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.
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.