The Binding of Isaac – Pure Addiction

What is it with indie games and addictiveness? It seems like so many of them thrive on the concept of getting players utterly hooked on their gameplay and mechanics. Shovel Knight is more fun to play than the last fifteen AAA developed games I’ve played, and Rogue’s Legacy had me hooked in a way that even Diablo III wishes it could.  I suppose the reason for this is because indie games are more desperate. They can’t rely on huge set pieces or amazing ‘wow’ moments, so they have to fall back on cold, hard gameplay and charm. It’s something that AAA developed games tend to overlook, and it’s a trade off, I guess. Nobody has infinite time and resources, and AAA developed games get scorned if they don’t bring a certain level of graphical flourish. Indie games get away with regressive graphics, so indie developers are more free to play with interesting concepts and mechanics. Whatever the reason, indie games have given me quite a bit to do this generation, and it looks like The Binding of Isaac is going to join that pile.

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Released as one of November’s free games for members of PS+, The Binding of Isaac, or more accurately The Binding of Isaac Rebirth, is a PC game that has been remade and ported over to consoles, as well as the PC. At it’s heart, The Binding of Isaac is a dungeon crawler, one that takes substantial cues from the original Legend of Zelda. The premise of the game is very difficult to articulate without making the game seem like an utterly crazy mess. But here goes. In The Binding of Isaac, you play as what can best be described as a naked, crying toddler, who traverses a horrible hells cape, full of enemies so disturbed that The Evil Within would look away, and you combat them by shooting your own tears at them. As you progress through a randomly generated dungeon, you will encounter huge bosses, really unique items and a fast-paced, well done combat system.

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Isaac can cry in one of four directions, and, at first, his tears will be slow and weak, but they can be improved by items. You will also have a stock of bombs, which you can use to blow up rocks, damage enemies, or find secret basements/rooms in the same way you would in the original Zelda. You will also pick up a collection of keys that can be used to unlock chests, rooms, and certain blocks that might prevent you from grabbing a heart, or a similar item. Coins can be obtained for shop purchases, gambling, or for giving to beggars. Each time you enter a new dungeon room, you will have to clear all of the enemies out before progressing to the next room. This may seem like a hassle, but the game is fast-paced enough that killing waves of enemies never becomes a chore.

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The enemy variety is wide, and you will continue to find new enemies all the way down to the bottom floor of the dungeon. In total, there aren’t many floors, somewhere in the range of 7-10. This might make the game seem short, but there is so much to do, and every playthrough is utterly unique. I’m not joking when I say it’s the items that completely make this game. I’ll give you an example. In one playthrough, let’s say you pick up some Jesus juice. This gives you a stronger attack, and increases speed at which your attacks come out. It also gives you a pink drool coming from your avatar. Then you pick up the holy grail. Now you can fly over obstacles. Then you pick up the Book of Belial, and you can get a temporary damage boost. The next game you play, you get a revenge fly, which slaughters enemies if you get hit. The daddy long legs, spawns a foot that will randomly crash down and kill enemies. Another item might infest you, so you spawn spiders that attack enemies. Or maybe you pick up an ability that makes your bombs fire, poison, or shoot a wave of tears. There are so many synergies it’s not funny. For example, an item that gives you giant tears plus the bomb that shoots tears will result in the bomb shooting giant tears. This can fundamentally change how you play the game every single time.

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One of the best parts of the item acquisition game is that each item changes your appearance. That naked, crying boy at the beginning will look like some hellish beast by the end, and every game will be different. And that’s even ignoring the wide variety of unlockables. Other than characters with their own unique stats and starting abilities, you unlock more items, enemies and even randomized dungeon components as you complete various challenges. If you unlock an item for speed running, for example, it gets added to the game, and you might stumble upon it when you enter a treasure room. Or maybe not. The game is entirely random, meaning you could play hundreds of sessions and not even scratch the surface of what the game has to offer.

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I’ve tried to focus on why the game is fun, but there are a couple of detractions. The most obvious is that the game is buggy. I’ve had the game freeze on me at least ten times. This isn’t too big of a deal, since the game saves frequently, but it’s still frustrating. Secondly, and this should be obvious, but the graphics and style of the game aren’t going to blow anyone away. The game is undeniably charming, but it’s no technical marvel, nor are the graphics the same kind of awesome as Shovel Knight. I don’t have to say ‘pick up The Binding of Isaac’ because any smart PlayStation user is getting them for free. Nevertheless, for everyone else, grab the PC version of Rebirth and see exactly why this game has me more excited than Dragon Age Inquisition.

– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer

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