Isaac is a small boy who is frequently picked on at school and general ostracized by his peers. In spite of this, he manages to have fun by himself in his room playing with toys or his cat. But one day, his mother is watching TV when she hears the voice of God tell her to sacrifice her son in order to cleanse him of sin. She goes at him with a knife, but Isaac manages to escape into the basement of his house. It’s here that the game begins.
The setup sets the tone for the game as a whole. For one, the way the visuals are designed help add humor to the admittedly cruel premise. The simple sprites for Isaac and the enemies he face are simultaneously adorable, yet incredibly gruesome, pathetic and disturbing. Even though Isaac starts off each run looking like a cartoon boy, by the end he might be completely unrecognizable due to the upgrades you can obtain (more on these later). For instance, getting a Tub of Lard will make Isaac fat, and you might also pick up some of Mom’s underwear and Lipstick. And Isaac wears both of these if you get them. So by the end you’ll have an overweight cross dresser who may or may not have a floating cat head following him if you get that item.
The same humorously gruesome design extends to the enemies. Within the first level, you’re likely to run into headless torsos that jump around, flies that shoot balls of poop at you and little maggots that are always smiling but won’t hesitate to try and eat you. The truly standout designs, though, are with the bosses. Each one is absolutely disgusting, but also infinitely charming. For instance, Monstro is a giant head with a hair lip, a missing tooth and cross eyes. He hops around, shooting out balls of blood in every direction. But he’s almost impossible to hate because his smile is so goofy. This mixture of cute and gross give the game a unique tone. The game frequently has cruel subtexts; for instance, you can get an item called a wooden spoon that ups Isaac’s movement speed, and it makes red marks appear all over his face, implying that he was probably beaten with a wooden spoon and fears it, which is why his speed increases. But the way the game is designed gives everything a goofy look and makes it tough to take too seriously.
But the aesthetics of the game shouldn’t fool you; the game is tough. Basically, it’s a twin stick shooter where you explore square shaped rooms one by one while you look for the exit. It’s a simple idea complicated by the random aspect of the game. Each time you play, the floors are different; items are in different places, the boss is different, the way the rooms are set up are different. This makes it so that no two play throughs are exactly the same, which gives the game a good amount of replayability.
Actually, the game hinges around replay. The first time I played, I died within a few minutes on the first floor. The second time, I managed to make it to the second floor before biting the dust, but I managed to unlock a new item that could potentially appear in future runs. There is almost no way that you will make it to the end on your first try unless you are naturally good at the game. This leads to an interesting meta game where you learn from each death and unlock more items and character the more you play.
Even though the game is tough and unforgiving, it does try its best to give you tools to increase the odds of survival. For one thing, on every floor is an item that gives you some kind of positive effect. This ranges from increasing your health and fire rate (Isaac shoots his tears in order to damage enemies, by the way) to an item that allows you to become temporarily invincible before requiring a recharge. The nice thing is that you will always gain some kind of benefit from these. Unlike one item, the Pills, which can potentially harm you, pick up items will always help you in some way. On top of that, there are also shops on every floor where you can purchase health, items, bombs or anything in between (shops are also randomly generated, so their contents are always unknown until you go inside).
These create an interesting dynamic of risk and reward. It’s quite possible that when you spawn on a new floor, you will run into the boss room almost right away. You could try and beat the boss with what you have, or you can risk going out to try and find the item room to get something that will help you in the fight. But you could also run into a particularly tough room of enemies that could cripple you.
The game is inherently addictive since you never know what a run could hold for you. You could be dealt a bad hand and die within the first few rooms due to overwhelming enemy numbers, or it could be the run that you make it to the last level and finally beat Mom. And even though it’s fun most of the time, there are some issues that are less than fun. For one thing, sometimes the random generation of the game simply will not cough up something you need. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve had to skip over item rooms because the game would not give me a key to open it. I had all the money I could need, I had a decent amount of health and bombs, but the money is useless if you don’t have a key to open the shop with. Sometimes the game will generate an extremely difficult room that is nearly impossible to escape from unscathed. I once ran into a room littered with spikes (which do one heart of damage each time you walk over them) and filled with enemies that bounce off the walls. And sine Isaac can only shoot in four directions (North East West and south) it meant that I’d constantly have to reposition myself in order to hit the enemies. Then there can be times where you’re low on health and have a pill. Not knowing what it does, you take it only to have it bring your health down even more.
Still, the game is a lot of fun despite the frustrations caused by the random aspect. Running through the dungeons and beating enemies, getting items and killing bosses is a good time for anyone who enjoys a challenge. Plus, there’s a lot of content to play through; there are five unlockable characters, a ton of unlockable items, and bonus areas open up once you beat Mom for the first time. You might never know exactly what the game will hold for you when you start a new run, but that’s where most of the fun comes from.
+ Simple controls that are easy to pick up
+ Unique atmosphere that effortlessly combines the adorable and the deplorable, the cute and the offensive, the cheery and the gory
+ Addictive gameplay that will make you keep playing, if only to see what kind of new curve balls the game can throw at you in a new run
+ Lots of unlockable content that extends the life of the game, including five bonus characters that each have their own play styles
- Random elements can lead to unfair challenges or situations