Written by  :  Pagen HD (131)
Written on  :  Jul 28, 2017
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  4.14 Stars4.14 Stars4.14 Stars4.14 Stars4.14 Stars

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An incredible artistic statement, but lacking in gameplay

The Good

+ Isaac looks like the Hired Hand character in Spelunky.

+ This game easily has one of the darkest and most memorable stories in all of gaming. It is easily on the same level as Jonathan Blow's Braid and the classic Silent Hill games. The story is about killing your own mother, because she has plans to kill you. The Biblical story of the "binding of Isaac" is about a man sacrificing his own son because God tells him to. I'm glad the creator of this game changed the man into a woman, so now it's a woman planning to sacrifice her own son. This is one of the strongest stories about mother-son relationships I've ever seen. Personally, although I don't have a mom who wants to kill me, I can still relate to this stuff because it just reminds us how hard being a parent can be, and you don't always know what is best for your child. As parents, we may think we are doing the right thing, but the child actually hates what we're doing, and hates us. Seriously deep stuff.

+ The first "final boss" Mom is the mother's legs. I don't know why, but every time I made it to Mom's room, I defeated her. I've never died in this boss room, ever. So unlike 99% of games, the "final boss" is actually easier than almost everything else in the game.

This can be interpreted as, once a child is brave enough to face his parent, he can always win. The hard part is building the courage to face them, to actually stand up to them. It's a lot like Buster standing up to Lucille in Arrested Development.

+ After defeating Mom, you open up a new area Utero. Nirvana will be proud because the art design in the Utero area is simply amazing. Inspired by the Worms and Hell areas in Spelunky, Utero has the same bloody, red/crimson color theme that makes a player feel very uneasy. I've yet to beat the boss in this area, Mom's Heart, and I do not know what area lies behind this. But Utero is so impressive, I'm perfectly satisfied just to visit here. This area is what makes The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth worth buying.

+ The music is highly enjoyable and well-composed. The music style is the same as Super Meat Boy. As the game begins, you get hummable melodic tunes, and as you travel deeper and deeper, the music becomes increasingly more ambient, more abstract, and darker. It has a much more ominous vibe going on than music you would find in, say, Terraria. It is an artistic statement, a serious one.

+ This game is the one game that almost every Steam user I know either owns, or has it in their wishlist. It's probably even more popular than Terraria, from what I've seen. I've seen multiple users who have all 339 achievements unlocked, with 2000+ hours spent playing this game. It is a singular phenomenon in the Steam community. You feel that there are people who join Steam just to play this game and unlock the 339 achievements, and would later discover other great games. I do appreciate that.

I know that one of my friends on Steam has this game in his wishlist, and every time he is online, I would start this game so that he would get a notification that I'm playing The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. It's like my way of talking to him.

+ The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth has cast a large shadow over the indie games community in recent years. One game directly influenced by it -- Enter the Gungeon, has grown to become one of the most played and most highly regarded indie titles, while another new game called Dead Cells is a clear successor to Enter the Gungeon and the old Castlevania games. These games influenced by Isaac, either directly or indirectly, all have astonishingly high quality, and I would argue each one of them is noticeably better than the previous one. Maybe the developers of these games work extra hard because they want the creator of Isaac to be proud.

The creation of The Binding of Isaac itself took inspiration from a combination of the very first Legend of Zelda game, and the landmark roguelike game Spelunky. It feels like Isaac is standing at the crossroads of a period in video game history, changing the trends of game design and how games should be played, and by playing it, we are part of this history.

The Bad

There are some glaring issues in the gameplay department, that cannot be excused as "design choices" anymore. The successors Enter the Gungeon and Dead Cells have abandoned many of these design choices, with good reason.

- There is nothing that teaches you the basic mechanics of the gameplay. There's a screen that seems to tell you that you can throw bombs and use items. But how? It doesn't say. I can't find anything that explains even the basic controls in the game. For a full-priced Steam product that is just awful.

- Most of the item description is cryptic and does not tell you anything useful at all. There are 400 of these items and if you don't tell me what each item does, I don't know what the designer actually expects the player to do. Google everything? Blindly experiment with each item they found?

For any other game, this unfriendly user experience would certainly destroy the game and nobody would be patient enough to play it. I've purchased an Isaac-like game called Space Grunts. In that game, items also have very cryptic descriptions, and guess what? The daily leaderboard in that game frequently has 0 players, so if anyone plays the daily run, they will be No. 1 in the world. Even then nobody plays it. Isaac could very well have become that game, but it got lucky and became a huge hit instead.

- A large number of items have negative effects, but you have no way of knowing unless you use it for real and find out.

For example you can get a pill inside a treasure chest. The name of the pill is "???", and you decide to use it, oh no, HP down. Why would any game designer put an item that reduces your HP inside a chest? Does he want to deliberately enrage the players, his customers? But this game is FULL of such negative items.

- The gameplay in The Binding of Isaac is largely luck-based, rather than skill based. Maybe I'm saying this because I don't have the skill, so I have to rely on luck. Maybe. But different seeds will have radically different items, some seeds are clearly much more overpowered, with high damage power ups and tons of health pickups, while some seeds are vastly unfair compared to other seeds.

This is not a good roguelike design to me. I came from the Spelunky mindset, that a player's own skills should be enough to beat any seed. I can tell you that in Spelunky, after some practice, one can beat the Temple in 100% of all Spelunky seeds, and he can beat Hell in 98% of them. The difficulty should be consistent and balanced. Even in a seed with poor resources, a skilled player can find a way to beat it. However, in The Binding of Isaac, if you get a bad seed, I think you just get a bad seed and there's not much you can do with it. The only way is start a new run and hope you get a good seed this time.

- Finally there's the 339 achievements. Most of them don't say a thing about how to unlock them. I have unlocked 25 out of 339 achievements, and I still don't know why they are unlocked. Still, the achievements in Isaac are considerably easier to earn than Enter the Gungeon -- in that game it's very difficult just to get the second achievement.

The Bottom Line

I'm probably not the best person to be reviewing this game, with only 25 hours and 7% of achievements. A high level Isaac player might have very different opinions on the things I talked about, just like a new Spelunky player would criticize the perma-death and the Ghost. But I do like Isaac enough to recommend at least getting to the Utero level a few times.