As some of you may know, my first language is French. And when there is a game that I REALLY love, I often say things like “Isaac, c’est la vie!” which basically means “Isaac is life”. I had the idea of creating a series of articles where I would talk about these games and the love I have for them. This first edition will be about The Binding of Isaac, because I started playing it again recently, as it was updated with the final booster pack for Afterbirth+. Now that you know what this is about, welcome to the first edition of “C’est la vie!” !!

Flashy beginnings

This article will start by talking about the different versions of the game. The Binding of Isaac is an Edmund McMillen & Florian Himsl project that followed Super Meat Boy and its consequent number of sales. McMillen then thought it was more than okay to take risks, considering the popularity that SMB found within the gaming community. And that is how The Binding of Isaac was born! Developed on the very limited Flash platform, the game wasn’t expected to blow up in sales. Steam was a great help for the game though, as it allowed McMillen to release it without facing censorship, and allowing him to freely update the game, so in a way, original buyers were also playtesters. Isaac hit the steam store in September 2011 and by January 2012, it had already sold around 450 000 copies. In May 2012, the Wrath of the Lamb was released, adding around 70% more content to the games (Items, bosses, etc…). In the end, that flash version was buggy, sometimes impractical and not very pretty (even though I loved the graphics and art at the time), but it managed to gather a strong and dedicated community of players that loved playing this game to death, and exploring the plethora of content that it offers.

Rebirth

McMillen & Himsl wanted to keep on expanding the game, but were blocked by the limitations of the Flash engine. Nicalis approached them, wanting to port the games to consoles; but for this, they needed to recreate the game to incorporate content that McMillen couldn’t put in Wrath of the Lamb, and to fix more bugs that he found. The decision was made, and The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth was announced. A fully-fledged remake of the original that fixed a ton of bugs, a whole new Art Direction (from flash graphics to pixel-art), 60 FPS, a co-op mode and an absolute TON of content. I remember back in the day, I was skeptical because I really liked the “clean” style of the graphics and wasn’t really feeling the switch to pixel-art. Looking back, I was completely wrong because this was a major improvement to the game. Rebirth was simply amazing, turning Isaac from a popular game to the indie, money-printing juggernaut that it is today.

Ridiculously efficient gameplay

The Binding of Isaac is extremely easy to learn: You play as Isaac (or one of his other tortured friends), explore dungeons with tears as your main weapon. On each floor you will find items that will modify your stats, character or tears, for the better or the worse. There is a marvelous total of 547 items in the current version of the game (without counting the trinkets, pickups etc.). A lot of these items combine with each other, creating amazing and interesting synergies. In the beginning, picking up the items and trying to figure out what they do is a lot of fun. The more you play, the more knowledge you will have and then, it becomes extremely satisfying to be able to build synergies and make the most out of whatever the next run will give you. Levels are randomly generated with a humongous amount of rooms designed by the developers. The game is divided in floors with a boss at the end of each one. There are many alternative floors and rooms that you can explore, and a whole lot of final bosses to kill if you want to complete everything in the game. Isaac is also filled with secrets left for the players to find and understand. For example; how to access devil/angel rooms (even though it’s not that much of a secret anymore). These elements combined with roguelike concepts such as permadeath made The Binding of Isaac what it is today: An incredibly fun and challenging experience. But why is it so unique ? Easy, the setting and themes that it explores.

 

Religion, blood and naked children

With Isaac, McMillen wanted to explore his thoughts on religion, therefore Christianity is one of its core themes. The plot is simple: Isaac and his mother lived in a small house together. Isaac’s mom spent her days watching Christian television programs that slowly drove her insane, hearing voices telling her to sacrifice her son Isaac to prove her devotion to the Lord. Isaac heard her coming, and crawled into a hole in his bedroom leading to the basement, which generally is the first floor of a run. The game looks really off-putting,  often bizarre and surprisingly includes a lot of gore. Enemies will explode in bursts of blood, poop or organs. Characters are also really off-putting due to the fact that they are mostly naked. Isaac also explores themes linked to children and babies, throughout items like Mom’s lipstick and panties, or elements like urine and feces that can be found on monster or items. The storytelling is done through a vague cinematic ending and also through the items that Isaac picks up like a can of dog food that is names “Dinner”, or the Wooden Spoon that makes Isaac run faster, and shows visible bruises on him, implying that he was beaten with that spoon by his mother.

Two expansions, one disappointment

Two expansions were released of the game, Afterbirth & Afterbirth+, adding, as you probably guessed, an absolutely disgusting amount of content to the game. I must say that I had some problems when Afterbirth released back in 2015. I was at first overly excited to play it (looking back, maybe my expectations were too high), and was left disappointed to see that a lot of the new items were either not that good or completely useless, and that the new floor and boss, The Hush, was only one big room and nothing more. There was a new game mode called “Greed Mode”, in which you battle through waves of enemies, gathering money to acquire items instead of finding them in maze-like floors. It eventually leads to this mode’s final boss: Ultra Greed. Overall, I can’t say it was an awful expansion but it sure was underwhelming to me. The new final bosses had too many hit points, rendering the fights more tedious than challenging, and a lot of new items were disappointing. Afterbirth+ is similar, as it adds even more items to the game, and a new final floor called The Void, which was just a mashup of every floor type in the game, leading to the last boss: Delirium, a mashup of every boss that you met during the run. It felt lazy to me and I didn’t even bother buying the expansion until recently, when the final patch was released. A lot of balancing was made, for the better, it added an awesome new character and a few more items. I learned to appreciate those expansions, and in the end, even though they are not great, they still are ok for what they are.

Final words

In the end, I think that most people who are slightly interested in videogames know about Isaac, but I must say that everyone should at least try it. It is one of my Top 10 favorite games of all time, and knowing how critical I am when it comes to games, it means a lot (Not trying to say that I have some kind of elitist taste though, no misunderstandings!). It’s beautiful, it’s fun, there is always something new to discover, the content is simply unimaginable and it has next to infinite replayability. And you know what ? It’s not really a review, but I still am going to give it a rating because why not ?

9.5

Pros

  • Great pixel art and fixed framerate issues
  • Extremely well-designed gameplay
  • Discovering items and synergies is an amazing feeling
  • The content is nearly infinite
  • Can either play it in small bursts or in long sessions

Cons

  • Kind of expensive if it’s not on sale
  • Expansions have some bad aspects

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