The Binding of Isaac’s music is very good, and it complements the game’s moody, depressing atmosphere quite well. Incidentally the soundtrack is available for download on Steam (or listen here) as well (though why would it need the base game?). I hope you enjoyed hearing that, because it’s one of the few nice things I have to say about this illogically constructed game.
Isaac is a young boy who lives with his mother, who basically watches nothing but Christian broadcasts on television. One day she begins hearing voices from God, and these voices eventually tell her to kill her son to show her devotion. Isaac, by this time, is locked in his room and stripped of all of his material possessions (including his clothing), and to escape his mother’s wrath, he finds a trapdoor in his room that leads into the basement and into several dungeons and caves. The game is very direct about his unpleasant goal from there: He is to kill his mother before she can kill him.
The game’s core design is that of a twin-stick shooter combined with characteristics of a “roguelike,” which in this case means the player will contend with randomly generated environments, items, and enemies, including bosses . The game’s top-down perspective has been likened to that of The Legend of Zelda , and while this game shares a number of features with that one, such as the grid-based dungeon design as well as the presence of bombs and keys, The Binding of Isaac’s exclusive emphasis on ranged combat makes the game more similar to arcade classics such as Robotron: 2084 . This showcases one of the game’s many design flaws–the player can move in directions other than the four cardinal directions, but the player can only fire directly left, right, up, or down. To make matters more confusing, Isaac’s projectiles (his own tears) have a spread to them–they don’t always go where you intend them to go, and while having the tears veer left or right when Isaac strafes is a neat physical touch and a separate issue from having Isaac’s tears swerve slightly aside even when he’s standing still, this is simply more trouble than it is worth in a game that demands the player to be able to move and fire with precision at all times.
The roguelike elements add nothing to this game except for confusion when the game generates an easy section right after a very challenging one, ruining the game’s difficulty curve; more confusion when the game gives you items and does not tell you how or when they are meant to be used until you use them; frustration when Isaac simply can’t find health restoratives or can’t access them because of poorly generated levels, bomb-vulnerable rocks excepted; and more frustration when Isaac dies and has to start the whole game over with only the clothes on his back–except that, of course, he doesn’t even have any of those.
The boss fights themselves are usually pretty fun, as the boss enemies are generally much more aggressive, while still being predictable, than the regular enemies are. The game would arguably be better off as a series of boss fights–while fighting a giant spider or a pair of segmented worms is nothing I’ve not done in games before, these things just feel more entertaining than many of the other fights do, and the absence or downplaying of the game’s many level-design flaws in the boss rooms simply serves as an asset. You might expect the bosses and other enemies to be overflowing with Christian symbolism, but you won’t actually see a huge amount of that in the environments or in the enemy designs, at least not in terms of the ones I came across. An honorable mention goes to the sub-boss enemy Wrath, who looks like a terrifying, hollow-eyed portrayal of a drug addict who throws bombs at you.
As a bonus, bosses are one of the few reliable sources you’re likely to find for regaining health, as while you can find and spend money, you’re not guaranteed to be able to do much of either one, never mind both. Bear in mind that this does mean you’ll probably be forced into a boss fight with one heart’s worth of health at some point. Being disadvantaged in this way crosses the line from being suspenseful in the way of Dead Space to simply being annoying, since even a few mistakes at this point will force a game restart, and there’s little the player can do about this other than to hopefully not screw up during the boss fight.
If the game even has a save system, I’ve not been able to find it (attempting to quit the game literally results in your being asked if you’re sure you want Isaac to die), and even if I could, the game repeatedly kills what little motivation I’d given myself for completing it:
* Isaac’s main goal is every bit as unpleasant as his mother’s, even if their motives differ. He might have an excuse to defend himself, but that in itself doesn’t make his quest to kill his mother fun. Bizarrely enough, Isaac is often easier to sympathize with during the loading screens, which show him crying about various nightmares that are sometimes humorous, albeit at his expense. Even these nightmares, which are randomly chosen, tend to repeat themselves a lot. I once had to sit through the same scene of Isaac dreaming about receiving a woman’s wig as a gift several times in the same playthrough.
