The Binding of Isaac Review - The Next Level

Game Profile

Release date:
September 28, 2010
Edmund McMillen
Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl
Action RPG

The Binding of Isaac

How can something so wrong feel so right?

Review by James Cunningham (Email)
October 11th 2011

It's amazing what you can get used to. I was deep into one of the randomized dungeons Isaac has run to in order to escape his religiously-homicidal mother when I came across a room in which a satanic figure offered to trade some of my health for a permanent power-up. Seeing a mechanical eyeball, and not being sure what it did, I figured it was worth checking out if only to satisfy sheer morbid curiosity. It turns out it transforms Isaac's tears, which are the bullets he normally shoots, into a piercing laser. Oddly enough, this had the effect of making The Binding of Isaac seem more normal rather than less.

Every game feels new, thanks to the endless combinations of abilities, dungeon layouts, and boss fights.

The Binding of Isaac is, as should be obvious, a weird one. It's also great fun, incredibly playable, dark, funny, wrong, scatological, religiously irreverent, and loaded with challenge. Isaac is a small boy whose mother listened to one too many religious shows, until she finally heard the voice tell her to sacrifice her son to prove her love for God. Trapped in his room, Isaac finds a door into a cellar where all sorts of horribly disturbing creatures live. The only way out is to shoot his way through, and Isaac won't be the same at the end of the journey.

At its core, The Binding of Isaac combines a twin-stick shooter, the dungeon style of the original Zelda, and a heavy dose of randomization to create a game that, somehow, feels completely unique. Isaac starts each game in a single-screen room with the instructions written on the floor, and a quick walk through the nearest doorway starts the freakshow in earnest. The initial weak flies and harmless wailing bumpy-headed children quickly give way to crawling fanged slugs, bloody floating heads, pustules that swell and scatter bullets, headless hopping things, and much more. Everyone will have a most-hated enemy to call his own, though it's hard to top the swollen-headed guys that cough up flies. It's not that they look so bad, though they're not pleasant, or that they're particularly dangerous, but the horrible dry cough they give when choking up a fly is maybe a bit too perfect. It's the sound of a cough that's torn a throat raw but still doesn't have the edge to scratch the itch. I find it necessary to kill those pathetic things quickly or the sound of it makes my throat constrict.

Killing things starts out pretty simple, but the nature of Isaac is that each game evolves in its own individual way. Isaac can only shoot in the four cardinal directions, and his stats cover damage, rate of fire, range, and walking speed. As he goes through the dungeon, though, this rapidly starts changing in several ways. Pick-ups don't just boost the four stat categories but also make the firepower behave in strange ways, like enabling charge shots or splitting in two when it hits a target. Additionally, there are items that can be used every couple of rooms, as well as single-use pick-ups. There's very little explanation for any of it, so the only way to know that the hanger increases Isaac's rate of fire is to pick it up. Sure, he'll spend the rest of that game with a giant hangar through his skull, but it's a small price to pay, right? Every power-up affects Isaac's look in some way, from giving him a dorky facial expression to maiming him horribly. Still, isn't it better to become powerful but hideously freakish, rather than dead?

Which isn't to say you won't wind up thoroughly dead anyway, of course. The Binding of Isaac isn't an easy game, even once you've learned how to use the power-up system effectively. The random nature of the dungeon and monster layouts means you'll be seeing some very tricky rooms, and will need to come up with a plan to deal with it based on whatever powers Isaac has managed to find this trip down to the basement. A room with a bunch of headless hopping guys who randomly spring into the air and then land in a spray of bullets is much easier to deal with if you've got a fast walking speed and can cover the screen in bullets, but sometimes you just have to make due.

That random nature is what makes The Binding of Isaac so incredibly replayable. Every game feels new, thanks to the endless combinations of abilities, dungeon layouts, and boss fights. There are a few unfotrunte distractions, such as slowdown when the screen gets busy, and an utterly inexcusable lack of gamepad support (seriously, the controller config says to Google JoyToKey!), but there's so much content hiding inside Isaac that it's next to impossible not to keep on exploring the possibilities. The Binding of Isaac is dark, disturbing, and wrong on a truly impressive number of levels, but it's also a brilliant and ridiculously fun game that remembers to never take itself too seriously. Sure, you're exploring the hideous monstrosities buried in the depths of an abused young boy's imagination, but it's addictively entertaining, so that makes everything ok, right?


A scene from The Binding of Isaac

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