You initially play as Isaac, whose mother was commanded by God to sacrifice him as proof of her obedience or what have you.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with major biblical tales of the Old Testament, the term "The Binding of Isaac" is a reference to an actual story in the Bible. When put in the context of this game, it obviously appears a bit more insane than usual. There's certainly some lighthearted jabs at the Bible throughout the game, from items you can pick up (Book of Revelations? Demon horns and goat hooves? A power-up called Whore of Babylon? A halo?) to the characters you can unlock (Cain, Judas, Samson, Eve, Magdalene).
He ends up "escaping" to the basement, where numerous horrors await him. The makers of this game are pretty twisted, but it adds to the charm.
This game mixes aspects of twin stick shooters and classic RPG "rogue-likes" together into a sacrilegiously-delicious slurry of satirical upgrade-collecting goodness. I believe I defined "twin stick shooter" in a past entry, so I will assume you have been a loyal and avid reader of my blog and are up to date on my entries. Skipping the history lesson, a "rogue-like" is a game with randomly generated levels, items, enemies, and so forth. Dying typically carries a stiff penalty, such as deletion of the character (see: Diablo's hardcore mode). These factors combine to create a harrowing experience that builds ever-mounting tension as you grow more invested in your increasingly powerful character. All of the above is true for The Binding of Isaac.
The twin-stick shooter part comes in with the combat system. While rogue-likes are often turn-based affairs (or even entirely text-based), in this case combat uses a simplified system of launching projectiles in the four cardinal directions at enemies to deal damage.
Those projectiles happen to be Isaac's never ending stream of tears.
|Let's be honest, I think we've all looked at a shambling headless body before and thought to ourselves, "Man, if I could just bombard that thing with my own tears, that'd be a terrific defense mechanism. Sigh."|
Players pick up various power-ups and permanent items throughout the game that improve Isaac's combat ability. The suspense created by anticipation of your next upgrade combined with the danger in every new room is the backbone of the game, and it keeps you coming back for multiple playthroughs when the gameplay would have otherwise long gone stale.
Unlike some rogue-likes, where historically the random items element can sometimes be too big of a determining factor for success, The Binding of Isaac relies on the player to actually move the character around to aim at and dodge the enemies. Getting dealt a "bad hand" of power-ups isn't completely unmanageable if you are skilled. However, possibly to prevent it from rewarding skill too much instead of emphasizing the RPG elements, the tears veer off to the left and right on a regular basis and do not travel a standardized distance. You have been warned.
Personally, it reminded me a lot of the Bomberman series. You run around in a world build entirely at right angles gathering boosts to your attack range/attack speed/movement speed/etc., and the fear of imminent death increases tension. Binding of Isaac does it better because of the absolutely massive variety of potential power-ups (I believe over 100). They even come with cosmetic changes to your character! Observing these unique changes every new round is part of the fun.
|Bottom left. At one point I had a fetus floating around behind me, a fetus growing on my face (yes really), a wad of meat circling me, demon horns and skin, blonde hair, a miner's hat, a nun's habit, and a ghostly torso all at once.|
So you run around with your increasingly powered up character exploring a dungeon made entirely of rectangular rooms with one to four doors clearing out enemies and gathering coins, bombs, and keys (which do exactly what you'd expect them to do) on your way to the floor's final boss. Then you go to the next floor. And repeat.
While the game does stop you at the end of the 5th floor the first time, the game boosts the difficulty and adds more floors as you continually prove your mettle in subsequent playthroughs.
I beat through the 5th floor on my fourth attempt via some phenomenal luck in power pickups. My attacks looked something like this:
|Giant red laser, anyone?|
One thing I'd like to comment on is the trademark cute-yet-horrifying art. Something about it is endearing to me while simultaneously being repulsive.
|I will give this 9.5 out of 10 "ewwwww"s.|
If there's one complaint I have about this game, it's the total denial of any need to provide players with information about what items do. If a power-up provides you with one of the basic stat changes (attack power, range, tear travel speed, movement speed, tears) then it will notify you of this in the bottom right of the screen. However, if the power-up does something unique in any way, you have to figure out what that is yourself.
|Not all power-ups are as obvious as "more crying = faster tear launching".|
This can be extremely difficult with the passive trinket item bonuses, since sometimes they are obtuse and seem unrelated to the item in question; I don't think that I would guess that a tick reduces bosses' HP by 15% and heals me for 1 heart when I enter a boss room. In fact, I don't think I'd figure out the first part of that on my own no matter how many times I had a tick.
While this sounds like a minor gripe, I'm clearly not alone on this one. I played it for a few hours while in a Skype call with several other people who were playing it, and the conversation basically consisted of "What does this item do?" and various cross-checks with the Binding of Isaac wiki. For some people, I have no doubt that part of the fun is deducing what the items do. For me (and clearly many others), not knowing what an item does even after using it can be frustrating when determining how to best prepare for the rooms ahead.
I don't want to sound like I dislike the game. Keeping the Binding of Isaac wiki page open while I play isn't that big of a hassle, and you do learn the various items over time.
Overall, I think that depending on what kinds of games you like it can be surprisingly addictive, especially after you're lucky enough to get your first bonkers arrangement of power-ups and plow through the dungeon rooms. You will spend many rounds attempting to achieve that nirvana again, and that's the best that any game that deletes your character upon death could wish for.
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