The Binding of Isaac Review -
A Spellbinding Binding
If I asked, “What do the Bible, The Legend of Zelda, abnormal psychology, and cute animation have in common?” the answer would be The Binding of Isaac. This game has a lot of things going for it right out of the gate: it was made by half of the Super Meat Boy team, Edmund McMillen; it is heavily influenced by the top-down style Legend of Zelda games; and has a rather macabre, yet endearing art style that is invitingly dark. In the game you control Isaac who has escaped into the basement of his house in an attempt to escape his deranged mother who wants to kill him.
The story is ripped right out of the Old Testament from a section also referred to as The Binding of Isaac, in which God asks Abraham, Isaac’s father, to sacrifice Isaac. Just as Abraham is about to go through with the deed, God provides a sacrifice in Isaac’s place. There are minor differences between the biblical story and the story found in the video game, but replace Abraham with a mother figure who starts receiving messages from God telling her to purify her son’s corrupt soul by killing him, and you have the same story… sort of.
On the surface, The Binding of Isaac plays very simply: AWSD controls to move, SPACE to use special items, E to place bombs, and UP-DOWN-LEFT-RIGHT arrow keys to shoot. It never gets more complicated than that. The game play is all focused around timing movement and attacks to avoid getting hit. In essence it plays like a top-down Legend of Zelda game with no overworld. You explore the various dungeon levels picking up new items and power-ups to use to try and beat the game.
Here is the real kicker about The Binding of Isaac: all progress is immediately lost upon death. Now this might sound like a rather large oversight on the developer’s part, but it actually works very well. The game has randomly spawning dungeons, which means that no two playthroughs will ever be the same. The items and power-ups that you acquire will be different, the bosses will be different, and there will be different layouts for every level that you go through. Also, if you die, you only lose 10-30 minutes of game time. Heck, even the five second long cut scenes between each level are different.
The artistic style is highly reminiscent of Super Meat Boy, but a bit darker in overall tone to fit the more serious nature of the tale that the game is telling. For example, the opening cut scene is told through Isaac’s drawings in which he is smiling, but upon reaching the playable portion of the game, Isaac’s character model is in tears… which he actually uses as projectiles to fight the enemies that crop up. Between each level there is a small cut scene depicting some past abuse or embarrassment that range from funny (forgetting to get a new roll of toilet paper after having gone to the bathroom) to downright disturbing (being locked in a chest). Enemies are all a bit disturbing as well. They range from flies, to zombie versions of Isaac, to what might be Isaac’s brothers and sisters.
There are at times a few hiccups with this formula though. For instance, sometimes your movement might need to be precise, but when you stop moving, Isaac continues to slide in the direction he was moving when he stopped. It isn’t much, but sometimes it can be the difference between life and death. Also, this game runs on flash for some reason. As a result, even on a gaming rig there will be moments where so much is happening on screen that it will seem like battles are happening in slow motion. This isn’t a terrible issue and in some cases it can actually help a little, giving you more time to react to incoming attacks.
The music was composed and performed by Danny Baranowsky and you can download the entire 28 track album for only $0.99. For having been made by only one man, it is quite the piece of work. It is dark, foreboding, epic, memorable and entirely appropriate for its subject matter, which is saying something after having played through the game and seeing what The Binding of Isaac has to offer.
That being said, this game has insanely high replayability. It is one of those games that sucks you in to playing it multiple times since no two times through are ever the same it almost feels like a new experience every time. There are secrets to find on every floor, as well as unlockable items, bosses, an extra end-game level (which is terrifically disgusting), even characters like Cain, Magdalene, and Judas. One of the unlockable items is even a cube of meat that you can grow into your very own Meat Boy! I have spent a lot more time on this game than I thought I would, over ten hours, and I can tell you that it is still fun to play.
Let me just say one more thing about The Binding of Isaac: if Freud were alive today he would have a field day. This game is full of symbolism, outright depictions of psychological trauma and stress, id versus ego and super ego, Oedipus Complex, gender issues, etc. If you can name it then it is probably in this game.
Is It Fun?:
A boy is abused by his mother and tries to escape
Simple, appealing, yet unnerving aesthetic
Sound effects are satisfying & the music sufficiently creepy
You can and will lose yourself for hours
Fans of the top-down Legend of Zelda or of Tim Burton films
Review originally appeared on www.gameinformer.com 10/29/11