The Binding of Isaac
The Binding of Isaac is an almost top-down game that borrows heavily from the roguelike genre. Players explore dungeons that consist of a series of connected, single-screen rooms with randomized environments, items and enemies for each gameplay session. Like the original games death is final and the player has to restart the entire game to continue. Each game consists of five series of dungeons leading up to a final confrontation. Each dungeon has a boss and defeating it opens a staircase to descend to a new environment.
The story is based on the one from the Hebrew bible where God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. In the game Isaac is a young boy whose mother is called by a voice to kill her son to prove her allegiance. The introduction however hints that it is only the boy's imagination as he draws the scenes on sheets of paper. In his story, Isaac manages to flee from his mother by escaping through a trap door before she can kill him. That way he ends up in a dungeon and he has to find a way to kill her.
Players control Isaac through four movement keys along with four additional ones to fire in the four main directions. Isaac attacks monsters by launching his tears. There is a slight delay in the firing, so that combined with movement it is possible to launch the projectiles with a bend trajectory. Isaac can collect hearts to maintain his health level, upgrades for his tears (triple shot, more damage, charge, mirror to make them retract their path, ... ) and coins to purchase items at Zelda-inspired shops. Other items such as bombs, pills with various effects, and keys are left behind by opponents. The pool of possibilities is very large, making each gameplay session completely different. There are also special items to be found such as a magnet to draw in items, or companions that help fire at enemies. Certain ones have drawbacks, such as transporting Isaac back to the starting area or reducing the amount of hearts in exchange for additional lives. Isaac can also discover hidden rooms and secret environments.
The game keeps track of the discovered collectibles and secrets, and allows the player to review these. Next to Isaac, three additional playable characters can be unlocked, with names based on the biblical tradition: Magdalene, Cain, and Judas. They each present a different class with a different playing style. There are also multiple endings.
Credits (Windows version)
24 People (5 developers, 19 thanks)
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Average score: 85% (based on 42 ratings)
Average score: 3.5 out of 5 (based on 38 ratings with 2 reviews)
- Different stage layouts each playthrough make replaying easy
- Randomly chosen items with a variety of effects, both visual and mechanical, further encourage replay
- Satisfying, challenging combat
- Easy to put down and pick back up later
- Effective morbid aesthetic
- Great sound design
- Copious amounts of repetition required to reach the end, more than the game's variety can justify without breaks
- Bullets' trajectories are affected by the velocity of their source which gives aiming an unexpected learning curve
- The random nature of the game makes some attempts needlessly frustrating
- The story takes a backseat to the game, despite clever its twists
- The game makes itself harder once you have played it to the end a number of times which makes the game harder to show to others.
The Bottom Line
In The Binding of Isaac, you play as Isaac who is being hounded by his mother who has heard a voice from God telling her to sacrifice Isaac in his honor. Isaac flees into his basement where the game becomes a top-down shooter and the story becomes unfortunately irrelevant to the proceedings. What is most disappointing is, despite how surprisingly affecting the story is (requiring some interpretation), that one is required to run the length of the game more than a dozen times before really seeing its end and a lot of this time features no character development or progression. The players who would most appreciate the clever story may grow tired of the game long before reaching its final twists.
The gameplay, however, is certainly not bad: Isaac's stream of tears reduces the deformed enemies and flies to bloody pulps in wet, viscerally satisfying explosions. It can take some time to get used to the way the player's movement affects the trajectory of the bullets, but the game features more than enough content to tide players through this learning curve. Learning monster and boss patterns is important, as the game does provide a reasonably stiff challenge. While the early stages have mostly clear rooms, later floors have particularly cramped terrain that impedes the otherwise simple combat.
Though each dungeon floor is randomly arranged each time one plays the game, it leads to very little true difference from one playthrough to the next. What does make each run feel different is the variety of items Isaac can find and buy, most changing Isaac's abilities and appearance. Unfortunately, the random items are one of The Binding of Isaac's most exciting and worst features simultaneously. Items can be found in treasure rooms, shops, secret rooms, and after beating bosses on each floor, but because of the random nature of the stages and the items, it is very possible to be dealt a crappy hand, which forces players to whittle away at boss's or even enemy life bars, turning an individual run into a real drag. This can be easily outweighed by combinations of items that make Isaac into a powerhouse, but in all truth most commonly the items will be found effective enough, even if not ideal.
The Binding of Isaac is reasonably short, taking, usually, about an hour to reach its final boss. Where its length comes is in replaying the game-- and assuming one is fond of top-down shooters and a moderate challenge in the first place, replaying The Binding of Isaac is a very easy thing to do. Replaying it is even fun so long as the item pool remains sufficiently unexplored (after long enough though, one will get tired of seeing the same items). The game's aesthetic is not enough to carry it through its repetition if a player didn't desire a top-down shooter in the first place, but if that want is there, The Binding of Isaac is a great choice.
Windows · by Fragasnap (178) · 2013
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.
Windows · by Asinine (957) · 2012
Nintendo 3DS version
"Attention: After a long internal debate Nintendo has decided NOT to allow the Binding of Isaac on the 3ds. :("
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Game added by Sciere.
Game added October 10th, 2011. Last modified November 17th, 2023.