Roguelikes – really, any game with substantial randomized content – have been a love of mine for years now. All the way back to the days of ASCII ‘graphics’ and the original Rogue, all through the ages of Angband (and its many variants), Nethack, and more, right to the modern era of Diablo III, Torchlight and Path of Exile. The randomized content, the high stakes that typically come with each playthrough, the tricks and secrets you have to learn just to survive, the inventive gameplay systems – I love it all. I also loved Super Meat Boy, easily the most satisfying, fascinating and challenging 2D platformer I’ve played in years, with as close to a flawless execution I could ever hope to see in the genre. So when I heard that half of the two-man team behind Super Meat Boy (specifically the more artistic half, Edmund McMillen) was putting out a game with roguelike elements, I got all giddy. It’s like being an Ultima fan and loving sci-fi MMOs and hearing that Richard Garriott is going to be making an MMO!
Okay, wait. Bad example.
Still, that’s the quick summary of The Binding of Isaac. The creativity of half of Team Meat crossed with an actiony Rogue-like-ish game. But what does that actually cash out to?
Well, let’s start with the story. While you can play as other characters, you start out as Isaac: A young boy whose mother hears or thinks she hears the voice of God telling her to kill her child to prove her devotion. Isaac flees into the basement-dungeon, where he has to fight against hordes of mutant-spawn and cut through blockades of feces, armed only with his (projectile, somehow damaging) horrified tears. At least at first. Later, he can acquire other weapons – for instance, his urine. In case the previous information didn’t make this abundantly clear: If you’re easily offended or grossed out, this is not the game for you. This isn’t an issue of a solitary fart joke here and there, or even a now-and-then running gag. We’re talking wall to wall blood, urine and feces, all with grotesque monsters and some amount of off-color religious jokes. Consider yourself warned.
Gross humor and questionable setting aside, The Binding of Isaac still has a certain graphical charm. Just like Super Meat Boy, the art walks a line between fluid animation and crude child-like drawings, and the result is very easy on the eyes. You’ll notice the fluidity of animation more than anything else, though the actual environments are still well-done – a cut above the Super Nintendo Zelda era the game very consciously tries to spoof, in general feeling as well as some audio cues. Speaking of audio, the game has very good music for setting the mood – it’s no surprise that the soundtrack is being offered as an optional pack-in with the game itself. The sound effects are passable, with some of the sounds of the tormented child-monsters being appropriately disturbing – but aside from the aforementioned wails and some other effects here and there, you’ll mostly be hearing splattering sounds.
Which brings us to the gameplay. The controls are easy – the default being a W/A/S/D scheme for movement, and up/left/right/down arrows for shooting your weapons. No diagonal shots, though momentum will alter the trajectory of your “bullets”. You can drops bombs you’ve acquired by using the letter e (there’s that Zelda influence again), use rechargeable items you’ve picked up by using the space button, and pressing q will let you activate one-use items. The controls are very straightforward (and there’s also some limited key remapping in the form of a mode for left-handed players), not to mention responsive – this is one of those games which is easy to learn, yet hard to master. Be prepared to spend time learning how to strike a balance between picking off enemies and avoiding them. Contact with bullets or enemies themselves leads to the player’s character being harmed. Running over items will automatically pick them up – and some of them may affect the player character’s stats and even appearance.
Speaking of harm, the roguelike tradition of only having a single life is in play in The Binding of Isaac, and this is not an optional feature. Put simply, if you run out of health, that’s it – it’s game over for you. At least from what I saw, this means you start right back at the beginning of the game without any option to start at a later level. Harsh, but expected for a game in this genre. Still, this does lead to my first non-content gripe about this game: There’s no quick-save option. While you can pause the game, at least for now you can forget about closing the game and continuing it later from the point you stopped at: You either finish your playthrough in one sitting, or you prepare to play all over again. Keep that in mind if you intend to play The Binding of Isaac on a less than reliable computer, since one of the most dreadful things that can happen in a roguelike is losing your progress due to a bug or a power surge.
On the upside, if you can get into the theme of the game – and if the one-life-only gameplay doesn’t turn you off – The Binding of Isaac does offer considerable replay value. There are achievements to unlock (43 as of this writing), secrets to find, new characters to acquire, dozens of enemies to vanquish, and even multiple endings to see. Considering the game launched on Steam with a five dollar price tag, that’s quite a lot of fun to have – especially if you’re the sort of person who gets all tingly at the thought of exploring a game to see every nook and cranny the developer hid in it. And they will be different nooks and fresh crannies each time, since the game randomizes the maps with each new
playthrough: The location of bosses, the content of individual rooms, and where to find powerups differs each time you play. Some people hate this sort of feature due to the effect it has on level design (it has a way of making new locations feel generic), and others love it because it means you can never be sure what’s coming next. I’m in the latter category.
So when all is said and done, what’s the final verdict on The Binding of Isaac? I’ll put it simply: If you can roll with the macabre toilet humor and if religion jokes don’t put you off, AND if you enjoy games with non-optional permadeath, randomized content, tons of secrets and considerable replay value… it’s hard to go wrong with The Binding of Isaac. Especially at five dollars. Let’s be honest: Those conditions place the game into a pretty small niche. Maybe not as small as, say… whatever niche is occupied by those people who love hyper-realistic bus driving simulations, but it’s still a niche. The only real glaring fault is the previously mentioned lack of an ability to save and quit the game so you can continue it later, a mark on an otherwise unique, and in my opinion, fun little game.
If you feel like picking up the game, just head on over to the Steam page for Binding of Isaac. This one’s out and available.
Victor Grunn has been a gamer since the days of single-button joysticks and the Atari 800XL. When not lamenting the loss of the Ultima series or setting people on fire in Team Fortress 2, he's an aspiring indie game developer and freelance writer.