The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth review
Random Fun But Certainly Frustrating
If you were to simply catch the odd glance at a few screens on The Binding of Isaac then you might think it's some kind of Legend of Zelda knock-off. The UI looks similar to that of the NES Legend of Zelda. The game plays out from a topdown perspective exploring dungeons. It even includes similar items like bombs and keys. Once you start playing though, you quickly realise that such similarities are superficial. This is a game that revels in being sadistic and dark and it's not afraid to let you know it.
The story is delivered in a mostly basic sense in that most of it is delivered in an initial animated narration and it does set the tone for how dark and weird it goes. The mother of our child protagonist Isaac (and by child I really mean child and not a rebellious teenager) hears the voice of God commanding her to free her son of sin, which culminates in her going to sacrifice Isaac. Before that can happen, Isaac escapes through a hatch in the floor and thus begins the game.
As you descend through the floors the visuals make the strange disturbing theme all the more prevalent. Enemies come in types like deformed children, zombies or mutated blobs. Typical fantasy monsters these are not and the almost childlike drawing style really makes the theme all the more hard hitting. The oppressive nature of the cavernous levels you explore, littered with traits like wandering into secrets rooms where other children have seemingly committed suicide or the brighter setting of the special item rooms that offer a fleeting moment of safety, adds to the atmosphere.
So the general goal of the game is to essentially survive each floor. Isaac starts off with his only offence option being his tears that he fires out at the enemies. The physics involved are very interesting, although likely to catch out newer players. When a tear is fired, it continues along the same direction Isaac was moving. So, say you move up and fire to the right, the tear would then be moving up-right diagonally instead of straight to the right like other games may do. It takes a little getting used to, but with this system you do get options like angling shots to skip past obstacles that a direct fire system would struggle with. I must make a note here though about the lack of controller support. The game options menu cheekily advises looking up a key binding program if you want to use one, but I would prefer a game to naturally support controller input.
While the tears are infinitely spammable, Isaac also has access to bombs. These are more limited in number but can both deliver a lot more damage and destroy obstacles that tears can't. That said, destroying obstacles is largely what they are used for, as it can be hard to actually hit a lot of enemies with them. Notably, the ones that move about a lot, such as spiders, only land in the bomb blast radius by luck.
As you progress you can find items that affect Isaac. The effects of these items vary, such as boosting stats, changing the style of your attacks, gaining health for every x number of enemies killed or attracting other items. While it's interesting finding out what each one does and many of them will prove useful, there are some key flaws involved. For one, it's impossible to know what something does until you pick it up, and even then sometimes it's not really obvious. It doesn't help that some items hinder more than they help. Just ask anyone who picks up the items that grants you nine lives, in exchange for reducing your health gauge to one heart for each of those lives.
The other problem lies more with the overall issue with The Binding of Isaac. The first time through the game you'll die. I don't really think it's possible to avoid it without having some prior experience, but you figure you've learned from that and go in knowing what to expect. Well, except the first floor isn't anything like you remember. Wasn't there a doorway to the left last time? How come the boss room is on the other side of the map? What's this item you've never seen before? Well, that's because the game randomly generates the dungeon floors each time you play, so the stuff that happens in one playthrough don't carry over to the next. Even the bosses you fight are randomly selected from a pool of possible bosses.
This can affect exploration a lot, especially in the cases where you can, but might not, come across a variety of other areas. Some of these areas can be locked off, requiring a key to access. Unlike many games, the game doesn't actually make sure that the number of keys to locked doors is equal, so it can be a bit random whether you can get in there or not. This is a slightly frustrating element when you're locked out for what is essentially no reason. Other such areas can include shops, where you can spend the little amount of coins you collect for bonuses, or slot machines where you can gamble for goods.
This does produce a double-edged sword. On a positive note, it makes the game a relatively fresh experience each time you play. Many times I've dived into the game wondering just what's going to appear for me this time. Finding new items and figuring out what they do, or discovering a new enemy type and trying to work out how to defeat them. This helps encourage players to make further attempts as you avoid replaying the same thing over and over. With the amount of content in the game, there is plenty to find out as you play.
However, the randomness of the game can also make it terribly unbalanced. On one playthrough you might have a collection of overpowered items and loads of bombs and key. The next you'll get mostly useless items and hardly any bombs and keys. The layouts of rooms can also fall victim to this. Too many times a key or a stock of bombs has dropped in a room where it's actually been impossible to collect them. This can make the challenge jump all over the place and often seem cruelly unfair.
This is not helped by the already very difficult nature of the game. Isaac only starts with a few hearts to his name and health is scarce. When you die, it's permadeath too. No continuing from a checkpoint or save file here. Instead, when you die you have to start over from the beginning. Thankfully, the game isn't as long as something like an actual Legend of Zelda game, but it does mean death robs you of any progress you made. Sometimes, room layouts can conspire against you as well. You find enemies that can move and attack through obstacles while you cannot, and when some of these rooms are literally filled with such obstacles, such as a room with many rocks that limit your movement to narrow paths, then the feeling of unfairness can impact the fun you're having. In some cases, it can encourage players to simply abandon the attempt and hope the RNG god is more on their side the next time they start.
I found myself flipping between the two moods. Frustration at dying because the random odds fell against me eventually had to make way for me trying again because I wanted to see what else it had to offer. There is a fair amount of unlockable stuff as well, like some items only start appearing once you've met certain conditions and there are other playable characters whose stats and starting items are different to Isaac's. In the end though, I can't bring myself to praise The Bind of Isaac too highly. It offers bursts of fun here and there and it comes at a low price, but it can just be too frustrating for its own good when progress comes down to luck of the draw and forces a few broken mechanics into what would otherwise be a fantastic time waster.
About the author
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