After playing Super Meat Boy this game felt like a genuine surprise for me. When I picked it up after numerous recommendations and a good old Steam sale, I was all geared up for absolutely hating yet another boring, uninspired scam. It's true that Binding of Isaac is yet another game from Team Meat and once again it's just another Flash game that, in my opinion, has no right to be sold commercially. However, Isaac also does just enough to rise above the status of mere Flash game; it has a lot of content, it has a clever theme and it actually feels very original in many ways.
In this game you take control of Isaac, a young infant who has to explore a number of dungeons to escape from his insane mother. The atmosphere in the basements and caves I got to visit really rubbed me up the right way, the areas themselves are a little basic, but the design of the monsters and the more macabre rooms is very admirable. All the monsters are lost broters of Isaac, I understand and you'll meet quite a lot of them. They also leave a very large amount of gore, so if the areas are boring, then you can just paint them up a little.
The funny thing about a growing technology is that you'll always look back to the early exploration and think your commentary was a little too enthusiastic at the time. Back in my reviews of Left 4 Dead 1 and 2, I said that the randomly generating "AI Director" truly made every session unique. Looking back though, L4D1&2 were pretty basic and most of the time you'd just do the same thing, but with different weapons. Isaac however pulls this off marvelously; every time you play the dungeons are different, the power-ups are randomized and even the enemies and bosses aren't always the same. One time I got to the boss room with a lightning-fast Isaac who had tears that shot all across the map and another time I was a bomb-expert.
The power-ups are also very clever, but for a different reason. Whenever you pick one up, it briefly shows you what you found and what it does, but then it also appears on Isaac himself. Every single item you find changes Isaac's appearance slightly. This has the very interesting side-effect that by the end of the game, Isaac looks just as monstrous and evil as all his brothers and sisters that he had been fighting all this time.
The game often references Zelda a lot, but not to the point that it becomes too obnoxious. To begin with: the dungeons are all in the style of the original Legend of Zelda on the NES, a good concept because the dungeons were the best part of that game. There is also some short music tracks and some animations are the same. Like I said though, it doesn't get overly annoying. The game is not constantly pushing these references in your face and I often didn't even notice them for a while. Compare that to Animal Crossing where you get to buy almost a half-dozen items from Zelda games, much better isn't it?
The story has a very nice setup, what with Isaac running away from his homicidal mother, but there are some parts that annoy me a bit. The reason for why Isaac has to run, is that his mother heard the "voice of god" and he commanded him to kill her son. I am religious myself, but I will admit that stuff like this happens from time to time and I won't deny a game the right to address it. However, I would like to see this subject tackled in a more serious light. Binding of Isaac is more of a parody in religion and just can't get over itself. Half the items have some kind of religious connection, extra hearts are referred to as "faith" and the mother supposedly spends entire days watching Christian broadcasts on the television. The theme becomes less "Religious fanaticism can lead to horrible things" and more "haha, Christians are so silly", whether that is intentional or not is open for debate.
On the technical side of things it's the game window itself that annoys me. Unlike Super Meat Boy it doesn't go full screen and instead opens up in this very tiny window. It's not the worst fate in the world, but when you do that, then please auto-pause the game when we go to a different window. I am playing this game on a laptop, so in the heat of a boss-fight I often stroke past the touchpad and accidentally open up something else. It may sound like a small complaint, but if freaking emulators got this completely functional, then it also seems like a small effort to fix.
I admit that the random generating of content still doesn't function completely as it should. While the game makes sure that every dungeon has at least one store and one item-room, it's very possible to end up at the final boss room with only one heart, no power-ups and only one good item. The main problem is that there is a difference between power-ups and usable items, but the game doesn't notice that. This means that in item-rooms, you are just as likely to receive one of the stacking power-ups as the non-stacking items. Another problem is that pills can have a negative effect, but you don't know that until you use one. Pills can do anything from giving you a power-up, to reducing your health permanently.
The generating also has a tendency to spawn enemies that conflict with the room you are in, meaning that tactics become useless. One enemy is a surprisingly tough worm that charges at you as an attack, these would ideally spawn in rooms with open space, so that you have a fair chance at dodging them. Instead, they usually spawn in narrow pathways where it's impossible to dodge them and you can't kill them unless you maxed out your damage. This is a consistently present problem that comes in many variations and it really soured the game for me.
Another technical problem is the firing. The game's viewpoint makes it hard to see whether or not a shot lines up perfectly and this can lead to problems. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to fire away at enemies while you are been chased and fired at from multiple directions and the bullet just bends into a different direction or goes a centimeter past the enemy. In Zelda this was fixed because the sword is a big target and goes completely straight forward, but in this game the tears are small orbs and every inch counts.
Is that all I have to complaint about? Nah. not really, there is one last thing: One of the bosses you can possibly encounter is really poor when looking at the game's mechanics. This guy takes up almost 40% of the screen, limiting you're movement drastically. He also fires in multiple directions and spawns additional enemies that take a lot of shots and do the same as him. This creates a storm of bullets and no room to dodge any of them. THANKS!
The Bottom Line
It's very rare for me to give a game or 6/10, I normally either like the game and give it a good grade or hate it and pound it into the dirt, a middle-ground is not all too common. In this case however I do genuinely find myself in the middle of this game, I admire some of the mechanics it utilizes and the genuinely clever design that it displays, but I also dislike some of the rocky mistakes that sour the game up on many fronts.
If you are into indie titles and especially liked Super Meat Boy, then this little game right here is a great addition to your collection with possibly endless amounts of content. If you hang more towards the casual type of games, especially in terms of difficulty, then I wouldn't recommend this game at all.