Those who are familiar with the indie platformer Super Meat Boy might have a taste for developer Team Meat’s irreverent, macabre sense of humor. Their latest release for PC and Mac, The Binding of Isaac, mirrors the Biblical story with a unique flavor only Team Meat can provide. When God speaks to Isaac’s mother demanding the sacrifice of her son, she chases Isaac into the basement. There he faces level upon level of demented enemies; Isaac’s only hope of escape is to plunge deeper into the cavernous basement.
Isaac plays out like a shooter with light RPG elements. By default, movement is bound to the WASD keys and shooting to the arrow keys, but we would highly recommend playing this game with a dual analog stick controller. The game’s eight levels are randomly generated and are presented in a similar fashion to two-dimensional adventure games like The Legend of Zelda or Star Tropics. The game has a vast array of items to discover, whose effects range from boosting Isaac’s stats, to revealing hidden rooms, to unleashing a powerful laser beam (re: SHOOP DA WHOOP). However, should you die (and die you will), all progress is lost.
While the game’s randomly generated dungeons certainly add to its replayability, they also introduce a major issue into the game: inconsistent difficulty. Everything varies wildly between playthroughs, including the layout of each floor, the types and numbers of enemies faced, and the items found. This challenges the player to adapt their strategy around whatever enemies they might encounter and items they may have equipped, but it’s invariably frustrating to find a skeleton key (and subsequently a dozen more, now useless, keys) when what you want is a damn laser beam. We should also point out that it only takes about an hour to play through Isaac, but in reality it will take several attempts before you’re able to clear the game.
The real appeal of Isaac lies in its sheer craziness. The enemies look like something out of a grotesquerie, and Isaac himself can become fearsome (or just ridiculous) as the items he picks up change his appearance. The Flash-based, animated graphics are used to great effect; all of the environments and characters have real life to them. Even the inanimate dolls which inexplicably manage the game’s stores have some eerie presence about them. Furthermore, the game keeps a log of all items the player has unlocked. Total completion of the game requires many playthroughs – unlocking new characters, fighting various bosses and sub-bosses, and filling up the vast catalog of items.
The Binding of Isaac has an undeniable charm about it; we died many times playing this game, but couldn’t help starting over every time to see what new items we could find. One of our attempts saw Isaac bedecked in his mothers lipstick and high heels, with a shield of bugs floating around him to repel incoming attacks. Another had him lose four of his five hearts making contracts with some demonic force in order to boost his power. For such a small game it is packed with secrets, and while we can’t recommend it to everyone we can say that Isaac is a good fit for someone who’s willing to dive in and find all the hidden goodies this game has to offer. It’s a game that takes a certain measure of curiosity and dedication to enjoy – and perhaps equally as important, an appreciation for Team Meat’s style.
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Name: The Binding of Isaac
Available on: PC, Mac
Developed by: Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl
Published by: Edmund McMillen
Release date: September 28, 2011
EG Score: 3 out of 5 / “Worth Trying”