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The Binding of Isaac Review

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On 11/16/2011 at 12:00 PM by Kyle Charizanis

Fun, gross, and more than worth its cost.

For everyone.

The Binding of Isaac is made by the same team that brought you Super Meat Boy, and it shows. Everything is familiar: the visuals (just as morbid), the music (same composer), even the difficulty level (not quite as bad but nowhere near easy). Though they’re from different genres, if you liked Super Meat Boy you’ll almost certainly like Binding of Isaac.

The genre of Isaac is a little hard to pin down. It has a top-down view, and the map layout is clearly a throwback to the original Zelda on NES. But you only use a projectile weapon (Isaac’s tears), there’s no world map, and you can’t save. You collect power-ups and descend to new floors, and each floor has a boss...I guess this game is basically a Super Meat Boy twist on classic Zelda gameplay. Not saving might sound annoying, but each floor is randomly generated and one playthrough only takes about an hour; it’s more about the replay value. 

There’s also a persistent biblical theme. Isaac’s mother fills the role of “Abraham” (though we never do learn her name), and Isaac is…Isaac. Mom was happily watching her Christian broadcasts on TV when suddenly she heard a voice. This voice told her to put Isaac on the “right” path, beginning with limiting his play time and ending with claiming him as a sacrifice. Upon learning of his impending doom, Isaac escapes into the oddly cave-like basement through a trap door in his room, and the game begins. 

As you might expect from Team Meat, Isaac is littered with references to old video games and internet memes. The Bomberman-looking miniboss. A shovel that’s used when you need to go deeper. You can get an item called “Steam Sale” which halves the price of all other items in shops. Bombs that randomly pop out of chests already lit have that “troll face” image on them. You know the one. It’s a little gratuitous at times, but for the most part it’s just cute.

Much like its predecessor, the core gameplay is one of Binding of Isaac’s strongest points. The controls are smooth and intuitive without being simplistic. The music and environments aren’t as engaging as in Meat Boy, but it’s not that those things are bad in Isaac, they just aren’t really the point. I don’t keep going back to this game because I like the aesthetic stuff; I just want to shoot projectile tears at things over and over. It’s really fun for some reason. (The music is decent, by the way—it always fits the mood, but Danny Baranowsky didn’t seem as inspired by this game.)

The best part is undoubtedly the power-ups. At the start of a game you clamber around and cry in the direction of enemies. By the end you might be emanating laser beams from your eyes, or shooting homing tears at the speed of a machine gun, or flying around with devil’s wings, or teleporting between rooms, or filling a room with those damned troll face bombs, or charging up a chocolate milk attack. Moreso even than the fundamentally enjoyable gameplay, it’s  the unending creativity that went into these character modifications that makes the game so addictive. According to Steam I’ve logged almost 20 hours on Isaac by now, and I still haven’t found (or unlocked) all of them.

Like Super Meat Boy, it’s very immersive. There aren’t really any loading screens and you rarely have a sense of having played “enough” for now. I have to make a conscious choice to stop playing, because if I don’t, it’s just going to continue being fun and seamless for hours and I’m not going to get any work done.

But the game is not without fault. The worst part about Binding of Isaac is that it’s short and repetitive. I don’t mind that each floor is laid out basically the same way (like in the original Zelda), but they really didn’t all have to look the same. Everything in “The Caves” and “The Depths” is just a recolour of the original two floors. The rocks and walls just get gradually bluer as you descend. There aren’t any other textures or even the occasional vine to spruce up the place. If I weren’t frantically trying to keep track of all the monsters shooting their blood at me I would get really tired of the decor.

Possibly due to being programmed with Flash, the game lags when there are lots of enemies on screen. It’s not that bad, and it goes back to normal as soon as you kill some of them, but it’s still quite noticeable when it happens. I’ve also found several glitches, but none which allow you to go through walls or anything crazy like that. They don’t really affect the game at all except for looking silly and making the presentation seem a bit unpolished.

The luck factor is kind of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s really fun knowing that at almost any point I could stumble across an upgrade and get some crazy new power. On the other hand, there’s nothing to stop you from getting many of these in one playthrough, and certain combinations are indisputably overpowered. I recently watched someone as they beat the last level for their first time, using the now-famous Brimstone and Chocolate Milk combo. Basically this lets you fire a huge laser beam that bisects the screen and does maximum damage with no charge-up time. He could kill almost everything instantly and was basically invincible. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen very often. And really, I’d be lying if I said it isn’t fun to mercilessly fry everything in your path once in a while.

Despite these complaints, I give it a 4.5. Why? Because it costs $5! This game is cheaper than a meal at McDonald’s! Setting it in this price range allows us to lower our expectations, not of the game’s quality, but of its scope. Taking this into account, its problems with repetition and length seem much less significant; and it’s not as though they’ve stopped updating it. A new character and entire floor were added as part of the Steam Halloween event. It’s not a revolutionary title in any sense, and it’s not going to keep you occupied for months on end - but for $5, it’s a steal.

Review Policy

In our reviews, we'll try not to bore you with minutiae of a game. Instead, we'll outline what makes the game good or bad, and focus on telling you whether or not it is worth your time as opposed to what button makes you jump.

We use a five-star rating system with intervals of .5. Below is an outline of what each score generally means:

All games that receive this score are standout games in their genre. All players should seek a way to play this game. While the score doesn't equate to perfection, it's the best any game could conceivably do.

These are above-average games that most players should consider purchasing. Nearly everyone will enjoy the game and given the proper audience, some may even love these games.

This is our middle-of-the-road ranking. Titles that receive three stars may not make a strong impression on the reviewer in either direction. These games may have some faults and some strong points but they average out to be a modest title that is at least worthy of rental for most.

Games that are awarded two stars are below average titles. Good ideas may be present, but execution is poor and many issues hinder the experience.

Though functional, a game that receives this score has major issues. There are little to no redeeming qualities and should be avoided by nearly all players.

A game that gets this score is fundamentally broken and should be avoided by everyone.



Nick DiMola Director

11/16/2011 at 02:04 PM

Got this sitting on my HDD thanks to the latest Humble Indie Bundle. Looking forward to giving it a whirl.

Jesse Miller Staff Writer

11/17/2011 at 09:36 AM

I have had the unfortunate business of not being able to play Super Meat Boy and feel like I've really missed out on a gem there. I may pick this up just to check it out though, as the review makes it seem promising and for $5 you really can't go wrong.

Kyle Charizanis Staff Alumnus

11/18/2011 at 11:51 AM

Honestly, Super Meat Boy is worth whatever they're charging. I completely agree with Nick's review, it deserves all 5 stars. Although it really is very hard. The main game is bad enough, but if for some reason you have the crazy goal of 100%ing it, I probably can't think of a harder game. Well, outside the bullet hell genre, I guess. But "the screen is so cluttered with shit I can't see what's going on" is a different kind of difficulty :P

Meat Boy is just hard 'cause of its creative level design. The game mechanics are simple and intuitive.

Binding of Isaac is one of those games you play for half an hour before doing something else. I mean, in theory. In reality, sometimes you forget about the something else.

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