The Binding of Isaac – PC Game Review
God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son.”
Abraham said, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on.”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want, Abe, but
the next time you see me comin’ you better run.”
Well, Abe says, “Where do you want this killing done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61.”
—Bob Dylan, “Highway 61 Revisited”
Ah…the Binding of Isaac, a story that’s been scaring the bejeezus out of Sunday school students for centuries. For those unfamiliar with the Biblical tale, ol’ Bob’s interpretation above pretty much boils the whole thing down to bare bones: No matter the cost, God’s will must be obeyed. But if that isn’t thorough enough for you (or filled with enough cyborg eye powerups), perhaps you’ll just have to go ahead and zip on over to Steam, where you’ll find Edmund McMillen’s (of Super Meat Boy fame) fresh take on the classic scare-tactic, the aptly-titled The Binding of Isaac, available today. Packed with enough material to withstand dozens of playthroughs, including multiple endings, The Binding of Isaac is in spite of its flaws a game that will keep you coming back for more. It’s sure as hell worth five dollars.
“Hell” is probably a good place to start actually. Though McMillen likely had other intentions, The Binding of Isaac is ultimately the story of a boy embracing damnation to escape reverence. While the biblical, B.C.E. Isaac voluntarily sacrificed himself in order to honor God’s will, McMillen’s Isaac just ain’t having it: upon seeing his mother knife-in-hand, he leaps into a previously-unseen hatchway that leads to the “basement”—an underground lair crawling with wave after wave of demented creatures and mutilated children. In other words: for his derision, Isaac is sentenced to wander hell alone. It is in this way that we might view The Binding of Isaac as a criticism of the post-self esteem movement culture’s contempt of authority, and the gameplay as our “punishment.”
But I have to say it’s a pretty wonderful punishment…By combining elements of the rougelike with the monster-busting, item-earning of The Legend of Zelda, each playthrough of McMillen’s new game will be both unexpected and rewarding. And it’ll occasionally even be a little frightening. Though I must warn you: in classic rougelike fashion, The Binding of Isaac is permadeath…dying will always mean starting anew back at the first dungeon. In an effort of ensuring that the levels don’t get stale, each dungeon is generated randomly at the onset of a playthrough, meaning that you’ll never encounter the same game twice. Though there are core rooms that will always serve the same purpose (treasure; boss; shop; secret room), their rewards, dangers, and surprises will always be random.
And I assure you, this is a game that has plenty of surprises in store: With a selection of over one thousand pre-designed rooms (including Arcade, Challenge, and Mystery rooms), thirty-six randomly dropped Tarot Card and Pill variations that grant special abilities, numerous stackable items and stat boosts that both alter Isaac’s appearance and change the way the game is played, as well as a host of Familiars that will follow and assist the player, McMillen has built a game that makes permadeath a sort of reward in and of itself. And as is often the case in these roguelike games, the degree to which the environments change from one game to a next will make or break the game. Now into my second dozen playthroughs of The Binding of Isaac, I’m happy to report that its appeal is still as strong as it was in the first dozen. Additionally, replaying unlocks new classes, each with his or her own distinct skills and attributes. This will allow players looking to experiment as well as those simply seeking more of a challenge (and I’m not sure why you would, as the game is punishingly difficult already) to tackle the legions of squirming, gross monsters in ways better suited to the individual’s tastes.
Adding to this sheer difficulty is—at least for this player—the lack of joystick support. Technically a twin-stick shooter (“technically” in that I have buttons instead of sticks), and a fast-paced one at that, I often found myself frustrated trying to get Isaac to shoot where I wanted him to. Perhaps the fault lies in my lackluster skills. Otherwise, Isaac moves not unlike Meat Boy, with a bit of glide to him, allowing you to maneuver him through some pretty tight spots. Get yourself in a corner with these enemies, especially since they will sporadically spawn new abilities, and you’ll be glad that the time spent not adding joystick support at least went into carefully refining the physics of Isaac’s movement.
Anyone who’s familiar with McMillen’s previous work (Aether, for instance) will know that he strives to bring a coherent and unique art style to each of his games, and The Binding of Isaac is no exception. But that’s not saying the game is “pretty”—this go-round McMillen has constrained himself with a stringent palette of earth tones; be prepared to see plenty of grays, browns, and ruddy reds. This stylistic choice of muted, drab backdrops is, however, nicely contrasted against an assortment of brightly-colored and deeply-inked characters, enemies, and items, establishing a sharp dichotomy between the immutable, labyrinthine setting and the often-multihued, sometimes-rich presence of those that inhabit it. Moreover, this choice seems to emphasize the gameplay itself: that which quits moving will quickly become dust.
Danny Baranowsky’s soundtrack falls into the “keep moving” category: ranging from suspenseful and eerie to raucous and occasionally bombastic, often within the span of the same track, musically The Binding of Isaac is pretty schizophrenic. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though it is a 180 from his Super Meat Boy work. And yet, what the soundtrack lacks in toe-tapping it makes up for in haunting, lurking rhythms, even if they too frequently devolve into the middling faux-metal. Still, even in this there are surprises to be had: a particular standout is the final boss theme of the game, which tweaks the metal-symphony formula with an expertly placed undercurrent of pulsing synth.
Overlooking these minor flaws, what we’re left with is a fresh and enjoyable take on an old tale, complete with a new kind “binding”—instead of being bound by rope, McMillen’s Isaac is bound by irreverence, as he literally descends deeper and deeper into a world of urine powerups, blood-crying children, and, yes, quite a bit of poop. It’s a new Binding of Isaac for a new, boldly-flippant generation…and honestly, if something as fresh and unique as The Binding of Isaac is what irreverence has to offer, I don’t see that changing anytime soon.