The Binding of Isaac Is a Brilliant Game
I wrote about The Binding of Isaac previously but my first review was rather insubstantial and had far more Wikipedia links than necessary. I’ve since 99% completed the game after many hours of play (often while listening to The F Plus) and I have a greater understanding of it now. The Binding of Isaac is a game I’m confident I’ll still be playing a decade from this time, whether more expansions are added or not. The (mostly) randomly-generated rooms, items, and monsters have already ensured heavy replayability.
“But,” you say, “games like Borderlands 2 have a lot of randomly-generated items, and they don’t last as long.” That’s because a game like Borderlands 2’s plethora of weapons all serve the same function as items did in Diablo 2: kill stuff. The Binding of Isaac gives you a much greater variety of tools: x-ray specs to see through walls, a noose that lets you fly over pits and blocks, a shovel to dig to the next level of the dungeon, a blue candle right out of The Legend of Zelda, a dead cat that lowers your health to one heart but gives you nine lives, a portable beggar that picks up coins and gives you items in exchange, a decoy bomb that attracts enemies to their deaths, a pill that completely resets the level you’re on, a Cyclops eye that reduces your shots to huge solitary destructive blobs of tears, an IV bag that can turn hearts into coins. The mix of tools you can receive is staggering and more than worthy of the spirit of the Roguelike.
Randomly Generated But Always Good
The levels are never boring, either; from the beginning Basement (which randomly manifests itself as being twice as large with twice as many bosses and treasures) to the strange and ugly Womb levels to the highly challenging secret Chest bonus level (where you can fight two level bosses at once as a regular room enemy), the sickening areas of The
Binding of Isaac have enough variety in visuals and in gameplay to keep the game from ever feeling tedious. Each game is a new experience but not one that is absolutely randomized like that one fanmade Doom tool that generated levels with dead ends, missing keys, and impossible piles of enemies. Every level of Isaac is beatable unless you do something to screw yourself over like acquiring the hugely powerful Ipecac item and have no way to hit enemies in narrow corridors.
Much like Spelunky, there are commonly appearing elements and an algorithm to generating the pseudo-random nature of the game to keep it from being entirely chaotic. Blocks, layouts, and enemy features take on different patterns depending on which part of the game you’re running through, and the monsters all require different (but consistent) strategies to beat. Hoppers (the headless pink torsos) should be rushed and attacked right away if there are any fireplaces in the room or if any of them are bleeding, whereas Globins should be peppered with pot shots while running away from their slow advances with a detour taken to finish off the weakened ones. Similarly, the Gemini boss should be fought with hit-and-run tactics while Gurdy demands a constant stream of attacks, and the Mom boss presents a choice of whether you should attack her extremities or to first focus on the minions she spawns. After several playthroughs, you will get a greater feel for the game and you will perform much better than in your first confusing run.
There is still too much randomness in The Binding of Isaac and there are some obnoxious game-breaking bugs, but that is the fickle appeal of the Roguelike, especially one with such a huge amount of content. At times you must replay it frequently and brute force your way through the game until you get overpowering items, but in the majority of situations you can win with skill alone. You might have a terribly underpowered weapon because all of the treasure rooms were filled with worthless items like The Bean or Razor Blade, and you find yourself faced against a giant meatshield who can absorb hundreds of your shots. So what? This isn’t Nethack where facing a strong enemy without the right preparation means immediate death; it might be tedious but you can beat a boss like Gurdy even with ineffective tools.
And speaking of bosses, for as much variety as the game’s enemies have, some of the bosses are simple copies of existing ones. The Fallen, Krampus, and Satan (yes, you can kill the freaking devil in this game) all have the same gimmick and attack patterns, and the NEW SECRET BOSS is disappointingly a clone of an existing one as well. The Wrath of the Lamb expansion came out a mere six months after the game’s initial launch, and while it did offer a great deal of new content, some of the bosses were lacking the same ingenuity found in the first iteration of the game. Perhaps the upcoming console remake will feature more interesting bosses.
The Binding of Isaac has some baffling visual design choices that may completely alienate some players. The excreta permeating the characters and environments might be hilarious for children or for childish adults, but many players will find it simply revolting and tacky, perhaps to a degree where the piles of squishy excrement are distracting from the solidness of the core gameplay. The disgusting lumps of flesh and bodily fluids aren’t sure if they exist to create a primal reaction of fear and abhorrence or to get cheap laughs from snickering Beavises who think that farts and urination and Satan are the pinnacle of humor. It’s a schizophrenic game, and maybe that inadvertently ties in with the paranoid mood of the longsuffering Isaac, but it mostly comes across as an inability in the art designer to pick a choice and stick with it.
If this game’s play sounds appealing to you but the aesthetics are as off-putting as the loli garbage plastered all over shmups, you should still give it a chance. Don’t just watch a YouTube video of it as you would with a dull wisp of a game like Journey or some QTE mediocrity; the true enjoyment of The Binding of Isaac comes with playing it multiple times, unlocking new stuff to play with, completing the challenges, and having Yet Another Stupid Death. It’s not quite a Roguelike but it is a dungeon crawler of the highest caliber. Pick it up for cheap or for super cheap during the next Steam sale when it’s being sold for the cost of a shirt button and a paper clip. Or you could wait for the upcoming remake (does… does this guy actually have a game called Cunt!?) that will look better and supposedly fix most of the bugs. Either way, you get a rad game that will provide years of entertainment. Just be prepared to lose your lunch in addition to the hundreds of hours of your time.