* The art direction feels wasted, with smooth animations given to monstrous creatures that, depending on your taste, will likely appear as either horrific or just ugly, as well as environments that are easily brown, drab, and indistinct enough from one another to excel the anecdotal military-shooter stereotype. The enemies themselves do seem creative, much more so than their surroundings, but this only further highlights the severe lack of visual creativity elsewhere in the game.
* The enemy AI feels lacking at best, with one of the few enemies remotely interested in self-preservation being a monster that waits for you to stop firing before it pops its head up to shoot back at you, and a specific boss fight comes to mind in which one of the enemies literally got stuck on a wall for most of the fight because the monster wasn’t smart enough to navigate out of the enclosed area it found itself in. The enemy designs seem much more creative than the actual enemy behaviors, which seem limited to rushing you, shooting things at you or creating environmental obstacles, and splitting into or creating more enemies. There’s little semblance of enemy intelligence or strategy to be found, and one of the few examples of this to be seen in the game is when the player winds up in an environment that’s constructed in such a way as to force Isaac into fast and dangerous close-range combat with his enemies.
* The previously mentioned dual lack of a true difficulty curve and of a distinction among environments (and sometimes even enemies, which may or may not become stronger or even change between areas) works against any sense the player might have that he or she is making progress in the game. The player is told the name of a level, but due to the heavily randomized nature of the game, judging by my own experience, the levels seem to mirror one another not only in their art direction but in their construction. One set of caves will likely resemble another one greatly, for example, such that if not for the game saying otherwise, the two areas may as well be part of the same level. Sometimes the player is fortunate enough to find a boss door that happens to be very close to a level entrance (unlike in Zelda, the boss rooms are accessible without the need for special items or keys), and sometimes the player will find the odds stacked against him or her due to factors that are completely out of the player’s control.
You may be wondering why I haven’t posted any screenshots of the game to guide readers through my review. I wanted to do so, and I repeatedly tried to capture screenshots. The game would not work with the Steam Community Overlay no matter how many times I tried to get it to. Screenshots would not capture properly, and the overlay itself would not appear. All that I managed to accomplish in this process was to waste a consumable item because of a hotkey I wasn’t aware of, as I was never able to find a complete description of the controls even in the Options menu. Achievements were recorded in my Steam profile upon starting the game up on a subsequent playthrough, not when I initially earned them, and the nature of their design seemed more connected to random chance than to my own player skill or perseverance.
While I appreciate the gesture of having received this game as a gift, as its previous owner already has his own copy, The Binding of Isaac is impossible for me to actually recommend at any level, from its well-intentioned but pointless conception as a mashup of two subgenres that could easily be made to work well but are worthless for one another here, to its clearly present and clearly underutilized artistic talent, as well as its numerous technical flaws and confusing game-design decisions that do nothing to validate the flimsy and unlikeable premise. I’m sure there are better twin-stick shooters to be found, and I know there are better roguelikes to be found. The Binding of Isaac does nothing to advance either of its primary genres and does little to advance even its own design; if any of its various gameplay elements interest you, you’re better off looking elsewhere.
———————————– Temple of the Roguelike – Roguelike News, Reviews, Interviews and Information, http://www.roguetemple.com/roguelike-definition/  GameSpot, The Binding of Isaac Review – GameSpot.com, http://www.gamespot.com/the-binding-of-isaac/reviews/the-binding-of-isaac-review-6346463/  The International Arcade Museum, Robotron: 2084 – Videogame by Williams Electronics, Inc. (1967-1985), http://www.arcade-museum.com/game_detail.php?game_id=9347
This article’s featured image is from the Steam page for the game.
Addendum: A big thanks goes to DigitalWolf for posting a link to The Binding of Isaac’s soundtrack on Bandcamp: http://dbsoundworks.bandcamp.com/album/the-binding-of-isaac-2
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