They say that God has a plan for all of us. In Isaac's case, the plan begins and ends with the business end of a butcher's knife. To escape his grisly fate--at the hands of his own mother no less--our young hero must brave a labyrinth of unspeakable horrors while tapping into the dark arts of witchcraft and household objects. Spawned from the mind of Team Meat (Super Meat Boy) cofounder Edmund McMillen, The Binding of Isaac is a twisted tale. It masterfully brings together the randomization and difficulty of a roguelike, such as Dungeons of Dredmor, with the top-down perspective of The Legend of Zelda to create an enthralling experience that will keep you hooked. And even after you finish the game, there's plenty more content left to discover to keep you engaged long after the credits roll.
Isaac's descent begins in a basement. This floor and all subsequent floors are divided into single, connecting rooms that contain monsters or items. A boss chamber lies at the end of the maze and houses a gruesome fiend that Isaac must overcome before descending to the next floor. Isaac's initial attack is weaponized crying--meaning he can strike foes from afar by blinking out crocodile-sized tears in four directions. Keys, bombs, and other items become available as you progress, but no matter how strong you become, death remains a constant companion during this challenging journey. Bite the dust and you'll have to start the whole game over again.
The randomized structure of each floor means no two play sessions are exactly alike. Although the path may be different, there are still a few familiar stops along the way. Most common are the enemies. If you're lucky, flies and lava will be the most of your troubles, but most likely, your move-and-shoot abilities will be tested by flaming, headless torsos or blood-vomiting gluttons. As you progress these enemies will evolve and learn new tricks to maintain the challenge. If you have a few keys handy, then you can access the item shops and special item rooms located on each floor. In lieu of gaining levels, Isaac's power increases by collecting items, which can increase his stats or confer special abilities.
The dozens of objects you encounter aren't your typical "+1 Sword of Hitting" or "Giant Golden Pauldrons." Instead, most items apply supernatural properties to everyday objects. Donning your mother's underwear increases your range, while drinking chocolate milk lets you charge up your chocolate projectiles. Items also change your character's appearance, though it's usually for the worse. The growth hormones you just picked up might make Isaac stronger, but they also turn his face into a lumpy mess. Chances are that by the end of the game, you won't even recognize Isaac. Discovering new items and experimenting with different item combinations are the most appealing aspects of the game.
You have plenty of opportunities to visit and revisit the dungeons in The Binding of Isaac because the game is incredibly difficult. Your character's limited health and the scarcity of supplies lend tension to every encounter. However, the frustrations of death are lessened by the game's tight controls and smart design. Rarely do you walk into a room and immediately get ambushed. Instead, you are granted a few beats to assess the enemy makeup and plan how to approach the situation. Patience in this game, more so than any item, can be your strongest ally or toughest foe; It's easy to get frustrated and try to blitz through a complicated room. But when you get on a roll, it's thrilling to skirt past enemy projectiles as you fight to keep Isaac's precious health points intact.
Once you finish the game for the first time, there is plenty more content to unlock, including floors, characters, and items. The difficulty continues to rise as well. The new floors naturally increase the challenge by making the game longer, while the new characters generally have less health than Isaac but more interesting special abilities. The game's music is also smartly designed to compensate for its repetition. It instills a sense of foreboding with music that becomes more unsettling as you venture deeper into the madness. And since you'll be hearing the early tracks a lot, they do a good job of resting in the background without becoming tiresome.
While The Binding of Isaac has a great sense of discovery, rediscovery is an issue. The game has an item collection screen that displays which items you've encountered. However, the only thing it tells you about the item is its name. Having an item's description on this screen would be an excellent tool. Using a controller could also be a great way to play as Isaac, given the game's pseudo-twin-stick shooter design, but the game does not officially support this setup. Instead, it advertises you to download a third-party piece of software; this has uneven results, however, making you wish controller support was supported innately.
Through smart design and simple mechanics, The Binding of Isaac manages to feel approachable despite its difficulty. Superfluous elements have been stripped out, and what remains is a tightly focused game that continues to feel fresh even after multiple completions. While it does lack some of the extra bells and whistles of other modern games, The Binding of Isaac remains an enjoyable (and demented) adventure.