The Binding of Isaac Review
By Simon Graves |
"Take now thy son...and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains..." Pretty grim stuff, eh? Well according to the Old Testament, this is what the Supreme Being once asked of poor Abraham. Child sacrifice is hardly the sort of thing you'd imagine being made into a video game, but Edmund McMillen of Team Meat and Florian Himsl have done it, and the result is a game that has a lot in common with the God of the Old Testament – it's totally random, highly creative and brutally unforgiving.
The Binding of Isaac is a top-down, 2D action-RPG that's been likened to a "Rogue-like" (for the uninitiated, the latter is characterized by randomly generated content and perma-death) although it's considerably better looking and sounding than most of those generally text-dependent games. In its grotesqueness, the game is easily as weird as Team Meat's 2010 platformer, Super Meat Boy. No wait, I take that back. It's even weirder. Having already introduced us to his signature brand of cutesy grossness, McMillen now gives us destructible piles of poop and maxi-pads used as defensive weapons. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
At its heart, The Binding of Isaac is about a boy and his mom. When we meet them, they're living a normal life until mom, an enthusiastic Christian, starts hearing God's voice in her head. The Voice commands her to "save her son from sin" but before she can do the unthinkable, Isaac escapes through a hatch in the floor of their home and enters a series of monster-filled caves on par with the seventh circle of Hell. Of course, escape isn't really the answer.
Isaac must find and defeat his murderous mom (who appears at one point simply as a big, hairy, lumpy leg. Er, I don't want to be the one to suggest the development team has mommy issues but...wow). That means traversing a series of many-roomed dungeons and defending himself against a horde of nightmarish enemies by crying on them—which isn't as laughable as it sounds. Along the way, he collects useful items like keys, weapons and powerups that do things like increase his rate of fire, damage and health.
The game's graphics, which mimic child-like drawings, make all this fighting, collecting and exploring even better and give pathos to a concept that could otherwise have come across as completely crass or immature. The game's sound contrasts with its vulgar front, and although the sound effects are often low-budget, its spooky score is well worth a listen. There's a lot to see, hear and do here and the game's easy keyboard controls allow you to jump right into it. Be warned though; while things might seem easy at first, they soon become much more challenging.
Isaac's only given three hearts-worth of life to begin with and once that's gone, it's game over; you lose all your progress and have to start over again without health upgrades, weapons or collectibles. The first time this happens you'll probably take it in stride but by the twentieth (or fiftieth) time, you may start to question your enthusiasm for this particular game. While obviously intentional on the part of the designers, these hardcore mechanics represent both the game's main strength and its weakness. On one hand, perma-death adds suspense and randomly-generated content provides a lot of replayability. On the other hand, the fact that your potential for beating the game is ultimately dependent on the luck of the draw can be more than a little frustrating.
I'll be honest with you. During the hours I spent playing The Binding of Isaac, I never stopped waffling between "this is awesome!" and "this sucks!" While there are tons of goofy, gross, politically incorrect things in it that are hilarious, (few games past or present show their heroes prancing around in their mother's underwear), there are also more than a few things—broad fluctuations in difficulty and enemies that shoot/jump through barriers when you can't, for instance—that undermine the fun. And although it has enough content repetition to allow (via multiple playthroughs) for some degree of learning and skill-honing, its overall randomness makes it a very hard to beat, love-it-or-hate-it kind of game.