Developer: Edmund McMillen / Publisher: Edmund McMillen / Played on: PC / Price: $5 / ESRB: Not Yet Rated
What do you get when you mix The Legend of Zelda and Robotron with a dash of randomly generated dungeons? Not a super violent top-down Zelda game, but the super violent top-down dungeon crawler from Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl of the team behind brutal indie puzzler Super Meat Boy. Based off the biblical story of the same name, The Binding of Isaac is a “roguelike” top-down shooter that mixes several elements from other games with a grotesquely disturbing setting that works well. The Binding of Isaac is truly the stuff of nightmares and is not for the easily offended.
After receiving a message from God saying she must slay her son Isaac in order to show her devotion to her lord, Isaac’s mother sets out to slay her son. Rightfully fearing for his life, the young Isaac attempts to escape and hide from his delusional mother. You must guide Isaac deeper into his home’s basement catacombs to gather enough strength to take down his psychotic parent.
The inspiration from other games is immediately apparent. The top-down perspective, dungeon layout, and user interface/HUD is identical to the original Legend of Zelda for the NES. You explore each of the eight dungeons room by room. Clearing each room of enemies usually grants a small reward in the form of a key, some coins, extra health, or bombs. Dungeons are randomly generated every time you play, ensuring you never have the same experience playing the game over and over. Level layout as well as enemy and item placement change as well with each playthrough. A lot of the fun in The Binding of Isaac comes from seeing what new creatures, bizarre items, or boss monsters you’ll come across as you dive deeper into the nightmare of this young child. There are three unlockable extra characters to play as after completing the game under certain conditions, each with differing stats and play styles as well.
Isaac uses his own tears as projectiles to take out a menagerie of nasty creatures. An assortment of power-ups aid Isaac in his fight: bloody tears do more damage, pills replenish health, a third eye allows for triple-shot tears instead of just one, and a deck of cards grants random perks with each use. There are a ton of strange abilities to gain in each level, and these change with each playthrough as well. As with Super Meat Boy before it, The Binding of Isaac is a difficult game. You only get one life to get all the way through the game and defeat your mother, with each death sending you all the way back to the beginning. The challenge is frustrating at first, but after dying a few times and starting over you’ll start to memorize enemy tactics as well as boss strategies and progress further each time. The Binding of Isaac isn’t a game for everyone though: the retro gameplay will appeal to older gamers but maybe not to younger gamers. On top of that, the game is excessively violent. Severed heads, blood-spurting eyeballs, a boss that pees everywhere, and piles of poop in corners of rooms will certainly deter the faint of heart.
Graphics & Sound
The Binding of Isaac looks nasty. I don’t mean that the graphics are of poor quality, but that the character and level design is downright disturbing. Bloody abominations of humans, floating heads spewing chunks of I don’t know what, and deadly insects are just a few of the enemies you’ll frequently come across. Bosses are perhaps the vilest looking monstrosities, including a caterpillar-like beast and a massive blob of flesh with rows of jagged teeth. The off-putting graphics create a fantastic atmosphere and add greatly to the overall feel of the game. Eerie tunes play in the background of the adventure, but are quickly overshadowed by the sound effects. The constant whimper overheard as Isaac cries mixed with the distorted grunts of enemies are creepy. As a pair the graphics and sound do a lot for the game and create a setting that is truly weird and gloomy.
If there’s one place The Binding of Isaac takes a hit it’s in the controls. You move Isaac with the W,A,S,D keys, and shoot with either the arrow keys or by clicking the mouse. Moving Isaac around is easy enough, but getting use to moving and shooting will take some time, regardless of control method you choose. The game feels like it was meant to be a dual-stick shooter but playing it on the keyboard is cumbersome and needlessly difficult to do. A recent patch, however, allows for the use of a gamepad for controls. A controller helps out here a bit, but mastering the controls will still take some time getting used to.
I don’t know if I’ve played a game as disturbing as The Binding of Isaac. Zelda-inspired dungeons and Robotron-like shooting combine with frightening graphics to make The Binding of Isaac a truly unique gameplay experience. Cumbersome controls hamper what would otherwise be a resoundingly memorable adventure. At just five dollars The Binding of Isaac is a great indie title that offers up a ton of replay value and gruesome fun.