The Binding of Isaac Review

Deceptively simple, brilliantly random and beautifully cheap, The Binding of Isaac is a must-purchase for fans of the rogue-like genre and classics like The Legend of Zelda’s turn on the Nintendo Entertainment System. It’s weird and creepy and disturbing, and that makes it great.

The Binding of Isaac (PC)
Developer: Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl
Publisher: Edmund McMillen
Release Date: Sept. 28, 2011
MSRP: $4.99

Born of the minds of Edmund McMillan, a dev from Team Meat who worked on Super Meat Boy, and Florian Himsl, The Binding of Isaac has an interesting pedigree and an even more interesting premise. The title refers to a Bible story, and the story of the game finds Isaac, a young boy, being chased by his murderous mother who has been commanded by God to sacrifice the boy. In the last moments before his mom can murder him, though, Isaac finds a hidden trap door in his bedroom and escapes into the basement of his house.

The nuts and bolts of The Binding of Isaac have you moving through randomly generated dungeons in the style of the original Legend of Zelda. The basement is filled with strange, horrible creatures, many of which resemble Isaac quite a bit — suggesting he may have stumbled into some kind of hellish repository of fiends possibly related to the poor boy. The keyboard is used to control Isaac as if you were playing a dual-stick shooter, with WASD taking care of motion while the arrow keys fire off Isaac’s tears, which can fight off enemies.

As you work through each of the dungeons, you’ll also employ a number of other items in keeping Isaac alive. There are more than 100 items randomly scattered through the dungeons, all of which have different, weird effects. Sometimes you’ll come across food, which can increase your maximum health. Other things, like Tarot cards, contain area effects that can be positive or negative. Some items change Isaac’s appearance and boost his weapon damage or defensive capabilities. All of them are weird — like Mom’s Lipstick, Mom’s Heels and even Mom’s Pad.

You’ll also find opportunities to spend money you find throughout the dungeons, both at stores and in slot machines, and rooms in which you can make “deals with the devil” that allow you to trade health for bigger bonuses to your character. Those bonuses are a big deal, because every room with enemies in it locks you in until you’ve cleared them, and when Isaac is killed, you’ll have to start the five-level romp over from the start.

Each section of the dungeon is capped with a big, randomly assigned boss fight, and all of the characters you’ll run across are pretty gross in general. All of the fights have a sufficiently old-school feel and like the rest of the game, they’re difficult without being oppressive. In fact, all of Binding of Isaac is pretty tough — its sending you to the beginning is a pretty painful punishment for failure — but the randomness of the game keeps it fresh every time out.

The great thing about The Binding of Isaac is just how much there is, even though the game itself is pretty simple. You’ll always find lots of new items to try out even after having spent hours in the game, as well as additional characters to unlock, random bosses to fight and alternate endings to find. The Binding of Isaac gives huge value for its $5 asking price; this is a title that’ll keep you busy for a while.

And then there’s The Binding of Isaac’s greater (religious) implications. The game isn’t going to make devout Christians very happy, but it taps into some interesting subject matter from the Bible and recasts it in a fairly disturbing light. The Biblical story of The Binding of Isaac is already a little disturbing — God calls on Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, then stops him at the last moment before Abraham can fulfill God’s demand. The video game version of the story is considerably more sick and awful, but the parallels are interesting and it’s nice to have a rogue-like dungeon crawler that engages your brain as well as your fingers.

It’s hard to say much of anything bad about The Binding of Isaac. It’s tough but fun, deep and gross, with just lots of rewarding content. There’s a bunch of stuff to unlock and find throughout the game, and its price just can’t be beat. Buy The Binding of Isaac. There’s no good reason not to.

Pros:

  • Old-school rogue-like gameplay that takes some inspiration from The Legend of Zelda
  • Tough but rewarding gameplay
  • Lots of items to find
  • Creepy, disturbing art
  • Random dungeons keep the game very fresh
  • Amazing price

Cons:

  • Uh… not a lot of story?
  • Occasionally frustrating difficulty

Final Score: 90/100

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8 Comments on The Binding of Isaac Review

SquireZed

On November 4, 2011 at 1:56 pm

My only comment is that this game is not for the easily disturbed. Other than that, it has solid gameplay, is terribly addicting, and probably will horrify you for weeks, if not longer.

Phil Hornshaw

On November 4, 2011 at 2:00 pm

@SquireZed

Good point — it does get pretty rough.

BPC

On November 5, 2011 at 9:48 am

I can’t say I agree with the review. Most of the story points somehow just don’t come together; it seems like it was meant to be some sort of deep allegory but just fails (plus, protip: using internet memes is a good way to cheapen anything in that regards -.-). The mechanics are simply bothersome. There’s no way of telling what an object does until you pick it up, often until you use it; and a lot of the times, even then it’s hard to tell. The game’s mechanics are so heavily based on randomness and there’s no real guide to what does what, so you’re kinda left on your own on that count. Sometimes you get the right items (like, say, the one weapon from the devil that shoots a burst of blood that pretty much OHKOs everything in the game) and the game becomes a cakewalk; sometimes you don’t and it becomes a tromp through hell. It’s incredibly bothersome at times. All in all, I can’t really complain about value (I got it for 1¢ along with 2 other titles), but I feel the game could’ve been way better if it wasn’t so sloppy and confusing.

william hessian

On November 5, 2011 at 8:32 pm

I am a huge fan of this title. I watched it streamed on Justin.TV and ran out and bought it for 5 dollars. It is well worth the price. I agree with this review.

I really enjoy the variety of each playthrough and the different interactions with items you may collect. I also found the unlockable characters quite fun to use, since they start with different stats and feel completely different (at least for the first few stages).

Lastly, I enjoy the gameplay difficulty. You really need to take advantage of strategy, and be able to optimize the use of each item.

Splintercat

On November 9, 2011 at 11:20 am

@BPC
1) It’s fine if you don’t like it, but having random items that are a mystery until you use them is part of the genre of rouge-likes.
2) You seriously only paid 1¢ for this and two other games? I know they let you name your own price, but that doesn’t stop me for thinking it’s kinda to just give them a penny and walk off.

I rather liked the Binding of Isaac, the only thing I’m a bit miffed on is that it’s written in flash, but it’s their call.

James

On November 9, 2011 at 3:27 pm

After reading this review my only thought is why does this seem like it should be a free game on Newgrounds rather than a $5 purchase? Do you know how much “game” you can buy for $5 on iOS? A heck of a lot more than the game your review described.

Either the game is a $5 rip-off or your review is poor. At best your review described a 99 cent game.

Tom

On November 10, 2011 at 2:09 am

That’s a very one-sided argument your putting across James, this game is very much so worth it’s small price, it’s one of them games (alongside TRAUMA) that make you think, but in order to do that you need to be in the right mindset, i believe this is why a lot of similar games to this get slated in reviews. i admit the review might not cover all the bases, but its oddly addictive to play, there is a big differece between a game on newgrounds and a retail game.

Just give the game a chance, play the game then read the reviews is what i always do, and i always find myself sat on the other side of the fence

Cheers,

Winterman17

On November 10, 2011 at 3:14 pm

1. BPC YOU ARE A FOR ONLY GIVING THEM 1 CENT!!!

2. really james this game is well worth its money.