“YOU ARE THROWING YOUR LIFE AWAY”
-Fortune Telling Machine, The Binding of Isaac (video game)
The Binding of Isaac is a roguelike and a personal favorite of mine. It was developed by Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl and first released in 2011.
The plot is based on the biblical story, also called The Binding of Isaac. In it, Abraham is told to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to prove his love and fear of the Lord. He tries to do so, and is told by an angel at the last minute that he does not need to, as he has proven his fear and love for the Lord. In the video game, we are told through the opening cinematic that Isaac’s mother “hears” the “Lord” three times. First, she is told to take away his drawings and toys. Second, she locks Isaac in his room. Lastly, she is “told” to end Isaac’s life to prove her devotion to the “Lord.” Upon seeing his mother coming to his locked door with a kitchen knife, he finds a hitherto undiscovered cellar door under the carpet in his room, and he jumps into it to escape his mother, facing the horrors below.
The plot is quite simple… on the surface. I want to talk about this more in another post, but there is a TON going on behind the scenes, which you stitch together over time. This game tells the story through gameplay, mostly through item descriptions / names, their effects, and the 13 different endings. My interpretation of the game is that most of what happens in the game is Isaac hallucinating as he slowly dies of asphyxiation.
Item room, presenting the item Ghost Baby
Levels are composed of several rooms, and in order to advance to the next level you must beat the boss on that level. On the earlier levels, there are treasure rooms which offer items that you can use along your journey; when a boss is defeated, another item is presented.
Pause shows different items you have collected so far in the current run
By far the coolest aspect of the game is the interaction between items. For example, having piercing tears (you shoot tears, by the way, as projectiles), homing tears and long range means that one tear can pursue and hit multiple times, greatly increasing the amount of damage you can dish out. Another synergy is Ipecac and My Reflection: Ipecac causes your projectiles to travel in an arc and explode upon touching the ground, while My Reflection causes your projectiles to travel like a boomerang; the result is you keep bombing yourself, and yes, it does hurt you. What’s a bummer is that a lot of synergies are unpredictable; for example, getting Brimstone and Technology 2 decreases the damage of Brimstone’s attacks for some reason.
By far, the best items are in Devil and Angel rooms. These rooms have a very small chance of appearing after defeating the boss of the floor if certain conditions are met. The main condition is not losing any health during the floor, which is no easy task. For the Devil rooms, you should also kill beggars and shop keepers to increase your chances, while for the Angel rooms you should reject the offers from the Devil room (also not kill innocents). The Devil room, fittingly, offers items for a price, which you pay for by reducing your maximum health capacity. Angel rooms are also rarer and only offer 1 item, but it is free. Devil rooms generally offer the cooler, more offensive items, while the Angel rooms offer passive and defensive items.
There are several obtainables in the game. There are the standard consumables, namely bombs, keys and coins (you use coins to buy things at stores). There are also trinkets (flat penny in picture), which passively change what happens in the game (such as keys spawning when picking up coins), as well as cards or pills that you can use by pressing Q (death in picture). Cards have a predictable and mostly positive effect, while the effect of pills are randomized at the start of the run (by that I mean once you use a red pill, you will know what it does for the rest of the run) and neutral overall in effect (every positive effect also has a negative effect counterpart). This aspect of the game adds a surprisingly large and subtle layer of depth to the game.
Fighting this monstrosity while there’s blood and piss on the floor. Also flying eyeballs.
I’m not a game designer, but holy crap the enemies in this game look terrifying. You know how in cartoons, protagonists often fight robots because violence against organic life forms isn’t tolerated? It’s pretty much the opposite of that here. Everything is so grotesquely organic, and bleeding, and… squishy? Moist? Slippery? I remember the first time I played this game I was terrified of the enemies; there’s a disembodied head that chases you around while screaming, with blood pouring out of its empty eye sockets.
Anyway, the game strikes a good balance when it comes to the number of enemies. There are enough to keep it interesting, but the number isn’t overwhelming. In a roguelike, knowing the attack patterns and behavior of enemies are crucial to success, so the game provides enough diversity without overwhelming the players.
Enemies look like / are named after body parts. Can you guess what this is?
What’s cool about the enemies, is that they have different varieties. I mean this in two ways:
- Champions: these guys have a different color than the regular enemies. These guys behave in the exact same way, but they do double the damage and have double the health. Because this game wasn’t hard enough, right?
- Variants: With the Wrath of the Lamb DLC, there’s a chance to enter an alternate floor when you beat a level; for example, you could enter Necropolis instead of The Depths, the Cellar instead of the Basement, etc. This basically means that the standard enemies are swapped out for harder ones, with different but simiilar sprites, behaviors and attack patterns. This includes bosses. For example, in the picture above, the left enemy is the vanilla variant, which shoots lasers in one direction; the one on the right shoots in 2 directions at once.
The Binding of Isaac is on Steam for $5.00, and the Wrath of the Lamb costs $3.00, which I would consider a must. I’ve played the game for 133 hours to date. I would definitely recommend this game because of its immense depth, despite appearances. The variety of enemies, hundreds of items and millions of combinations and valid strategies keep me coming back to this game time and time again. Also, you don’t need a mouse to play it, so it’s a great game to play on a plane.
I was originally going to complain about how hard it is to get into the game, since it is so complex, but then I remembered that the game gets more complex as you play it; right out of the box, it is very simple, with very fewer enemy types and items. Once you beat the game once, the world opens up drastically, and this occurs several times. Each time, the sheer number of enemies, bosses and items you must learn keeps the game interesting and feeling new.
The only real complaints I have for this game is similar to how I felt about FTL: Faster Than Light – when the odds don’t work in your favor, the game becomes stale and painful to play. Items definitely make or break your run, and getting nothing but stat boosts or generally useless upgrades makes fighting enemies and bosses go on forever. But this is the nature of roguelikes: the bad runs make the good ones all the sweeter.
In closing, this is one of my favorite games of all time, both for its gameplay and disturbing story. 10/10 would buy again.