I always get giddy when I allow myself a small spending spree on Steam – like a clan of twentysomethings on their melee at Macy’s, minus the bloodshed. So it’s only fair that when I peruse the wares on Steam, I give most games an equal chance. And by equal chance, I mean I’m super picky. One happy day saw me staring down the gullet of The Binding of Isaac, an action-adventure RPG that looks like it’s straight out of a meeting between Satan and Stanley Kubrick. I digress. I realize Isaac isn’t new, but I found myself playing it recently for a short bit of fun.
The story goes as follows: Isaac’s mother – a fat, religious elitist it seems – starts hearing voices from God to offer a sacrifice so that she can prove to God her unwavering faith. It just so happens that God asks for little Isaac’s life to be sacrificed. Without hesitation, mom grabs a knife and heads to Isaac’s room to prepare for what even Dexter Morgan would blush at. Luckily, Isaac sees his mother on the rampage and happens across a trapdoor in the floor, jumping into the basement below. So there’s nothing here that would necessarily win GOTY in terms of storytelling, but I feel bad for Isaac because the child is naked and he’s shooting tears. He shoots hell’s minions with his own tears. That can’t be right.
The premise is super-simple. Players control Isaac using the standard WASD keys for movement, and then the directional keys to fire salty, salty tears. You can also turn Isaac into an explosives expert by planting bombs. Players find themselves going through randomly generated dungeons fighting twisted abominations and collecting items and coins (used to purchase items and play slot machines) along the way. Many of these items alter Isaac’s physical appearance but also help boost Isaac’s ability in the form of extra health or tear range. The final room in each dungeon contains a boss whom you must destroy to continue on until you reach the final dungeon and final boss.
Though cartoonish, the game still looks good as a top-down dungeon explorer. Clearly, one isn’t buying this game to laud its superb textures and lighting. Though the environments aren’t anything special, the creepy minions you stumble across steal the show as Isaac’s nightmarish adversaries. They range from the, “What in God’s name?” to, “BURN IT WITH FIRE!” Bosses are visceral and disgusting, as well. As mentioned before, picking up items alters Isaac’s physical appearance, a little gimmick that I think works well because it turns this little naked boy into some twisted demon depending on what items you pick up. For me, no subsequent play through had me looking the same.
My biggest criticism in ANY game I play is the sound and music. That aside, I have to really give praise to Danny Baranowsky for an evocative mix of music selection to reflect what is happening on the screen. Whether it’s a quiet interlude of sheer melancholy or a knee-bouncing rock riff as Isaac battles boss baddies, the music brings flesh to Isaac’s plight. It may not be Nobuo Uematsu, but I was glad to know that Danny didn’t hash out two songs and call it a day. It’s refreshing to see indy content produced by hard workers. Sound effects are where they need to be and nothing more.
As a fairly short game, the beauty in playing the Binding of Isaac is the games replay value. The game boasts over 100 different items. What am I supposed to do with that many items? Why is Isaac wearing lipstick!? Not only that, but the items are classified into different types: activated items, passives, pills, tarot cards, and trinkets. With a copy of the necronomicon in my left hand, a sturdy wooden cross in my right, and 55 candles lit all around my desk, I would often have to pause the game just to check the wiki and see what it was exactly I had picked up. The hooded monk chanting Ave Maria in the corner of my room didn’t help either. The item system is a minor gripe, though I like the variety. That said, the game boasts multiple endings, so enjoy that.
The game difficulty ranges from easy when you start to physics professor near the end of the game. Baddies get stronger and specialize as you advance and depending on what items you’ve been blessed with (or cursed with), they’ll either be a piece of cake, or your doom because once you die, you start from scratch. At times no matter how fast your hand-to-eye coordination is, you will just get smoked. That’s where the potential to rage sifts its way into the game. Dodging particles isn’t hair-pulling fare, but when they fill the screen it’s easy to freak out when you go from full hearts to heart broken. I’ll be honest, getting to the final dungeon and trying to escape death with half a heart only to die will have you yelling at the screen and quite possibly mashing nearby valuables.
Eventually, you sort through the mess that is Isaac’s basement. How and why they ever moved into that house without first consulting a demonologist and Max von Sydow is beyond me. If you see yourself with a hankering for more bloodlust, the Wrath of the Lamb DLC is available on Steam for less than the exorbitant price of caffeine at Starbucks! It offers a myriad of new items, enemies, bosses, and endings. $2.99 for the added content is a steal. Do note that you will require the original. Happy dodging!
A smart little game with great music, a plethora of items (will take some getting used to, though), and yucky baddies will have you coming back every now and again to see what new evil lurks around. The expansion pours on more content to keep you entertained. Just be ready for sheer retribution; the game offers no forgiveness for its often surprising difficulty spikes.