A Latecomers Look at The Binding Of Isaac (PC)

Disturbingly fun

I don’t want to be writing this review on The Binding of Isaac at all. Because to write a review on this brutal, disgusting, brilliant, frustrating and amazing game; I have to stop playing it.

The Binding of Isaac has been the single most difficult game for me to put down since I accidentally downloaded Path of Exile back in March and lost a month to it. Last night I was supposed to be working on Batgirl combos (The latest DLC character for Injustice – Gods Among Us) but instead I found myself signing up for a run through Isaac’s creepy basement once again.

I had seen this game on Steam and I knew it was created by  Edmund McMillen who designed Super Meat Boy. I had seen the screenshots and saw the original Legend of Zelda-esque layout and the creepy art. I saw that it was cheap as all get out ($7.99 if you get the DLC, $5 on it’s own) and was well received by the community. But for whatever reason I had never gotten around to downloading it.

Well obviously, that has changed. The reason for this is because The Binding of Isaac still climbs its way up the game ranks on Twitch.tv.  Seeing a game in the Top 10 with over 2,000 people watching streams for it makes me wonder. It makes me think, “there must be something more to this!”

For a quick overview if you haven’t played the game. The Binding of Isaac is a 2D top down shooter  randomized Zelda-dungeon-crawler RPG monstrosity. The story provides a psychotic and gruesome backdrop for McMillen’s ‘cutesy and disgusting’ brand of art direction. You play as Isaac, a poor kid whose mum went mental from watching too much Christian broadcast and has now been told by God that she needs to sacrifice (Read: Kill with a kitchen knife) her innocent little boy Isaac. Isaac finds a trap door in his bedroom and escapes to the basement of his house in an attempt to get away. There he fights all manner of evil, monstrous and disgusting creatures ultimately working his way towards the final boss. Yeah, you’ll never guess who THAT is.

The Binding of Isaac is bitingly satirical, sadistically humorous, and stays true to it’s predecessor Super Meat Boy by being ridiculously difficult. The dichotomy between  brutality difficult and sheer entertainment strikes a perfect chord through the game’s randomization system. No two play-throughs are the same with maps, enemies, bosses and items being randomized within a loose floor by floor structure.

The basic gameplay is simple enough. Shoot enemies in a room, dodge projectiles, doors to the room will open allowing you to advance, collect any loot, rinse repeat, find the boss, kill the boss, go to the next floor. The fun and surprise is in the combination of the weird and wonderful items and how many different ways there are for your character to get stronger. On top of this, the sheer difficulty of the game makes defeating every floor a reward in its own right.

To speak to the difficulty, there is no ‘easy’ or ‘hard’ option. The only choices you get are as you slowly unlock characters through different actions in Isaac’s basement. When you run out of hearts, you die. There are no checkpoints or autosaves, you just die.  This is a purely skill based game, and although occasionally you’ll get completely hijacked by a wickedly designed room right before the final boss, ultimately you’re responsible for a success or failure. ZeroGamePlan on Twitch.tv claims to have had 168 successful runs on Isaac without dying once.  Watching him play makes me believe this without a doubt.

The hook for me is that every time I die in the game I am compelled to play again. Maybe I get a more powerful item this time, maybe I’ll get lucky and end up in an Angel or Devil room early on for some fancy upgrades. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll make it to the end.

According to Steam I’ve dropped about 15 hours into the game so far and I’ve only managed to get a full clear twice. The game’s final character unlock is after 10 successful play throughs, and then there’s the 10 challenge modes with set items, buffs and debuffs you’re forced to contend  with.  Even beyond that the game has a healthy and thriving community on Reddit that has all number of challenges proposed through the use of Cheat Engine or other limitations like ‘No Bombs’ or ‘No Treasure Rooms.’

If you’re a fan of challenging games like Dark Souls, Monster Hunter, or Super Meat Boy you’ll love Isaac. This game is not for the faint of heart or the easily discouraged. The twisted humor and grotesque style of The Binding of Isaac certainly won’t appeal to everyone. Underneath however, is a cleverly designed game that is fun, addicting, and worth every penny of it’s $7.99 price tag.

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is a PS Vita remake of the game that is planned to be released later this year. If I manage to save up enough for a Vita between now and then, expect a review on that version when it’s released. 

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