Aren’t you tired of RPGs having such a predictable narrative? The protagonist always starts off as a lowly scrub armed with a penknife and a saucepan lid, who has to do poorly disguised fetch quests for experience. Eventually, he becomes powerful enough to down giants with his bare hands and dislodge mountains with spells.
After he plows through a seemingly endless line of generic monsters, the protagonist finally faces the ultimate source of evil. This is probably Satan himself or, at the very least, some lesser demonic spirit. In any case, the villain is mad with power and afflicted with a serious case of maniacal laughter and delusions of grandeur.
Worse than a screamer
These tropes are used because they are predictable and people can easily relate to them. But, what would happen if a video game toyed with these tropes? What if the protagonist is just a kid and the villain was – his mom?
Isaac is just a normal kid, living, laughing, learning. All would be well if it weren’t for his whale of a mom, who spends her days glued to the TV, obsessed with Christian channels. One day she hears the voice of God in her head and decides to go biblical on Isaac’s ass—she strips him of his toys and clothes and then locks him in the room. God speaks to her again and instructs her to slit Isaac’s throat. As she reaches for the knife, Isaac finds the trapdoor that leads to the basement and slips down into the darkness.
The first five seconds of the intro establish The Binding of Isaac as a thoroughly unsettling game. It doesn’t get any better later on. The monsters are anything but standard and include grotesque heads that vomit at you, decapitated torsos that can hop all around the room and other assorted nasties.
Cry me a river
Your initial weapon are your tears, which have a tendency to sway according to the direction you moved in when you fired them. This means that strafing as you shoot is not recommended, as you are highly unlikely to hit anything. Since you are generally outnumbered, you should always attempt to come close to enemies and shoot them down as fast as possible, rather than trying to conserve your health by dodging them.
Especially later on, you will deal with extra fast enemies that spray bullets all over the place, multiply, leave damaging trails and so on. Dodging the hailstorm of bullets and trying to deal the fatal blow gives The Binding of Isaac a strong bullet hell shooter vibe. At times, it can be difficult to calculate where the enemy bullet will hit, since the game has an isometric view, but try to focus on the bullet shadow and you should be able to guesstimate it.
Blood and other bodily fluids
Whenever your tear connects with an enemy, a spot of blood will remain on the ground. When enemies die, they will also explode in a majestic shower of guts and body parts. Eventually, every room you clear of enemies will look like a scene from a Hostel movie.
As you reach deeper levels, you will gain power-ups that change your firing speed and direction, make tears explode, go through obstacles, inflict fear, poison and so on. Each of these power-ups will change Isaac’s appearance in some manner, which is a cool way to represent character progression. No two playthroughs will end with Isaac looking the same way.
Those damn suicide potions!
Besides direct upgrades to your health, damage, firing speed and so on, you can also get certain passive items that may or may not help you. However, the problem is that these items may change Isaac in a subtle way, so you won’t know what the item does even after you’ve picked it up, since the game is quite stingy with tooltips and explanations. In that case, you will have to resort to reading the associated wiki, which is definitely an enjoyable experience
If you find out the passive item you just picked up isn’t helpful – tough luck. It’s impossible to drop them. In a way, this resembles the game mechanics of Roguelikes, where curses, cursed items and unknown potions made a large source of fun and frustration.
However, once you get one or more familiars is when the real fun begins. They are invulnerable helpers that orbit Isaac at all times. Some will shoot alongside you or harass enemies, others will pick up coins and drop power-ups, but the most devastating ones are melee familiars, which will brutally destroy all enemies, including bosses, on contact.
Watching an experienced player go through The Binding of Isaac is actually quite enjoyable. If you want to check it out, my suggestion is Northern Lion, who’s made a career out of glitching and breaking the game in hilarious ways.
The never ending exploration
Successfully completing The Binding of Isaac will unlock more characters, each of them having some quirk or handicap that makes the playthrough more interesting. Challenges, items, unlockables, secrets, super secrets, super super secrets – this game has it all and every time you play it, you will reveal yet another mysterious item, boss or character. It’s like The Binding of Isaac has a bottomless bag of tricks and you can never reach all the way to the bottom.
The Binding of Isaac is a really interesting mix of an RPG, bullet hell shooter and a roguelike. If you enjoy any of these genres, you will pretty much enjoy The Binding of Isaac as well. The backstory is a very unusual one as well and heavily implies that obese single mothers are the source of all evil, which is surprisingly close to the truth. Of course, this is wrapped in several layers of video game fantasy, but the core message is quite clear.
This could mean The Binding of Isaac creator is a men’s rights activist (i.e. a man with a functioning brain) and intentionally wanted to send a certain message to the audience. If so, this kind of criticism of rampant SJW mental illness is absolutely the right way to go, as it’s always possible to later feign ignorance while retaining positive image in the global video games market. Hopefully, we will see many more video games that honestly portray negative female traits and start to educate the next generations on the troubles fatherless children go through.