The Binding of Isaac
It's no secret that Super Meat Boy developer Team Meat has something planned. The duo has made it clear that a new game is in the works, but when that game will launch remains to be seen. In the meantime, Edmund McMillen has branched out and delivered his very own solo project. The Binding of Isaac is McMillen's take on the old bible tale of the same name, and it combines a number of gameplay and design elements that hark back to gaming's retro years. With influences ranging from the Old Testament to The Legend of Zelda, The Binding of Isaac certainly poses an intriguing concept.
The game begins with a cutscene explaining the entire premise. If you're familiar with the biblical tale of Isaac, then you may recall Abraham being requested by God to prove his loyalty. The task: sacrifice Isaac. This is dark stuff indeed, and it's the ominous nature of this Old Testament story that lays the groundwork for McMillen's game. You play as Isaac, a young boy whose religious mom wants nothing more than to impale him with a butcher knife to prove her loyalty to God. The plot in The Binding of Isaac is, for all intents and purposes, a fairly quirky take on the more serious story of Isaac. That said, as the game unfolds, it quickly becomes a pretty eerie tale itself.
If you played The Legend of Zelda for the NES, the first thing you'll notice is the similarity in the dungeon design between these two games. McMillen had previously stated that The Binding of Isaac was inspired by the first entry in Nintendo's iconic action-adventure series, and a quick glance at the dungeon layout in this game indicates so. The core gameplay, however, is associated with the shoot ‘em up genre and offers an isometric action-oriented experience. You must traverse the many randomized dungeons in The Binding of Isaac, blasting legions of unpredictable baddies with Isaac's tears and collecting weapons, upgrades, and keys to progress.
Getting through the numerous rooms and boss battles in the game is easier said than done. The Binding of Isaac is a challenging title, and if you're not careful, you'll be caught off-guard by the game's intense difficulty. True to the roguelike style, The Binding of Isaac proudly boasts perma-death as one of its core mechanics, so if you die, it's back to the start. There are no checkpoints, saves, or continues. Once Isaac bites the dust, it's back to the beginning of the game. The NES was my first console, so this element definitely brings back fond memories of the days when games were ruthless and didn't cater to gamers, forcing them stay alert throughout the entirety of their gaming sessions.
Some gamers may be put off by the perma-death factor in The Binding of Isaac, while others—mostly those who grew up playing tough-as nails roguelikes—will cherish this aspect of the game. The Binding of Isaac isn't necessarily a very long game, but because you'll die repeatedly, you can bet you'll be spending a beefy amount of time playing. This is something that plenty of fans of retro-style games are sure to appreciate about this title, and considering just how easy games can be these days and how forgiving they are, perma-death and brutal difficulty in The Binding of Isaac are refreshing qualities.
Something that bothered me when I first started playing the game was the lack of controller support. Every action in the game is mapped to the computer keyboard, and you aren't given the option to plug an Xbox 360 controller or any other type of USB controller. You move Isaac using the WASD keys, and you shoot using either the mouse or the arrow keys. Additionally, the Q and Shift keys serve for using items. The Binding of Isaac could easily lend itself to a twin-stick shooter design, so the lack of controller support is a bit of a bummer. That being said, once you grasp the game's control scheme, navigating through dungeons and blasting enemies is intuitive and rewarding.
Visually, The Binding of Isaac has a very Flash-based look, which basically means you'll see a lot of solid colors and environments. That's not a bad thing by any means, though, and McMillen has once again managed to create a game that features bold color use and cheerfully dreadful art design. The enemies in The Binding of Isaac are creepily adorable, and watching the animated cutscenes after clearing a dungeon—where Isaac is portrayed remembering some horrible event from his childhood (poop in a gift box is one example)—elicits feelings of discomfort and dread.
Super Meat Boy was full of shining elements, and the game's soundtrack was certainly among the most memorable. That's why it's good to know that Danny Baranowsky, the composer for that game, decided to provide some awesome tunes for The Binding of Isaac. The game's soundtrack is unique, and it has that awesome Baranowsky sound, cleverly fitting for this dark tale. The sound effects are solid, too, offering plenty of squishy noises and pops as you face the denizens of evil in the game's dungeons.
The Binding of Isaac won't appeal to everyone. The game is fiendish in its difficulty, and with no checkpoints whatsoever, gamers who have grown accustomed to the many modern elements of gaming will likely be put off. Those who have a distinct adulation for old school dungeon crawlers and roguelikes, enjoy a good challenge, and want something refreshingly difficult should not miss out on The Binding of Isaac. Even if you're looking for something to kill some time in small bursts with, you really can't go wrong with this download. The game offers a quick gameplay experience, but with unlockable levels, extra bosses, oodles of items, and multiple endings, there's a deep experience hidden within this deceptive little package. At just $5, you couldn't ask for a better deal.