The Binding of Isaac Review
Fans of Super Meat Boy will find it hard not to notice The Binding of Isaac's art style. What fans may not recognize -- and possibly be shocked by -- is the back-story and overall tone of the game.
I’m not going to mince words. The Binding of Isaac has and will likely cause controversy over the next few years, and certain players may find this game quite offensive. But it's not all gloom and doom. The game’s plot is similar to the controversial biblical story of the same name.
Isaac is a child who lives alone with his mother, a devout Christian, in a house on a hill. After his mother hears the voice of God commanding her to sacrifice her one and only son to prove her loyalty, Isaac runs away and hides in the world's biggest and most dangerous basement. Completely naked (literally) and armed with nothing but his own tears, Isaac must face the perils of the underground depths and ultimately confront his mother in a duel to the death.
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Eight-bit gamers will no doubt be familiar with the game's presentation. You control Isaac from a top-down perspective, moving from room to room vanquishing demented monstrosities and manifestations. Everything from the perspective, to the rooms' layout, to the status bar on the top of the screen is reminiscent of the original Legend of Zelda. The tear analogy is no joke. You don’t swing a sword; rather, you shoot tears (jokingly labeled as “arrows” on the status bar) at your enemies. Oddly enough, they pack a powerful punch. The shooting mechanics is that of twin-shooters, like Robotron, although you can only fire in the cardinal four directions.
In addition to tears, players can use two other types of items, one rechargeable, and the other a one-time use. However, the player can only carry one of each type at a time. Players will also make use of keys for locked doors, bombs to blow up boulders, and coins to use at random stores.
Other than the very first room you enter, which has instructions for the controls scribbled on the floor, the entire game is randomly generated with each play-through. The layout of each individual room is preset, but the order you encounter them and what enemies and traps you’ll face in them will always be different.
The game also adapts a rogue-like difficulty in that you only have a single life to complete the entire thing. Unlike other rogue games, which have anywhere between 20-100 levels and actually finishing the game is a rare occurrence, there are only 8 levels in The Binding of Isaac and no save feature, so don’t start a new game without intending to finish. (If you make it that far.)
Throughout your journey you’ll find equipment that will make Isaac stronger, but these aren’t your typical magical armor. For reasons better left unsaid, Isaac equips his mother’s wardrobe, from her high heels, lipstick and various unmentionables. (If only jeans and T-shirts added to my saving throws in real life.) You’ll also find other weird things such as viruses (hurts enemies) and vampire curses (life-stealing). All of these items will alter Isaac's appearance in-game, so you can adorn your cute little tear-shooting-high-heel-struttin’-lipstick-and-vampire-fang-wearing walking abomination of a child as you go.
Each level has its own accompanying boss, but which boss will appear when is random. Finishing the boss will reveal the exit to the next level, although certain doors will not open until the boss is defeated, so it’s best to explore the level thoroughly.
Surprisingly enough, compared to Super Meat Boy, this game has a few issues. It first released with no way to remap the controls, and gamepad users were out of luck. (Unless they had third-party keyboard emulation software, such as Xpadder or JoyToKey.) The best way to get a full-screen was to use Windows 7's magnifier. Also, despite having simple graphics, machines cable of running full 3-D rendered games adequately experience slowdown when a lot is happening on the screen. Add that to a game-saving bug (statistics, not in-game), and it all points to a rushed release. However, a recent patch adds full-screen support, keyboard remapping, and a joke of support for gamepads. (The in-game menu says "Use JoyToKey, Google it!")
The rest of the game is, to put it frankly, both gory and disgusting, which doesn’t necessarily make it bad -- just weird. Gross weird. While dismembering enemies into various juicy bits isn’t exactly something new in video games, using items that make Isaac urinate (apparently it’s radioactive) or using your tears to break down feces to uncover hidden items, it makes one wonder just what exactly the developers were thinking. Still, the grossness serves its purpose.
If this were designede any other way, one might find the tone of The Binding of Isaac as very dark, brooding, and sorrowful. (And in some cases, filthy.) Probably knowing nothing of the world, Isaac is running around in a nightmarish dungeon, alone, with every walking thing out to kill him, including the only person he ever cared about and loved. Between stages, Isaac huddles in a fetal position, haunted by memories of his past. When Isaac dies, you’re treated to a 5-year-old’s version of a will, chronolicing everything that has happened leading to his untimely demise. (A staple in rogue games, although a lot more twisted.)
However, the cartoony and cutesy way the characters are portrayed add enough juxtaposition that hopefully they encourage players not to take the game seriously and create a sense of irony instead of dread. If one can put aside the controversial themes, what you have here is a very well done roguish/Zelda themed indie game for $5 on Steam.
Presentation - 7
The recent patch saves this score.
Story - 7
The controversial story might be a red flag for some, but the game is really about the game play, not the story.
Graphics - 8
Colorful characters and thick, bold lines really define this game's style. Even the poo ...
Sound - 6
A mixture of brooding themes, but the star of the show is the fleshy sounds you'll hear when you dismember enemies.
Game play - 8
An action-oriented rogue game in the style of Zelda. It's truly one of its kind.
Current Stability - 9
The patch may have fixed the save game bugs, remapping issues, and the curious lack of a full-screen option, but the game still chugs a bit when the action gets heavy. This isn't an FPS game, so it's not that much of a bother.
Lasting Appeal - 8
The game has quite a few unlockable characters and keeps track of all the nifty ... treasures (both cool and weird) that you've collected.