In 2011 it’s been very easy for a smaller game to get swept under the rug, especially when you look at some of the massive games that came out this year like Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Battlefield 3, or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. We all need to be reminded that there are awesome games besides those that have a huge marketing budget. It can be safely said that this title is one of the most overlooked and underappreciated games of 2011. Since it is a PC title it automatically gets less hype, but don’t let the platform fool you; this is something you don’t want to miss.
The Binding of Isaac comes to you from the minds of Edmund McMillen of Team Meat and Florian Himsl. The story follows a child named Isaac who lives with his mother. One day, Isaac’s mother hears what she believes to be the voice of God telling her that in order to prove her love and devotion to Him she must kill her son, Isaac. She agrees to do this, but as she enters Isaac’s room to kill him, he finds a trap door and throws himself into the basement. This is where you begin your story.
The enemies, story, and environments are quite dark. From the body parts strewn across the floor to the ugly, twisted demons in the recesses and corners, Isaac’s basement is a very scary place. Even the soundtrack creates a mood that really engages the player and makes them feel as if they are with Isaac in the basement. The game does an excellent job creating atmosphere, and that is quite an accomplishment considering the game is hand-drawn. Sure, if you picked up a copy of Dead Space you’d get the same feeling of gloom and of diving into the unknown, but when a developer accomplishes that with hand-drawn graphics, it is really something special. The Binding of Isaac also includes the use of Christian concepts and icons, including the devil, the Bible, the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, etc. It also includes some other, more occult topics, so if you are sensitive to religious topics, this may not be for you. The use of religious icons isn’t necessarily offensive, but it is present and something to keep in mind for younger players or religiously sensitive gamers.
This game pays homage to games on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. You can see the influence that The Legend of Zelda had on the gameplay. In fact, the game itself plays almost exactly like Zelda, but with some key differences. The first major difference is the amount of power-ups in the game and how they are used. There are generally two or three per level, but there can be more or less depending on where you are in the game. These power-ups can be stacked, so every game you play will be completely different from previous games. Further adding to the variety are items, pills, and tarot cards. Items serve as your secondary attack and are activated by hitting the space bar. They range from one single, strong attack to teleporting you to other places on the map. Pills and tarot cards are activated with the “q” key and have a wide range of effects. Pills focus their effects on the player, such as increasing your speed or giving you additional health bonuses, while cards focus their effect on the environment, such as summoning a monster or teleporting you around the map. When you get a power-up, it changes the appearance of Isaac. The more items you earn, the more Isaac changes, and you can visually see your progress in Isaac himself. It is a very interesting system, and it is fun to see how many changes you can make to his appearance.
The game itself is not incredibly long but it does have a ton of replay value. Each time you beat the game, new enemies, new bosses and new items become available to you. New story elements are also added, so beating the game multiple times is encouraged and rewarded. This system is interesting and always challenges you to go further and do more. You could easily sink 20 hours into the game and get a different experience every hour you play. The game is challenging in its own right, so if you are expecting a pushover, you are sorely mistaken.
All in all, The Binding of Isaac is one of the best games you can get on PC. The game is challenging and there are a variety of gameplay options, all contained within a compact game. The Binding of Issac is short enough to encourage you to get to the end but has plenty of depth for those willing to invest the time. The power-up system is rewarding and encourages you to see how every power-up is going to affect how Isaac looks and plays. When you take all of these factors into consideration and you put them in an environment that is moody and engaging, you get something that you need to play. The Binding of Isaac will cost you less than a name-brand latte, so there is plenty of value to take advantage of. The game is not too technically demanding, so it should run on most computers. Get out there and pick up this game, you won’t be disappointed.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Steam version of The Binding of Isaac by Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl