Indie Games / PC

The Binding of Isaac


When I first saw The Binding of Isaac, I couldn’t have been less enthusiastic about it. Everything I saw just screamed “boring” and “this’ll get old quick”, as I know it did to many others. But this is a game you can’t appreciate with a passing glance. The moment you take one dip into it, it only gets harder and harder to pull yourself back out. Just as Isaac crawls deeper into his basement, you’ll not be too far behind him; it’s astounding how quickly the game pulls you in.

Videos doesn’t do the game justice. Watching a video of someone going into a bunch of disjointed rooms, shooting until everything is dead, and repeating this sequence until death doesn’t seem very appealing at first. If that’s all there was to it, it certainly wouldn’t be as attractive an offer as is it. The depth that the game has is astounding. It honestly goes out of its way to make sure that you aren’t ever bored. The temptation to keep looking for things you’ve never seen before is ever present, shiny new things are always just a few steps away.

Alright, I guess I should actually describe what the game is at some point, so here you are. It’s a game that shares more than a few visual and gameplay similarities with the original Legend of Zelda. The entire game is played in a place similar to one of the dungeon sections in that. Each screen is a rectangle with a number of traps, enemies, items to collect, etc; your goal is to make it through as many of these rooms as it takes until you make it to the boss, get to the next floor, and do it again.

Isaac’s life kind of sucks, the poor child’s mother is intent on murdering him, so he obviously has the power to cry so hard his own tears are used as projectile weapons. He uses these to shoot at the varieties of enemies he comes across as he makes his way through dungeons to make his escape. Along the way, you collect power-ups and health upgrades (more on this aspect of the game later) to become stronger. However, as soon as you lose all of your precious hearts and your life hits zero, you have to start the game over from the very beginning. Tough right?

This cycle repeats over and over again, as you the player are getting smarter about dodging enemy attacks, learning when the right time is to use items, all while you’re learning the different systems of the game and how they can work to your advantage. You’ll collect money that you can spend on items to make your trip easier, or maybe you’ll want to save your cash and use it in a slot machine you might run into? Should you take the leap deeper into the basement with your five full hearts, or should you sacrifice three of them to make a pact with the devil? This isn’t an easy game, nor is it a simple one. What it is constantly, though, is ridiculously rewarding.

The art style is disgusting, but how disgusting it is is one of the most attractive parts of the game. The art style kind of looks like what you’d get if you poured a bucket of acid on a cute bunny. It looks like it probably used to be adorable, but it sure as hell isn’t anymore. You fight decapitated children, big ugly exploding marshmallow zombies (???????) and a lot more. The enemy variety is among the best aspects of the game. There are quite a few unique enemy types you see throughout, and a lot of bosses too. Each floor concludes with a boss battle, and each floor has a nice variety of bosses that one is picked from so you aren’t killing the same guy over and over again as you play. It’s also another great motivator to get to some of the deeper levels, “I wonder what the third boss of floor 3 looks like…” is a much better thought than, “Well I guess I have to fight that stupid giant golem for the 18th time in a row on floor 2.”

Earlier I mentioned that Isaac can find items to improve his abilities, change what powers he has, and more. These items are randomly placed inside the randomly generated dungeons. The most incredible part about this system is that there are tons of completely different items, all with widely varying effects. The thrill of finding a brand new item happens every single time you play, usually many, many times in one playthrough. I can’t count the times I’ve found an entirely new type of item that I didn’t know existed. Even now, after I’ve played the game for hours, I’m constantly being rewarded with new items, and even new gameplay elements I hadn’t seen before.

As an added bonus, nearly every item you pick up adds a new graphical flair onto Isaac. For example, if you pick up a laser beam eye, Isaac will from that point on have that piece of equipment attached to his face shooting lasers out of it. And each item stacks elsewhere on Isaac’s body as you collect more. By the end of the game, it isn’t uncommon for Isaac to look more hideous than the creatures he’s taking down. The first time you see Isaac as a giant green monster, surrounded by flies, shooting purple homing bullets while having a small child grafted to the side of his head, you’re scratching the surface of what the game can be. Seeing Isaac grow and become a more powerful, grotesque creature as he goes deeper under his house never ceases to amuse. By the end of the game, sometimes you’re so overpowered you can blow through just about anything. It feels great to finally turn the tables and be the threat to the enemies that brought you down so easily before.

Even more satisfaction comes from the lack of being told much of anything that you are to expect while playing the game. There isn’t a lengthy tutorial explaining “Now when you enter the room with blood painted across the walls, you’re supposed too…”. It’s up to you to figure out what it all means. Of course, to some this may be seen as a detriment. I’ll admit to looking around online to answer some questions I have about how certain items or rooms in the game work, but I really feel like that’s part of the fun of it. The Binding of Isaac kind of makes you feel like an explorer in an unknown land, discovering new secrets that you may or may not fully comprehend. Yes, the game could benefit from including item descriptions in the menu probably, but maybe you’ll figure something out all by yourself by simply playing the game as you’re supposed to.

Variety is the spice of what keeps The Binding of Isaac so fresh each time you load it up. Surprise is never very far off, and you don’t often feel like you’re stuck in a rut. As soon as you’ve sunk a solid hour or two in you might stop, but it won’t be long until you’re ready to do it all over again. The Binding of Isaac is a near perfect example of rewarding the player through exploration and discovery. The game is infinitely replayable; it has new content every time you play, along with many different endings. The sheer amount of content available is astounding, and puts much larger games to shame. You owe it to yourself to get lost in this strange, really gross, but still beautiful little game.

– Zach

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