Mini-Review: The Binding of Isaac

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So, a little over two weeks ago, The Binding of Isaac came out on Steam. The game was created by Edmund McMillen, who comprises half of Team Meat, the developers responsible for putting out Super Meat Boy last year. Now, while Team Meat continues to work on their next project, McMillen has worked with Florian Himsl and Super Meat Boy composer Danny Baranowsky to release this little side project. As a big fan of SMB, especially the music and art style, I was already pretty much sold on the game. Hit the jump to see if I can sell you on it as well.

The premise is fairly simple: you take on the role of Isaac, a boy whose mother has begun to hear the voice of God telling her that her child is corrupted. As a result, she now believes she needs to sacrifice you. Not being a big fan of that, Isaac flees through a trapdoor into his basement. I’m not quite sure where this house is that it has a five-floor basement full of some of the strangest, most disgusting cartoon monsters around, but that may be besides the point. The gameplay boils down to Smash TV meets Legend of Zelda meets any Rogue-like. Now, for people that aren’t familiar, Rogue-likes are a genre that consist of a few key traits: randomized dungeons, loot-driven gameplay, and permadeath. This means that if you die, it’s game over. You have to begin a new game, with a newly randomized dungeon, with none of the possibly-awesome loot you found in the previous run. Isaac can fire up, down, left, and right, making the game a little more rigid than a typical dual-joystick shooter. It’s a shame that there’s not gamepad support built right in, but it’s easy enough to use the keyboard once you’re used to it, and there’s third party programs if you really want to use a controller. The floors of the dungeon consist of square-shaped rooms filled with all manner of gruesome, pus-filled beasties. Or flies. Sometimes they’re filled with flies. But, not all rooms are bad. Some rooms are shops, where you can spend any coins you find during your journey. Some are arenas, which can only be entered when you’re at full health. Some rooms just have chests in them, and others will be denoted as treasure rooms and often contain some great loot. This loot can increase your life, speed, range, damage, or alter you in all manner of other ways. One item gives you the ability to charge your shots, while another grants a little doll that follows you around and shoots enemies. There are also pills that grant random effects, as well as tarot cards that are single-use items that give a variety of bonuses, including temporary damage boosts and teleportation to shops or secret rooms. Finally, there are usable items that get mapped to your spacebar. These recharge as you clear rooms, taking longer depending on how powerful your item is. While a large bomb item may take 2 rooms to charge, the item that grants temporary invincibility may take up to 6.

 

The art style is as great as Super Meat Boy‘s was and more. All of the animation is very smooth, and the enemies look great. The bosses are of particular note, ranging from a bloated, balloon-like boss that spits out flies to what is apparently just a large pile of guts with eyes and a mouth. The music is also great, mostly consisting of only a few tracks, but they’re all tunes that convey a sense of danger as well as a bit of the sadness of Isaac’s plight. The floors get progressively more difficult, culminating in the Womb, a set of floors only unlocked after advancing down five floors and defeating Mom. There are unlockable characters all with slightly different stats and different starting items, but they all control the same way. There’s no real save system, so if you start a run be prepared to see it through for better or worse. The game keeps track of what items you’ve found so far, and has a fairly deep catalog of items unlocked by completing various hidden objectives (using a certain amount of bombs, completing floors, defeating certain minibosses, etc.). After completing the objective, that item will begin to appear randomly with all the other loot in the game, meaning that you still need to happen across it to ever see what the item actually does. Personally, I love these sorts of games. I really enjoy discovering new loot and finding out what it does. The game’s $5 on Steam right now, and I really recommend that people at least check out the demo that’s up over at Newgrounds. And, if you find that you’re a fan of Rogue-likes, I’d recommend checking out Dungeons of Dredmor (also $5 on Steam) for a more traditional, yet still a little goofy Rogue-like experience.