Not all of our readers come from a Christian background, so allow me to backtrack and explain how The Binding of Isaac is “religiously polarizing”. In the Bible, Abraham receives orders from God to sacrifice his own (that is, Abraham’s) son Isaac. Similarly, The Binding of Isaac starts off with Isaac’s mom hearing “a voice from above” asking her to remove all evil things from Isaac to save him from his corrupt, sinful nature. Isaac’s mom obliges by removing his toys, pictures, game console, and clothes. The voice later tells her that Isaac must be cut off from the evil of the world, and Isaac’s mom responds by locking Isaac in his room. Isaac’s mom hears the voice a third time; this time, the voice states that it pleased with her actions but that it still questions her devotion. The voice asks Isaac’s mom to sacrifice her son, to which she responds by taking a nearby kitchen knife and walking over to Isaac’s room. Seeing any parallels yet between the two stories? In the biblical story, Abraham is stopped by an angel just before he kills his son and informed that God’s request was a test of his devotion. In The Binding of Isaac… well, you’ll have to find out that for yourself. As a fairly transparent and rather satirical spinoff of the biblical story of Moses and Isaac, The Binding of Isaac managed to draw considerable ire from the Christian community (Nintendo refused to publish it on its consoles due to “questionable religious content”) and certainly doesn’t play to the tastes of everyone.
Looking past its religious background story, The Binding of Isaac is a freakishly difficult game. Freakishly difficult? Yes… freakish in that The Binding of Isaac should be a stupidly frustrating game due to the ridiculously large factor that luck plays, but it instead kept me yearning for one more playthrough, one more try to get farther than I had before. Now, I don’t consider myself a sadist by any means, but dying and having to start over multiple times (I had to try 20 times before I finally beat the game… once) was actually… rather enjoyable. The Binding of Isaac features a permadeath system much like Rogue: you can’t save your progress, and once you die you are forced to start a new game from the beginning with none of your previously earned items or stats carrying over. Dungeon layouts and enemies are procedurally generated, so no two playthroughs are ever quite the same. Items in The Binding of Isaac are similarly randomly generated, rounding out the “ridiculously large factor that luck plays” that I mentioned earlier. As a result, gameplay difficulty can feel artificially inflated at times if the game happens to provide you with items that aren’t particularly useful. Also, items aren’t labeled with descriptions detailing their effects on the character, so getting new items is either an exercise in picking up something and hoping for the best, or going online and memorizing what every single item in The Binding of Isaac does (good luck with that, as there are over 400 unique items in The Binding of Isaac…).What, exactly, do you actually do in The Binding of Isaac? Gameplay in The Binding of Isaac isn’t too complicated in and of itself and feels reminiscent of other top-down games like the Zelda series. You control Isaac (other characters can be unlocked as well, such as “Judas” and “Samson”, who are also characters from the Bible) as he journeys through the underworld of his basement. Gameplay takes place in interconnected dungeons which can contain treasure (such as coins, keys for unlocking locked chests and rooms, and items for improving character abilities), enemies, bosses, or sometimes even nothing at all. To progress through a dungeon the character must defeat all enemies in the dungeon by shooting tears, laying down bombs, or using an item he/she has collected. There are numerous types of items in The Binding of Isaac, such as upgrade items that change the character’s appearance and stats, useable items that recharge as the character clears dungeons, and one-time use tarot cards that have effects like healing the player or dealing damage to all on-screen enemies. To progress to the next level, the player must defeat a boss which has higher health and more varied attack patterns. Though the gameplay overall isn’t particularly unique or interesting, it manages to stay relatively fresh through the randomness of every playthrough (which, I feel I must once again state, can either result in games ranging from fairly easy to near impossible in difficulty). Enemies in The Binding of Isaac are nicely varied and bring distinctive characteristics that require different tactics to deal with; for example, Mulligans are misshapen lumps of human flesh that try to stay away from the player and send out attack flies, Blobs tend to move toward the player and fire blood projectiles in the four cardinal directions, and Chargers move around randomly until they see the player, at which point they charge at the player in an attempt to take away the player’s health. The various characteristics of the enemies in The Binding of Isaac encourage strategic play and quick reflexes, making it an energetic, on-your-toes game through the entirety of a playthrough. Like Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac relies on simplistic graphics and sound. Character art for the game is almost childlike and relies on an innocent, cutesy style in stark comparison to the dark, gruesome backgrounds of the dungeons. Enemies are appropriately gruesome and frightening, with many of them missing eyeballs and vomiting blood as a method of attack, helping reinforce the demented nature of the game. Sound effects in The Binding of Isaac are reminiscent of 8-bit effects from old NES games; though they aren’t the highest of quality, they fit in well with the overall child-drawing-esque art direction that is seen throughout the game. The Binding of Isaac’s background music deepens the sense of foreboding and fear through its creepy and ghastly musical scores and makes a strong contribution to the overall atmosphere of the game.
The Binding of Isaac is difficult in a myriad of ways: difficult to stomach (for some), difficult to actually play, and difficult to get frustrated with. While its randomness and permadeath make The Binding of Isaac both an incredibly luck-based and unforgiving game, the promise of potentially better loot and more intense, strategic action in future playthroughs makes The Binding of Isaac a difficult game to put down for good.