys are used to place a limited supply of bombs, utilize one-shot buffs, or fire off a recharging power. I say "deceptively" simple because the various powers and items that can be picked up allow a remarkable degree of customization.
The story starts with Isaac fleeing from his mother, descending into the monster-filled basement of their house. Isaac soon encounters various deformed beings and has to battle against them for survival, culminating in an epic throwdown with his mother. Along the way Isaac picks up a wide variety of items and powers to use in his quest for survival.
Isaac by default uses his tears to defend himself against these threats, but it doesn't take long for him to find either upgrades to his tears or entirely new weapons to use, such as tarot cards, bombs, technology, different kinds of followers that assist him, and so on. He can make deals with the devil, trading his maximum health for powers available that way, including the ability to fly over obstacles and a powerful melee weapons called "Mom's Knife." Isaac can combine these powers in many different ways, customizing his capabilities as he progresses deeper into the dungeon. Here, though, the game's difficulty does come back to haunt it a bit. It is entirely possible to get no useful upgrades for a long time, leaving Isaac helpless in the face of the daunting boss battles.
The art style of the game could be described as "cute and ugly." Isaac and many of the other characters, enemies included, are drawn quite cutely. The level of gore is often spectacular, with splatters of urine, green venom, or blood covering the floor of the room Isaac is doing battle within. The animations are simple but fit the tone of the game perfectly. The sound effects are serviceable, and the music I find quite nice for setting the mood perfectly but never getting in the way and becoming distracting. The small amount of voice acting likewise never gets in the way or becomes grating, serving instead to create immersion that draws the player into the unreal, nightmarish world of Isaac.
All is not right with Isaac's little hellscape. The lack of native joystick support was quite off-putting for me. I know that I could use a third-party application like joy-to-key and escape that limitation, but having to jump through that extra hoop for the convenience of using a nice controller with a pair of actual analog sticks to play a twin-stick shooter is a major minus in my book. I blame the game's obvious heritage as a Flash game for this limitation. Another frustration is Isaac's lack of ability to shoot diagonally. He can only shoot in four directions (up, down, left, right). This is a major gap in his defenses. Many enemies lack this limitation and the game's AI ruthlessly exploits it.
It has to be noted here, that I played the Binding of Isaac in probably one of the worst ways to approach it. I played through it in a nine-hour long marathon. Thanks to the very helpful wiki which exists for the Binding of Isaac, I was able to unlock everything in the game and find all of the secrets. Without that resource I very much doubt I would have played it as much as I did, or at least I doubt that I would have played it in such a long single session.
In short, the Binding of Isaac is a creative mashing together of two radically different genres, with both the good and the bad inherited from both..
Now for a quick scoring summary for those of you keeping track of the numbers:
Simple controls make the game very easy to pick up. The large number of combinations of powers and items allow for substantial depth: in no two games out of the hundred attempts started was my character the same as in any others by the time I either died or won. Smart use of power-ups and abilities give the game a nice layer of on-the-fly strategy. Unfortunately the random-nature of a Roguelike works against it. You can never count on getting the power ups you need to actually survive boss enounters, or even the random encounters before the nasty boss fights. Perhaps if the death penalty had been a little less severe, or if the controls had been slightly better (joystick support, shooting on diagonals) I could rate the gameplay higher. As it is, the genre mashup of this game sometimes comes out a bit muddled.
The graphics are not the amazing HD massive polygon push that you'd find in a blockbuster title. What they are, however, is just about perfect for this game. They're cute, even when the imagery should be horrific. The world of Isaac really comes to life, with a mood and style all of its own.
The sound does a fantastic job of setting the tone for Isaac's struggle. The music never rises above the game and dominates it. Here I am, writing this hours later and I can't recall a single bit of it. I know, however, that when I was playing the game itself, the music was always there, building up tension and accompanying the action on the screen perfectly. The other sounds likewise do the same, never dominating the experience, but complementing it and creating a stronger whole from their reserved efforts.
I completed the game the first time after two hours of playing and only continued playing it in that marathon to unlock the other playable characters. Needless to say, several more hours later and I finally finished everything that there seems to be to do. Along the way I got to experience some very powerful combinations of power-ups and I died some rather pathetic deaths against enemies that I simply didn't have a big enough gun (or should that be 'wet enough tears'?) to kill. Having played it thusly, I think I've burned myself out on the game for some time. So this score was, for me, hard to judge. I played the game a lot! In fact I started a new game about 150 times if I'm reading the in-game statistics correctly. However, I don't have any urge left in me to play it more. If my play time had been spread out over several days and weeks, I believe I wouldn't find myself having this problem. So I give it an "8" for lots of different stuff to see and do and the fact that you'll more than likely have to start the game over dozens of times before you beat it the first time. I'm also ignoring the fact that I only knew there was such depth to the game by consulting an outside resource (the wiki).
I bought the Binding of Isaac for $2.50 via Steam, and at that price point it was a bargain. I played through it in a single nine-hour marathon session. The entertainment level per dollar works out to be quite good, considering I've paid $40 or $50 for games that've only lasted four or five hours. The regular price for Binding of Isaac is $5, which is still in my opinion a good deal. It's hard for me to not recommend the Binding of Isaac at that price level to anyone who thinks that a "Roguelike twin-stick shooter" sounds like an interesting concept. And of course, being on Steam means that it has some achievements to unlock for those interested in that kind of thing.
The Binding of Isaac is a unique experience. I cannot think of another game which tries to do what it does, much less a game that succeeds so well. While it could never be accused of being the game of the year, the Binding of Isaac provides a lot of entertainment buck behind its cutesy and simple exterior. The difficulty is, well, difficult to get around, but that shouldn't stop anyone from at least giving the demo a try. Who knows, you might just find yourself enjoying this gem, even with its rough edges.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 11/29/11
Game Release: The Binding of Isaac (US, 09/28/11)
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